Lean Branding 

By: Laura Busche



David Ogilvy, the best advertising mind the world has ever seen, once said this:

Any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith, and perseverance to create a brand.

But is it still true? Is creating a brand in a world where Facebook and Instagram are the largest media channels the same as doing it like it’s done in Mad Men?

The argument that Laura Busche makes in her book, Lean Branding, is that maybe these days we need a little less faith to build a brand, and a little more scientific method.

In particular, the flavour of the scientific method that has been made popular over the last few years by The Lean Startup and Eric Ries.

Let’s take a look at what a brand is, then what “Lean” is, and how they fit together to create a Lean Brand.

What is a brand

Before we get to using “Lean” methodology to grow our brand, let’s start back at the beginning by defining what a brand is. Laura says that:

“A brand is the unique story that consumers recall when they think of you.”

That seems to jive with what a brand was back in Ogilvy’s time. However, as she points out, consumers these days don’t just listen, they talk back. Consumers have increasingly inserted themselves into that story as active players, instead of passively sitting in front of their televisions listening to what you say your brand is.

On top of that, Laura argues out that Lean brands are chameleon brands, ever changing to meet the needs of their customers’ needs and desires.

This is an interesting distinction between the old theory of building brands, which would tell you that creating consistency in messaging over time is the foundation on which a brand is built. Laura calls these “Dinosaur brands.’

So that’s what a brand is, but what exactly is “Lean”?

The Lean methodology and where it came from

The Lean Startup movement has its roots in Lean Thinking, which was created by American management thinkers who studied Toyota’s production process as they made their ascent into the world’s number one car maker.

At its core, Lean thinking is all about minimising waste, and increasing quality. And although it is easy to think about applying this methodology to production processes, it’s not immediately obvious how this thinking applies to business themselves as a whole - or more particularly, to startups.

The insight was found in changing how people thought about startups in the first place. As Steve Blank - the father of the Lean Startup movement - points out, a startup is not a smaller version of a large company. It is something completely different.

In a large company, minimising waste is all about figuring out how to change your processes and procedures so that things get done more efficiently and effectively.

In a startup, minimising waste is all about not wasting time or resources building a business that shouldn’t be built in the first place. As Eric Ries points out in the book The Lean Startup:

“A startup is a human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”

How startups get built these days

And so, for the first time, a methodology was created to help entrepreneurs create a business based on the scientific method. Experiments are designed to test your assumptions on what your customers want, and the solutions you are building in response. Most importantly, the idea is to run these experiments using the smallest amount of resources possible while still being able to get the feedback you need.

The distinction couldn’t be more dramatic. Until recently, most businesses were created based on the idea of an entrepreneur, who simply goes out and builds a company to execute on that vision.

But now we have legions of companies being built by people who are experimenting intelligently, many of whom are finding very quickly that their original product idea won’t work. Then, because they didn’t waste all of their resources on the first test, go on to build great companies.

Here’s an example. Instagram, as of the time of this writing, is the world’s second largest social network with over 300 million users. In terms of driving purchase behaviour when driving traffic to e-commerce sites, they are number one.

Instagram started out as a location sharing service, similar to Foursquare. But they realised quickly that there was one part of their product that stood out from the rest - their photo sharing feature. They quickly turned that feature into the entire product, and the rest, as they say is history.

Speaking of Instagram, that brings us back to the conversation about brands, because you are almost certain to consider Instagram as part of your brand building story.

Can a brand be Lean, too?

Once the business world got over the mental hurdle that Lean Thinking wasn’t something only to be applied to manufacturing processes, the floodgates opened. Everything is now “Lean.” There’s lean entrepreneurship, lean analytics, lean website development, and so on.

But can Lean be applied to something as ephemeral and creative as branding?

Unfortunately for marketers who enjoy not being held responsible for the results they create, the answer is a resounding yes.

Here’s how you do it.

Is your brand measuring up?

We won’t spend any time looking at how you go about building the specific brand components - what Laura calls your brand’s value creation story, your brand’s visual symbols and your brand’s growth strategy. I’ll assume that you’ve got all of that covered by now. If you don’t, you’ll want to go and pick up a copy of the book because it’s filled with practical step-by-step instructions on how to do it.

