Insights - Brand & Marketing

In Conversation with Oliver Lo, Vice President Marketing, Surge, Sequoia India’s Early Stage Programme

From tips on how to define your brand message, to the role of brand and design in growth marketing – Oliver answers all the questions you had but didn’t know whom to ask.

Oliver is an integrated marketing leader with 15 years of experience building and delivering hyper-growth for tech brands such as Zynga, App Annie and Grab. He now supports early-stage founders as VP of Marketing for Sequoia India’s Surge programme.

Listen to Oliver chat with Meeta Malhotra, Founder, The Hard Copy  about all things brand

The interview below has been edited for brevity. For the entire interview, listen here.

MM: Brand is such a fuzzy word. What’s your go-to definition of brand?

OL: Your brand is essentially the perception of your product or service in the minds of your consumers. There’s a great quote from Jeff Bezos, where he says the brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. It’s what people perceive, not what you project.

Just to run that point home, think about United Airlines. There’s been a PR firestorm around them with a guy getting dragged off their airplane. But their tagline is ‘Fly the friendly skies.’ So there’s a massive difference between what people perceive right now and what they project. 

MM: So true. We have many examples in India. No mega marketing budgets will help you change a very strong perception on the ground.

Exactly, you can buy awareness, you cannot buy popularity, That’s true of brands and people.

MM: How would you recommend that brands articulate their message sharply?

I think a lot of people think about brands in terms of: “This is what we do. And this is how we do it differently.” Especially founders at startups, because that is how you pitch to an investor. 

But going from that pitch to defining a brand for a much larger group of people is different. People make purchase decisions emotionally and therefore there has to be a lot more to the brand. 

We use this framework at Surge called the 3Ps: Purpose, Positioning and Pursuit

Purpose: We use Simon Sinek’s framework of Why, What, How to help companies define their purpose. Why do they exist? This is especially unique to startups, who most often come in to disrupt a space. The person who started this company has thought about the problem and space in a very different way and that’s where the brand should start.

Positioning: Here we use human and consumer insight to say, “If this is my purpose, how do I then position my brand in a relevant way to the consumer that isn’t just a solution, but actually something that speaks to their lives.”

Pursuit: Finally, how do you express that brand positioning and everything you do, not just through your marketing but in absolutely everything – from customer service scripts to your product interface.

MM: Very often as a company grows they hire marketing teams and then the brand becomes a ‘marketing thing.’ What would you say to that?

OL: Brand should not be something that only marketers own. Think about what impacts brand perception. We all use Airbnb or Facebook or Uber, but would you say that 99% of your perception about these brands is governed by an ad you saw? Of course not.

In any company and particularly in a startup, the founder should actually be the Head of Brand. Marketing teams are there to support them. Whether it is the Product person or the Head of Customer Service, everyone should feel like they are part of brand-building. If they don’t feel like that, then maybe the process that you’re using is wrong.

MM: What is something marketers often overlook?

I think probably the most underrated aspect of marketing for startups in particular is CRM /  lifecycle management. 

More and more startups, particularly in India and Southeast Asia, are built through products that are distribution-first. 

As opposed to, say selling toothpaste in a retail store, in many startups you own your distribution. CRM lifecycle marketing through your product and around your product experience – whether it be emails, WhatsApp, customer service or social media, is critical. If you aren’t doing it, you are wasting a lot of free ways to engage your customers in a way that is relevant to them.

MM:  True, I always think that there’s such an emphasis on acquisition and not enough on retention

OL: It’s a recurring theme. I’ve worked in the ride hailing space and in social gaming. Both those sectors for me were very parallel experiences. It was all just focused on just getting the numbers in and then over time I think both those sectors realised the power of retention.

MM: Moving on to another contentious area and that is measuring brand marketing. How would you measure if your brand building efforts are successful or not?

OL: Marketing is becoming more quantified thanks to data and technology and measurement tools, but it is fundamentally about humans. And it’s going to be until the year 3000, or until we can literally measure every single synapse that humans have.

MM: I hope that never happens!

OL: At that point we’ll all just be in the Matrix, but until then brand-building requires guts, instincts and human judgment. That’s what can be scary about doing marketing because you need to be a bit brave.

In the early stages, there are obvious measures like unique visitors, traffic, media mentions and so forth.

And then there are things you just have to proxy. For example, one thing that I use as a proxy for brand awareness is ‘Share-of-Search’, which is a metric that you can find on Google Trends.

Your social followers, volume, reach and engagement is another area. The size of your own distribution and engagement is a proxy for brand awareness. 

A question I get asked a lot is “How do I know if I have enough brand awareness?“  One indicator is your total marketing efficiency. Most young companies will focus a lot on measurable performance spend right at the beginning, but they always reach a point, usually when they are starting to scale, where their cost per acquisition or cost per install starts to spike significantly. That usually signals insufficient brand awareness. Monitoring your performance efficiency can help you understand if you have enough brand awareness.

