Why Does Your Startup Sound Like a Startup?

by Patrick Woods on

Have you noticed that if you visit a couple dozen websites of YC or TechStars companies, each one kinda feels like the same person wrote the headlines for all of them? They all sound like a startup website, or perhaps what a founder _thinks _a startup website should sound like, rather than a human voice that consumers can identify with. 

It’s largely because the copy is overly direct. The messaging is consumed with what a product does, not why it exists or why it matters to the target audience. 

This is a problem, since being direct about what your thing does is okay, it’s just not usually ideal. That’s because, if you want to build a brand, there’s more to messaging than stating your main feature in a 48pt TypeKit font.

Explicit statements about your main feature, while factually accurate, aren’t typically the most effective methods for eliciting user behavior change, i.e. paying you money or using your app routinely. 

As famous ad man Bill Bernbach said, 

“Because an appeal makes logical sense is no guarantee that it will work.”


“It’s not just what you say that stirs people. It’s the way you say it.”

That might be a hard pill to swallow, particularly for people who are by their nature extremely logical, but consider the following headlines taken from startup websites:

These headlines are all from the sites of successful startups, but each illustrates a thought that should serve as the beginning of the message strategy, not the message itself. 

Consider another Bernbach quote:

“Finding out what to say is the beginning of the communication process. How you say it makes people look and listen and believe. And if you are not successful at that you have wasted all the work and intelligence and skill that went into discovering what you should say.”

The headlines above are fruits of the “what should we say?” process; they yet haven’t fully fleshed-out _how to say it_ meaningfully. And that’s why startups sound like starups: they abort the creative process and opt for the obvious and banal. 

Of all the online contest tools on the market, simply stating that yours is an easy solution does nothing to affect the emotions and beliefs of the audience. There are lots of online contest tools. Why should anyone care about this one? 

If your product’s core benefit is that it truly is an easy way to run a contest online, that’s the point of departure for further exploration about the message of your brand, not the message itself

When a message remains at the logical level, users are left to compare based on tangible features, and, more importantly for them, on price alone. Would you rather create loyal customers through messaging that evokes a strong emotional identification with your message and mission, or would you prefer to compete only on pricing and features? 

Bernbach’s call is to push past the obvious rational appeals based on features, functionality, and price, and bring forth the motivating “why?” of your brand’s meaning. At that level, customers begin to understand and identify with the core benefit you provide, which they can’t get from anyone else. Features and price points then serve as logical justification for their emotional response. You move beyond price competition and create vocal advocates who would use your product no matter the cost. 

Logic, then, is important, but only in its function as support for the more compelling approach that emerges when you identify how best to communicate that core idea. 

At that level, startups stop sounding like a startups, and begin sounding and feeling more like brands. 

Still need help? I’m offering free 30-minute Google Hangout office hour sessions to take questions about startup branding and messaging. No strings attached. Complete this form if that interests you.

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