A guide to digital communications for cockroaches and unicorns alike
As a long-time fan, I was delighted to see that bakery firm Greggs had recently hit £1bn in revenue. As a brand with ballsy comms, solid stunts and tasty baked goods, the recognition is well-earned. Now, over the course of our years in PR, we’ve come across many a high-growth firm and even represented our first travel service unicorn, Klook, last year.
At the same time, many of our firms are born and bred in the grass roots. Workplace advice platform Rungway is a bootstrapped startup that now works with some of the biggest names in the industry, from Barclays to Working Chance. Tenacious brands that start from the ground up and become incredibly successful are often known as cockroaches – it doesn’t sound glamorous, but they can survive anything.
Historically, cockroaches take longer to establish themselves, but their progress is built on slow, sustainable growth – like threat analytics firm FireEye, or security vendor Lookout. They’re not large splashy names, but brands known for solid quality and disruptive technology.
Clearly, every brand is unique, but we have seen a range of similarities and differences in how the two types of organisation do and should communicate. Here’s a run-down of the most common ones.
Both cockroaches and unicorns are special for a reason – they’ve either had a great idea that investors or customers believed in, or they’ve thrived through adversity. Both tales are worth telling.
Agility and persistence
Cockroaches tend to be highly specialised, highly persistent and may find it hard to pivot far, whereas a unicorn with a high level of funding / revenue means that they’ll often have disposable income to experiment or buy other organisations to prance into different areas in an agile fashion.
Both of these can be positive for communications; specialists can be turned into experts that journalists and social influencers come back to again and again, whereas brands exploring new areas are often intriguing to the outside world.
Paperwork and confidence
Unicorns may have the legacy of investment capital and a significant amount of administration tying them down, particularly if they’ve gone public. In contrast, cockroaches are not usually beholden to anyone apart from their founders and can experiment as much or as little as they like.
From a communications point of view, this freedom can be really important – being able to experiment and ‘fail fast’ is a core tenet of modern business and comms.
Cockroaches tend to have small, close-knit teams, whereas Unicorns grow fast and departments can be quite decoupled from each other. I remember reading that the CEO of NGINX found it challenging when their workforce grew by 50% because people didn’t know each other or their roles – prompting him to invoke a brief hiring freeze until everyone was collaborating better.
Good collaboration, team spirit and communication can have a big impact on your external reputation – especially through tools like Glassdoor and Google reviews. Similarly, it can make your PR easier or harder - we recently asked the team at the Sun newspaper how much due diligence they do into the brands that they take stories from – and they admitted to being reluctant to feature brands that have terrible engagement or customer experience reviews online.
It can be tough to get time with senior staff at a cockroach company; having created the company from the ground up, they often fill ‘jack of all trades’ roles, making it hard for them to spend time on their core remit. This does put them in a position to tell the entirety of the business story – if you can get to them! Unicorns, on the other hand, usually have a more formalised role structure, because they are more likely to appoint many people at once, allowing a more considered hiring process. However, this can make it tough for the media to establish ‘trusted’ experts, because things change frequently.
Whether you’re from a tiny tenacious cockroach company or a glamorous glittering unicorn firm, there are pros and cons to business life. Every company has something unique about it, but it can often take a fresh pair of eyes and ears to root out the story; that’s where communications staff can play an invaluable role. Similarly, it’s crucial to revisit this exercise from time to time – companies have lives of their own and what makes them different can change depending on factors like leadership, office space and commercial proposition.
The important thing is to understand the nuance that make your company special – and believe me, it’s special – and shout them from the rooftops.
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