Nelio Leone is the Founder of UrbanMonks, a growth marketing agency headquartered in Dubai. Nelio started his career working for brand-driven corporate clients like L’Oreal and Chanel. Then, he left it all behind to help start what would become the “Uber” of the Middle East. Today, his goal is to drive growth through branding and storytelling. He joined us to explain why brand is so important for startups of any kind, and why his go-to framework for brand-building involves a heavy dose of customer research.
In three hours, Nelio decided to change his entire life and go from L’Oreal’s corporate headquarters to an app-based Dubai startup.
"The management in Paris sent me to the Middle East to crack one market that was very unclear for them with a lot of potential, which was Saudi Arabia...I met really an amazing guy at a conference. And he had just left McKinsey a couple of years ago to start this random app. And last thing I knew, I just left my corporate job. It took me literally three hours to make that decision to leave my corporate career and joined the company. I was among the first 15 to 20 employees maybe, so super early stage. And I was one of the first marketing guys, literally. Fast forward a couple of years, the company, like we massively scaled the company. We went from 15 employees to 3,200, and we recently got bought by Uber for $3 billion. It was the first tech unicorn of the region."
For Nelio, the biggest challenge of going from corporate to startup was the lack of structure.
"The transition was actually very painful for me because coming from corporate where everything is pretty much, like you have processes in place, you have a structure, you actually know what to do. And in case you don't, you have playbooks that have been used for the last like 80 years. So maybe they perfect a bit the playbook, but you don't have to figure shit out. Like it's pretty much everything is figured out...that really made me feel like very lost at the beginning is that there's no framework. It's like, there's no beaten path."
There was a stark contrast between Nelio’s old and new worlds. Corporations were driven by brand, while tech startups were driven by product.
When I came up at Careem, what really shocked me is that everybody was like ‘the product!’ And it was like this creed, like the different creed: build like an amazing product and people would come. And coming from that background of branding kind of like sounded really wrong to me...What was really like for me a priority back then was to win people's hearts with a story that everybody could relate to and to build a brand around that story. So I really believe that we have to win the content/brand battle before going into crazy acquisition frameworks and crazy product or tech frameworks. And I actually wasn't that wrong, because when Uber acquired the brand Careem, they actually kept the brand, which is a pretty obvious signal that the brand is actually very valuable.
A sense of community is the hallmark of the world’s strongest brands.
For me brand comes down to three things. It comes down to design, of course, it's the tip of the iceberg. It comes down to content. And it comes down to community. So the deeper you go, like basically the biggest brand and the strongest brand are the brands that create a sense of community. And if your brand can do that, create like a sort of creed, create a sort of movement. That's where your brand is really extremely strong.
Before any product launch, Nelio sets up a beta testing period in which the user/product interaction is tracked.
The concept is that you give the product to the final user or to the target market that you're planning on to go. And then you document their experience. And by documenting their experience, you will get all their lingo. You will get all their usage. You will observe how the user interacts with the product...most of e-commerce brands, they don't do this. They start a brand. And the first thing they do, they switch on their laptop and they go into Facebook on the Facebook ads manager. What happens is that you're going to go to market without like having any mental model on really how to get to the heart of customer and how to cut through the noise and get their attention.
During a beta test, ask open-ended questions so that you can capture the voice of your customer.
We really created a questionnaire of the ‘who’ and the ‘why.’ And we did it only with open-ended questions. This is a super important, pro-tip that very few follow. And then the results are really skewed. And why open-ended? Because quote-unquote you need to ‘steal’ your customers’ voice. You need to steal their lingo, their vocabulary, how they describe something. Because basically what you end up doing is just you'll end up taking their words and putting them in front of other customers. So the relevance score increases like extremely fast...And this was like a sort of quote-unquote ‘Bible’ when building ads and building any sort of marketing material.
For a skincare client’s campaign, Nelio prioritized free user-generated content and inexpensive influencer marketing in lieu of a pricy ad budget.
The beauty of it all is that we started to get so much user-generated content. So most of them were not like super high quality, but it was good enough to go to market with ads that look super real from ladies that were actually really like, no, they tested the product for three weeks. And now imagine, we have so much social proof that looks super organic, that when it goes through your feed, you're like, okay, this looks real.
Then influencers would come on board, say, hey, can I test your product for free? And one of them just got us like more than 2,000 likes on Instagram, in a niche of like natural beauty, etc. It's very small. It's pretty big. And this is like all free...this stuff really cuts through the noise for one simple reason. It's because it's true. It's real.
After collecting user-generated content, Nelio works on building out marketing assets before finally jumping into paid ads.
We don't start scaling ad spend just yet...Now we build marketing assets, like landing pages, website, or like either the e-commerce store or the brand itself, whatever that is. And then we inject all these elements into building all these marketing assets. Once we have the marketing assets, that’s when we start like the phase where basically we start scaling up a bit, the ad spend.
Nelio sees wide open space for innovation when it comes to connecting storytelling and conversions.
"If you see in the growth marketing spectrum, every little aspect has been like super broken down. CRO, analytics, even content to some extent, data - like pretty much everything except one thing is brand. Like there are no valid frameworks for growth marketing that are brand-driven, that are brand-led. And I believe that there is a lot of space to innovate in that and to combine data and storytelling to conversion."
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