These are all media channel measurements. The other side is the qualitative aspect and you need to ask if you have been successful with creating a great experience that is in line with the brand that you’ve set out to create. Numbers are never going to tell you that. In a big company, you can do research, but in a startup you don’t have that luxury and that’s actually a good thing. You need to be talking directly to your customers.

That’s my one recommendation. Retain that practice of having a conversation with your customers as much as you can. They will tell you if the brand you are projecting is the same as the brand that they are perceiving.

Humans are the best ‘ruler’ for other human beings. Until now there is no other technology that understands us, as well as we understand each other.

MM: In the last 24 hours we put out a call for questions and we have over 45 questions. We can’t ask all of them so we’ve picked three representative ones.

Q1: What is the place of design in marketing?

Rudraksh Mohanty

OL: Someone like me could wax lyrical with PowerPoint decks on brand strategy and brand vision, but if you can’t translate that into design, there’s no point.

Humans are emotional, visceral creatures and your choice of fonts, colors, words, photos, illustrations, are the things that govern how people make judgments. Obviously the product itself has got to reflect the right experience.   

I think the relationship between your brand team and visual designer or agency and the product team – particularly the UX designer – is absolutely critical. If that isn’t close, then the product that people actually experience, is never going to be a reflection of the brand that you preach.

Q2: We have a video editing startup. And while that space is very cluttered, our product is 100% easier and better to use. Shouldn’t that be the essence of our brand message?

Arati Rao

OL: I would say that’s more of a generic value proposition, not a brand proposition. 

If the Airbnb brand was just based on a value proposition, it would have been “Airbnb is cheaper than a hotel room with more space.” But the Airbnb brand is based on a consumer insight that people want to travel and feel like a local and that’s why it is so powerful.

Often rational propositions are less meaningful, compared to something that fits an overarching emotional need. But to do that, you need to understand your consumer and that isn’t easy.

I’m just spitballing here, but a lot of videos these days are made by YouTube creators and Tick Tockers. As an example, what if the product Arati built was suitable for those kinds of videos? Then your consumers would be creators in their 20s and your purpose would be about unleashing the creativity of young people who want to express themselves and your positioning would follow from that.  That would also inform your product roadmap and then the marketing plan starts to write itself. You create content about how to be the next big creator. That makes it a very different brand, compared to being just the easy-to-use video editor.

Q3: We have a martech product and we’ve created a free tool as a growth hack. Our product teams and UI teams are involved but not our brand team. Is that OK?

Angela Diaz

OL: As I said before, the product must be designed with the brand in mind. An example of this is Slack. Their premise is that email has almost stripped humanity from the world of work and they are trying to inject that back, so that teams can communicate more naturally and be more productive.  Even though Slack is an enterprise product, people love its personality, which is about being deliberately human – from the humour in the microcopy to the icons. 

I also think it is interesting that Angela uses the word ‘hack’.

Growth hacking came out of the valley and it was very acquisition focused, almost to the detriment of anything else. A lot of it was tricking the user to do something that drives growth: For example, pushing them to spam 10 friends. I’ve been guilty of that.

The whole social gaming industry at one time was focused on virality as a metric, but no one was thinking about retention. Over time, it has all shifted because you can get lots of people in, but then they churn. 

Growth operators in the valley these days are much more retention-focused and also much more thoughtful in the way they approach growth loop design. They try to find ways to do it where the mechanic is based on what the user is trying to achieve, not by putting in unnatural behaviours. That kind of thinking also speaks to the brand, because the brand is based on your purpose, but it is also based on positioning from a consumer insight.

So I think that modern day growth-thinking and brand-thinking are actually quite aligned. I know that in a lot of marketing departments, it seems like they’re adverse to each other, but that needs to change. More growth people and brand people need to work together, and that will be a great marketing team.


  1. What are the must-haves in a tech marketing stack? We’re a fashion commerce site, bootstrapped and making close to Rs. 6 crore a year

  2. We’re trying a product-led growth hack where we demonstrate how our martech product works for marketers with a simple tool on our website. Our product and ui team is involved but not our brand team – is this ok? How would brand fit into this?

  3. I am looking for some online courses which can help me with design thinking process or brand designing. Since I don’t have a professional design degree, I am looking for one with online classes or long distance courses. Could you tell me names of universities(all over the world) that offer such long distance/online courses?

  4. We make video editing easy, there are a lot of companies in that space but we are 100% sure that our product is just easier to use. Can you make a brand message out of that?

  5. Are you covering design? I’d like to understand how design makes a difference to marketing, when budgets are tight

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