The Yoco story and building your brand

Source: Facebook
“If small business doesn't succeed in South Africa, we're in a lot of trouble,” Head of Brand & Communications at Yoco Matt Brownell told the second iStore/GIBS SME Series online forum.

Speaking on what it takes to build a small business brand, Brownell said Yoco’s purpose is to break down barriers. “We took a niche and turned it into something which is now quite aspirational for a number of banks. I think in some sense, this is a positive thing for the (small business) ecosystem.”

Started in 2015, Yoco is an African technology company that builds tools and services to help small businesses get paid, run their businesses better, and grow. Yoco offers card payment acceptance, software-driven business tools and working capital solutions.

Since inception, Yoco has grown to surpass 250 000 active merchants in a nationwide community.

The company was founded to empower small business to do something as simple as accept payments from their customers in non-cash terms. “Small businesses in South Africa are historically underserved underdogs, and this is why we exist,” Brownell said. “It's a market that was really seen as not worth the efforts by the big banks because of the difficulty of reaching small business owners, onboarding them.

“Our customer obsession, our closeness to our customers and the way that we build our products and do our marketing is unique and pretty hard to replicate.”

Building a small business brand 

A member of the Yoco team since 2017, Brownell was appointed to his current role last year to oversee Yoco’s sales and marketing function.

“Building a brand is a big, scary thing, actually. But with good branding, you can give your brand a more human side, which your customers can relate to more than a company that's strictly all business. In many ways, you can appeal to people's emotions through branding and make them feel more connected to your company,” he said.

He offered seven marketing lessons on what has ultimately turned Yoko “from a very small brand fighting against absolute giants in the financial services sector” to one that is competing on a level footing with less than 500 employees and a fraction of a traditional bank’s budget.

Know your why 

Your product and brand promise have to come together to form your purpose. “Your purpose must be well articulated and baked into your product, otherwise you are just talking marketing.”

Your products and your brand promise have to come together and be intricately linked to a problem that you're solving: “If you do not know your why, you cannot build a brand, it's as simple as that. Disconnecting your product from your brand promise is a huge mistake as it results in poor customer experience, and mismanaged expectations,” he explained.

Tell your customers’ stories 

This is true no matter what your business. Yoco uses authentic customers in its marketing in order to tell memorable stories. “Otherwise it just gets lost. It doesn’t have to be hard or expensive.”

Be authentic 

People are exposed to on average 3000 marketing messages a day. In these circumstances, the only way to break the curve of indifference is to craft a message that stops people in their tracks. 

“If you look like everyone else, and your message is the same as everyone else’s, and you sound like everyone else, you're simply going to blend into the background,” Brownell said.

“Being real and authentic is a differentiator. In every category, there is a sea of sameness.”

He advised against “a bunch of marketers sitting in a room, coming up with great creative ideas. They should be on the streets speaking to customers if your goal is to be different to your category norms and to stand out.


“Marketing is a combination of wild swings and sure things. Use the data you have to decide what you will fuel. It’s a combination of magic and science. The magic is the creativity, the science is the data,” Brownell said.

While creativity allows you to do things to make your brand rise above the clutter, “you usually need to fuel that breakthrough with some money. We are constantly watching the data to understand what we fuel and what we let go of,” he continued.

Nurture a community

Building a community of brand advocates can be more powerful than a big media budget, Brownell said.

“Nurturing the community is totally vital, especially during Covid and even beyond, when marketing and media budgets were a fraction of what they were before. During Covid and the hard lockdown for about a six month period we literally switched the lights off. But we relied on advocates to keep us going and keep the reach going.”

Believe in creativity

Separating the brand marketing teams from the performance marketing team can help small businesses to build long-term brands.

“Building a brand focuses on long-term effectiveness. It is a different set of Key Performance Indicators. 80% is the idea, and then 80% is the execution, and the people that are good at the idea are often not good at the execution. You do need to have a multifaceted team building your brand, or you need to be able to wear a lot of hats.”
Yoco took a decision three years ago to separate its brand and performance, marketing teams. The brand marketing team's own awareness, while the performance marketing team “are drilling into the numbers every single day.”

“The two have to talk to each other, but you can't ask people who are building a brand for the long term to be obsessing about your customer acquisition costs through Facebook ad sets. It doesn't work. It's a fundamentally different mindset and frame of mind, if you do not separate your teams, you will never build a brand. Once we separated our teams, we started getting real traction.”


“Building a brand takes time. It's not an overnight thing.” 

Brownell said brand is the ultimate differentiator for small businesses: While the direct correlation between media spend and marketing is measurable, building a brand is slower.

“Brand is one of the most important flywheels for your business, but bravery comes with confidence. The confidence came when we started realising that the more authentic and brave we were, the more our customers responded to our work,” Brownell said.

“Think like a challenger every step of the way.”

Useful resources:
Gordon Institute of Business Science
Making an impact to significantly improve the competitive performance of individuals and organisation through business education to build our national competitiveness. GIBS is a leading business school in the heart of Sandton’s business hub, offering a wide range of executive and academic programmes.
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