No. 342: The Antagonistic Mr. Elliot


In the closing scene of AMC’s final episode of Mad Men, the viewers are left to believe that our seven season survey of Don Draper ends in his personal enlightenment. In this particular moment: Draper is seen sitting on the grass, cross-legged and with no shoes. He’s meditating on a hilltop with a dozen or so other students. For what seems like just a moment, the audience is led to believe that the embattled protagonist is finally at peace with himself. And then he smiles. It’s the kind of smile that communicates “I’m still the best at what I do.” The audience is left guessing. The scenery, the moment, and Draper’s skill set suggest that Draper was responsible for conjuring one of the most impactful and audacious brand advertisements of the 20th century. It was a rare moment in brand history: an incumbent brand operated like an insurgent. The result? An ad that reshaped Coca-Cola’s narrative for nearly a decade.

The Mad Men scene of the origin story was fictitious, of course. The story of the advertisement’s impact was not, however. Like Ford and General Motors in the 1960s or Nike and Reebok in the 1980s, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo’s rivalry gave rise to the idea of insurgent brands. Insurgents are brands that arise out of the rivalries of incumbents.

In early 1886 an Atlanta chemist (and morphine addict) introduced Coca-Cola to the world. He called it a “potion for mental and physical disorders.” For him, it was a solve. The product’s main ingredient was cocaine, a narcotic that was – perhaps – less detrimental than his addiction. Pepsi-Cola followed just seven years later. It would be decades before the two companies became legitimate rivals. The arc of the two brands has become a case study in corporate brand competition. One that remains relevant to this day.

Pepsi-Cola had made hay during the Depression. Like Coke, the drink cost a nickel, but it came in a 12-ounce bottle nearly twice the size of Coke’s dainty, wasp-waisted one. But by the 1950s, Pepsi was still a distant No. 2. It nabbed Alfred Steele, a former Coke adman, who arrived embittered and ambitious. His motto: “Beat Coke.” Coca-Cola refused to call Pepsi by name — the drink was “the Imitator,” “the Enemy,” or, generously, “the Competition” — but it began tinkering with its business (and imitating Pepsi) to stay ahead. [1]

When John S. Pemberton secured the recipe for Coca-Cola in 1886, he couldn’t have foreseen a feud that would span three centuries. But for many consumers, the Pepsi vs. Coke feud is about as American as baseball. In 1899, Caleb Bradham decided to compete head on. Also a chemist, Brad’s Drink was later incorporated as Pepsi-Cola. And so began a roller coaster of a century that crescendoed in the 1970’s with the Pepsi Challenge – a marketing push that aimed to convince younger consumers that rival Coca-Cola had inferior taste and less cool. It worked. And so continued the back and forth. The two companies were well-established when the 1970s’ Cola Wars broke captivated American consumers (and international ones, alike).

The cola competition study [HBS Case Summary: 2] is a prologue to a greater point. What happens when incumbents ignore insurgents? The inertia of dominance often becomes an incumbent’s nemesis. At the peak of the cola wars, a future founder was employed by Unilever and then Procter & Gamble. There, he led marketing for German toothpaste manufacturer Blendax. By working for these conglomerates, Dietrich Mateschitz had an early education in the gifts and curses of incumbency. And one chance meeting in Thailand provided his platform for insurgency.

In 1982 he met an Austrian toothpaste salesman called Dietrich Mateschitz, who had started drinking Krathing Daeng (founded in 1976) during visits to Bangkok and found it cured his jet lag. Mateschitz became convinced that the drink had wider commercial potential, and in 1984 the two men became business partners. [3]

The emergence of Red Bull serves a case study in insurgency-driven marketing and branding. Over the next three decades, Red Bull would go on to master alternative marketing, clawing domestic and international market share from incumbents that should have been equipped to stifle the Austrian beverage manufacturer’s advances.

Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 8.58.27 AM
Global beverage market: leading companies 2018, based on sales | Source: Beverage Industry Magazine

But as with anything, it can be difficult for incumbents to obsess over potential competitors when existing threats exist. By 1979, Pepsi overtook Coca-Cola in sales after a clever “taste test” marketing push that outwitted the Atlanta-based manufacturer. This victory was relatively short-lived. By 1996, Fortune magazine declared the cola wars to be finished. And since, Pepsi shifted its focus altogether.

Concepting a new form of brand marketing.

Retail has been witness to a history of these brand battles. And if the future of retail is eCommerce, it’s likely that today’s next surprise is brewing. Insurgents take markets by surprise by operating in ways unanticipated by established corporations. They move differently and they rarely play by traditional rules. Incumbents are incentivized to preserve the status quo, retaining market share. It’s often the case that product-wise, all things are equal. It’s the subtle differences in messaging and community that tends to shift the conversation from old and stable to new and dynamic. Shopify is the Coca-Cola of this conversation. Shopify wasn’t first to democratize eCommerce but no platform has a better understanding of marketing and branding than the Ottawa-based SaaS company. In a recent 2PM report, I explained:

The growth of the DTC era can be attributed to SaaS companies like Shopify, BigCommerce, Magento [Adobe], and Demandware [Salesforce]. But in an industry where innovations are finite development cycles away, community and brand equity has become the key differentiator. [4]

Shopify’s innovations are numerous. Two of their top competitors (Salesforce and Adobe) are now cogs in corporate wheels. In this way, BigCommerce is the Pepsi to Shopify’s Coca-Cola. Of all of Shopify’s innovations, branding and sociology are ones that BigCommerce cannot seem to contend with. Led by Brent Brellm, the Austin-based SaaS company competes on the merits of its product. “We taste better” may as well be on his CEO’s whiteboard. But Shopify is more than the merits of its product, it’s a lifestyle brand. This perplexes BigCommerce’s leadership. In the platform wars, taste will matter as technologies shift toward no-code architecture. But brand will be equally important. Enter Elliot, a platform that seems to possess the tools that Shopify’s other competitors do not. And an emphasis on substance and brand.