So how do you measure your brand?

Let’s go back to the first principles here. The only real reason to have a brand in the first place is so that you can demand a price premium compared to other brands who are less powerful than yours. That’s the only reason to invest in a brand - to help you make more money.

Although most marketers and entrepreneurs know this, they seem to forget it when going about the day-to-day of their jobs. Why? Because how could you possibly tell if changing your colour palette from one shade of blue to another will make you more money?

Marketers will ask you to take almost everything done in the name of branding as an article of faith. It usually comes down to convincing the CEO that the new tagline or logo looks better on the business card.

Fortunately, these things can now be tested using a technology that digital marketers have been using to test things on the web for many years.

A/B Testing your brand

A/B tests have been a staple in the digital marketer’s toolkit for many years now. It first gained mainstream attention in 2008 when Barack Obama’s digital marketing team used it to raise $60 million by running a simple experiment on the campaign homepage. They tested multiple variations of images and buttons to see which combination would generate the most donations.

If they had merely gone with their gut - the version that most people intuitively believed represented Obama and the campaign the best - they would have been $60 million poorer, and a different person would be residing in the White House today.

If you had gone through the entire book, you would have 25 brand elements, all of which could be tested, including your name, positioning statement, brand promise, personas, product experience, personality, pricing, colour palette, etc. All of which can be tested.

Running the actual test

As Laura describes in the book, at their most basic level, all tests include:

- a statement that you believe to be true (your hypothesis)

- an indicator that you will measure to validate it (in most cases in A/B testing, it will be the conversion rate);

- the level of that indicator that we expect to see in the test (the expected result);

- the actual level of that indicator;

- a comparison of the expected result with the actual result.

So, let’s run through how you might actually test one of your brand elements to see if you are on the right track. And let’s assume that there’s an argument amongst your team about which brand positioning statement is the one you should move forward with.

Hypothesis: Our brand positioning statement A is better than brand positioning statement B.

Measurement: We will measure the conversion rate on a landing page based on the two separate messages.

Expected Result: The conversion rate on brand positioning statement A will be at least 10% higher than brand positioning statement B, and statistically relevant.

Then, after having created a landing page with 2 variations, you start the experiment. You could very easily create a Google Adword campaign targeting people who you know are looking for your products or services. Half of the people would see brand positioning statement A, the other half would see brand positioning statement B.

What to do with the results

Let’s assume that your team’s hypothesis was wrong - it was actually brand positioning statement B that was the clear winner.

Should you automatically throw out brand positioning statement A? Maybe. But at the very least, is should start a conversation about whether or not you’ve got your winning positioning yet.
Ideally, you would keep running tests until you have a clear winner.

Just in case you think that all of this testing is good in theory, but can’t lead to real world results, here’s a quick story to show you the power of testing on brands.

A brand name is born through Adwords testing

Tim Ferris is the now-popular author of the “4 Hour” series. He’s most famous for The 4 Hour Workweek, which he wrote back in 2006. His publisher had an idea for a catchy book title, no doubt relying solely on their “expert judgement.” Any other first time author would have just accepted the advice and moved on. But not Tim Ferris.

Tim decided to test multiple potential titles using Google Adwords. He placed various text ads, varied up the titles, and then chose the title with the highest click-through rate. The 4 Hour Work Week wasn’t his favourite title, but instead of going with intuition, he went with what the tests told him he should do.

The result?

The 4 Hour Workweek went on to become in international brand, and he’s already launched 2 other best-selling books on the 4 Hour theme - The 4 Hour Body, and The 4 Hour Chef.

Lean branding literally helped Tim Ferris create and launch an international brand.

That’s pretty powerful.

So, it’s up to you

You could easily ignore this advice, and go on doing branding as you’ve always done it.

But you could also decide that you are not quite as intuitive about branding as you think you are, and understand that the smart way to create a brand is to apply the principles in Lean Branding on a consistent basis.

Onwards and upwards!