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How to grow a $8.6BN brand in less than ten years
How the Bumble brand rose to success
I wanted to begin this newsletter with a bit of an apology. Due to an extended holiday and picking up three new clients, I haven’t been able to write as frequently as I had originally hoped to. Thanks for your patience. Anyway onto this week’s newsletter, which centres around the fascinating rise of the Bumble brand. How did this dating app grow to a $8.6BN valuation in less than ten years? Let’s break it down.
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#1 SHAPE CULTURE
Over the last twenty years, many categories have been disrupted by technology. One of the sectors to have changed the most, however, is dating. I am a child of the 1980s and the idea of online dating when growing up in the 90s and early 2000s was at best cringe and at worst well a little weird. Online dating today is not only acceptable but the predominant way most people meet their ‘better half’.
Ref #1 Online dating has shifted from niche to mainstream over the last twenty years.
In light of this seismic shift, it is unsurprising that the dating app category has become more competitive than ever. In fact, a quick scroll through the Apple or Google Play store reveals there are literally 100s to now choose from. So at a time when the dating app category has become more competitive than ever & where the founding app of modern dating ‘Tinder’ is losing ground…how did Bumble succeed? While there are many reasons, there are two words I’d like to focus on today ‘shape culture’.
Ref #2 The founding app of modern dating ‘Tinder’ has struggled in recent years.
Many brands simply attempt to tap into cultural trends. They try to tap into what people are already talking about in the wider world. What makes Bumble different, however, is they don’t just seek to tap into culture, they actively seek to shape it for the better. Many of you will know the founding story behind Bumble. In 2014 Whitney Wolfe Herd left Tinder, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former company and subsequently founded Bumble. Whilst this was a horrific ordeal for Ms Herd to endure, there were two silver linings that emerged long term.
First, the wildly publicised legal case put Ms Herd firmly in the spotlight and ensured any venture she subsequently launched would achieve instant fame. Second, her own personal experience inspired her to build a brand that would change the dating game for the better. One that would empower women and even the power balance within dating. We can see this reflected in Bumble’s mission statement below.
“Bumble is a platform that promotes accountability, equality, and kindness in an effort to end misogyny and re-write archaic gender roles” Bumble’s misison statement
Many within marketing are sceptical towards brands that try to be purposeful. They believe brands should ‘stay in their lane’ and should focus on growing market share, by increasing mental & physical availability. And in truth when we see brands like Pepsi or more or more recently Bud Light ‘purpose washing’ it’s not hard to see why many are so sceptical.
Ref #3 Perhaps the worst ‘purpose washing’ campaign of all time by Pepsi.
Ref #4 Bud Light has more recently been called out for purpose washing with its latest campaign
What makes Bumble so different is that its mission & purpose are born from a place of real authenticity. First, the very idea behind the brand was born from Ms Herd's own lived experience and the subsequent change she wanted to create in the world. Second, their purpose isn’t brought to life merely via some cringe-inducing advertising campaign. Everything the business does, from dating to networking, is centred around female empowerment and ending misogyny.
Ref #5 Everything the brand does is centred around female empowerment and ending misogyny.
What can brands learn from this? If you are a startup or scaleup there is real power in crafting a purpose that is born out of your own lived experience. Liquid Death has an ‘evil mission to get people to drink more water and ditch plastic bottles’. AirBnB wanted to create a world where ‘anyone can belong anywhere’. What do these examples have in common? They both have a purpose born out of the lived experiences of their founders. Mike Cessario, the founder of Liquid Death, was sick of seeing his favourite straight-edge punk bands having to play events sponsored by unhealthy alcohol or energy drinks brands. And the founders of AirBnB witnessed first-hand the broader benefits to society of sharing holiday accommodation. So in truth, if you have a powerful and authentic story to tell, let this be the bases upon which you tell your founding story. And if you don’t? Definitely don’t fake it. You run the risk of purpose-washing like Pepsi or Bud Light.
#2 BE SELECTIVE
As many of you will know, and as we have covered before, the best way to scale a brand long-term is to go after the broadest audience possible. However, in a hyper-competitive category, where everyone is fighting to talk to the same people, there is real merit in sidestepping the category. There is merit in double-downing and understanding an audience better than anyone else in your market.
Ref #6 Going after broad reach long term is the most effective way to grow
This is obviously what Bumble does so well. Unlike every other dating app they didn’t try to appeal to both men and women. Instead, they doubled down on winning with a young female audience first. And what makes their approach so compelling? They never treated their audience as a mere demographic. They never assumed what they were interested in, based on their age or life stage. They realised that demographic data is shallow at best and massively misleading at worst.
Ref #7 Surface-level demographics can often be hugely misleading
What Bumble has done so well from day one is to really understand their female, mainly city-based, audience. As their original target audience was very similar in life stage to their founder, Ms Herd, they knew what would (and what definitely wouldn’t) resonate. They knew that their female audience where ambitious & career driven and where tired of outdated expectations. Of being expected to be the dutiful housewife, who blindly follows and supports their male partner. What they want is to be respected. To be empowered. To reach their full potential and to be celebrated. This approach has not only garnered them a loyal arm of fans, but it also helps them achieve incremental levels of fame for the brand, as they changed the conversation around dating.
Ref #8 Bumble has mastered the art of truly understanding its audience and speaking to them
What can any brand learn from this? First, try to identify an underserved or misrepresented audience and speak directly to them. Be the brand that understands them better than anyone. The brand that changes the conversation in the category, sparks fame and unlocks growth. Second, look beyond the data. Over the years I have seen too many marketers become obsessed and blinded by segmentation. Spend time getting out in the real world, speaking to your target audience and understanding them better than anyone else.
#3 THE POWER OF ADVOCACY
The inconvenient truth is no matter how great your brand is other people will almost always be more compelling. People will almost always be more willing to listen and trust others, over a corporately constructed entity.
Ref #9 A recent Edelman trust barometer report showed that people have higher levels of trust in other people (ie co-workers, people in the local community or fellow citizens) than companies (ie CEOs).
And when it comes to trust, no category is more important than dating. The dating category is arguably the most high-interest and high-risk of them all. The partner you end up settling down with has a monumental impact on every facet of your life, from your physical & mental health to your financial well-being. Bumble understands this incredibly well and leverages the power of others to build upon the powerful brand purpose it has established. You only have to look at its presence on social platforms such as Instagram & TikTok, to see this.
Ref #10 Bumble is the master at leveraging customer success stories and the power of advocacy.
Most brands leverage advocacy well but what separates Bumble is both the frequency and authenticity, by which they tell their customers stories. Whether you're a big or small brand there is something to learn here.
There are three great lessons to learn from Bumble, for any scaleup. First, don’t just try to tap into culture, actively seek to shape it. While many in marketing have become cynical toward brand purpose, due to the purpose washing of bigger companies, it could prove powerful if you are building something genuinely different. Or if what you are building is born out of a compelling founder story. Second, if you cannot outspend you need to outsmart. Often there is merit in eliminating audiences and doubling down on one in a compelling and different way. But be cautious here. Avoid mere demographics and generic takes on our audience. Really take the time to understand your audience and speak to them, rather than down to them. Finally never underestimate the power of people and customer advocacy.
Please excuse the typ0s i’m proudly dyslexic
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