Things we've learned

Cassandra Stavrou, co-founder and CEO of Propercorn

A promising career in advertising beckoned, but Cassandra Stavrou decided instead to move back in with her mother and save the money she needed to finance her start-up.

But her advertising chops are serving her well now. Propercorn – the healthy popcorn, which comes in flavours such as fiery Worcester sauce & sun-dried tomato, and sweet coconut & vanilla – sells in 10 different European markets and turns over £15m a year.

‘To be honest, in the first three years, most of the marketing we did was on instinct,’ she says. ‘I did my due diligence about the size of the opportunity, and read a few Mintel reports, but I really believe in the role that the gut can play.

‘I’m not dismissing the value of insights and data, but data is telling you what happened yesterday, not tomorrow.’

The idea for Propercorn came when Stavrou saw how healthy snacks were becoming big sellers, yet their branding tended to be uninspiring. ‘It helps that I was the customer for the brand we were launching. I wanted something that I would find interesting, fresh and innovative. If you’re not your customer, then you need to work very hard to understand your customer very well.’

According to Stavrou, your product is your greatest marketing tool. ‘We create everything in-house, and don’t outsource any packaging or design because we see the product as our greatest asset in terms of marketing. Every pack should be as beautiful and compelling as possible.’

In the summer of 2015, the business made one of its boldest marketing moves, decorating London’s buildings, pavements, phone boxes and buses in the brand’s popcorn kernel print at a cost of £1m. ‘In a world where advertising is increasingly becoming wallpaper, we actually created wallpaper,’ says Stavrou. ‘It gave us incredible cut-through by shifting that lens.’

But her main advice is not to forget the goals of the business. ‘People can get very giddy with social media and marketing but that isn’t your bread and butter – that’s sales, that’s what you live and die by. For the first six months, we left no stone unturned, followed every lead, trying to gain critical mass. Then you can try and build your brand.’

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Charlie Bigham, founder, Charlie Bighams

Market research is very valuable, especially if you’ve got a consumer product. There are lots of things you can also do at a low cost. In our early days, we would cook food and get people to eat it in front of us on weekends. You get a reaction and find out what people like and what they don’t.

Simon Duffy, co-founder, Bulldog

We’ve done very well with PR, but in America and Australia, for example, we could probably have done a better job of getting to know the journalists and influencers. Also we could have done more with social media to demonstrate that we’re an international brand.

John Whittle, CEO and co-founder, UNSHACKLED.com

We knew our branding had to be really disruptive as that’s exactly what we were looking to do in the mobile market, yet marketing wasn’t our strength. We joined with a creative agency to create a bold brand concept and gave them equity in exchange for fees – that meant they had skin in the game.

Ed Relf, founder and CEO, Laundrapp

We’ve got a really good marketing team yet I’ve learned that 80% of the marketing you do won’t work. A lot of marketers waste time trying to make things work when it’s clear they’re never going to work. So accept it and get over it. Draw a line and move on.