On Insurgency and No-Code Development

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The rise of the no-code economy

Founded in July 2017 by Sergio Villasenor, Elliot announced a $3 million round in January of 2018. And like many venture announcements in that first quarter, the news came and went. Beyond a PR wire, the company’s announcement made no headlines. There was no grand entrance and even less buzz. This, despite a list of admirable investors and advisors.

We have orchestrated a blue-chip syndicate of seed stage investors including Bowery Capital, a national seed stage fund with offices in SF and NY leading the round, and Susa Ventures as the co-lead. Others participating include Acceleprise, Bam Ventures, Flexport, and SV Angel. [5]

Early on, Elliot’s founder built the company’s value proposition on the common premise: “We taste better.”  In SaaS, this is akin to iterating fast and architecting software superiority. For product developers, this product-first concept is the default.

On the merits of its product alone, Elliot has a number of clones. A casual observer will find them in the brand’s Twitter mentions questioning how the company has begun to consume mindshare with its unique approach to antagonizing incumbent brands. The company, itself, has little protected intellectual property. And until recently, it had no marketing flywheel. But over time, I’ve observed the company’s playbook evolve into one reminiscent of an insurgent of old: Red Bull. The brand has become uncomfortably antagonistic. But you can’t behave insurgently without some level of discomfort.

Elliot on Twitter

@tobi Emojis must be a Plus feature 😉

Elliot contends that Shopify’s products aren’t for everyone. And that its no code approach is early but it will be of increasing relevance as vendors begin to shift away from development agencies to launch new merchandising operations. A Shopify Partner, who asked for his identity to be withheld, commented on this trend. He noted: “As no-code becomes more common, agencies like mine will need to find new ways to add value for our clients. Who is paying $100,000 to do what can be done for free?” In the Lean Luxe slack channel, former Shopify Editor-in-Chief Aaron Orendorff and notable copywriter contended with Elliot’s brand voice:

There’s a 100% chance I’m not your target audience. So that’s probably part of it. For me, it’s the mixed feelings of: (a) that’s clever and attention grabbing vs (b) I’d be uncomfortable to retweet it.

The founding team is rounded out by Clayton Chambers (formerly of Yotpo) who serves as the Head of Growth. Additionally, Villasenor was successful in hiring Marco Marandiz (formerly of Capital One, VRBO]) as his Head of Marketing. The team has made an early impact, though it remains to be seen as to whether it has had a material effect on penetrating one of Shopify’s top advantages: its partnership ecosystem. What is evident is that the DNA of the team is different than the rest. And that, more than anything else, makes them something to watch. They’ve begun to build Elliot into a lifestyle brand, merchandising and all. They are out-Shopifying Shopify.

Sergio Villaseñor on Twitter

est. 2019

The technology and promotional DNA that the company possesses aside, a few questions remain. Can Villasenor convince Shopify’s target consumer that no-code architecture is an acceptable path forward? And can he convince development agencies to shift their offerings to account for a no-code economy? Frequent justifications for merchants considering no-code platforms include: speed, cost reduction, and ease of launch. No-code architecture allows early stage brands to sidestep developer shortages and agency fees, potentially decreasing startup costs and early investment needs.

Although no one is saying that coding is dead or that programmers are going to be out of a job soon, there is no denying that the current demand for software far exceeds the supply of coders and that many traditional ways of building applications are complex and time-consuming. [6]

According to my research, less than 8% of Shopify Plus merchants have a GMV that exceeds $10 million annually. Although, this number can improve. Shopify brands like Supply can grow from $2.5 million annual run rates to $10+ million run rates in just a year.

Shopify’s gift is that its brand partners mature over time, a process that has been aided by the company’s support systems and suite of technical services. Some analysts would argue that BigCommerce (or Salesforce or Adobe) would be positioned to benefit if Shopify ever lost community support. However, it’s likely that Shopify’s incumbent competitors are ill-equipped to facilitate such a shift. And besides, all proverbial cola tastes the same. But no-code is a different value proposition altogether. One that may become relevant as the economy tightens and venture capital becomes less available to early stage eCommerce brands and retailers.

Like Coca-Cola, Ford, and Nike before it – Shopify’s name represents more than its product. In May 2020, Shopify hosts its next Unite conference in Toronto. It’s the annual event that hosts thousands of loyalists that converge to praise Shopify’s continued growth. In the process, the event fortifies the phalanx of protection that the SaaS company has surrounding it. More than software, Shopify is the people, brands, and agencies that evangelize it. These are the company’s strategic advantages. If Villasenor and team have it their way, they’ll be in Toronto as well. But they won’t be in the event’s venue handing out cards with software specs, that’s what an incumbent like BigCommerce would do. They’ll be down the street from Unite, hosting their own party. And perhaps, a few Shopify clients will trickle in to see what the fuss is about. Some will scoff at the lack of decorum and some will nod at the audacity of it.

Report by Web Smith | About 2PM

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