What is Lean Branding?

Lean branding

The Lean Startup* is a set of principles on how to launch a business quickly using the least amount of resources possible. Its methodologies center around measuring your customers’ needs and responses to your business, and then incorporating their feedback into your growth.

Launched and guided by Eric Ries, the Lean Startup movement began as a reaction to the classic business practice of spending lots of time and money developing a product, only to find out after launch that customers didn’t want, need or like it. As a senior software engineer at There, Inc., Ries witnessed the company spend five years and much of $40 Million in funding to launch There.com. The product didn’t take off, and the company of almost 200 employees was eventually forced to close its doors. According to Ries, the most important mistake was that the vision of the founders was not in line with the needs of the consumers.

As Fast Company magazine wrote, “lean” is “less about how to make web startups more successful and entrepreneurs richer than it is a fundamental reexamination of how to work in our complicated, faster-moving world.”

Lean Branding

Although the Lean Startup focuses on product development and business management, its principles can be applied to branding as well. Just like building a product, you can build your brand as you grow, and refine it until it “clicks” with your customers. Being “lean” means understanding that not having a perfect product when you first launch is not only OK, it’s actually sensible. Your brand will not and should not be perfect when you launch either.

Story and Style

Creating even the first iteration of  your company’s brand may seem like a daunting task. But if you break down the components of a brand into pieces, it helps clarify what needs defining before launch, and what can be tested and refined as you grow. A brand can be defined as a company’s message and identity. Your brand message is what you say about yourself — it’s your story. Your brand identity is how you tell your story — it’s your style.

Before your brand can exist, you need to define your unique value proposition (UVP). Ask yourself: Why did I start this company or build this product? What is it that sets it apart? When you have an answer, write it down and paste it to the wall. Your unique value proposition sets the stage for everything else.

Your story, the brand message, are the parts of your UVP that you present to consumers. You can talk about the people behind your company, and their history and passions. You can talk about your company’s ideals and culture. The information you choose to present will change, and should change a lot at first. Your customers will let you know what resonates with them.

Your style, the brand identity, are the visual and auditory clues that support your story.  Components of a brand identity are the name, logo, design and tone (how you communicate). Though these probably shouldn’t change as often or as drastically as your story, it’s a common misconception that they can’t change after you launch. Everything, down to the company name, can change; but the closer to the launch of your company the better. When most large and established corporations go through an identity change, it’s a lengthy, costly ordeal. Lean branding means that you will be listening to your customers from the beginning, when branding changes are easier and more accepted.

Build. Measure. Learn. (Repeat.)

Both identity and message can benefit from the development cycle of creating, analyzing, and refining — what Ries calls building, measuring and learning.

Craft your story. Choose a business name. Pick a design. Start socializing with consumers. If you’ve set up your analytics correctly, you’ll start to see how customers respond and where your brand is getting traction. Then you can make informed choices on what needs to be re-positioned, rewritten, or redesigned.

Time is Money. Do Not Waste It.

How do you start? Lean branding is toughest when the page is blank, and when there is no data to analyze. It is your company — trust your instincts, and create a brand that you would be attracted to as a consumer. Most importantly however, do not waste time over-analyzing your decisions. Here are two things to keep in mind when you’re getting off the ground:

  • Limit “decisions by committee”: Every choice, even the business name, should be limited to just the key players. Too much time spent on a single decision is an indication that you are falling into the trap that everything needs to be perfect at launch. Remember, it’s not perfect until your customers say so.
  • Avoid “brand envy”: It is distracting and counterproductive to analyze what your competitors are doing, and to try and mold your identity or message around theirs. What they are doing may be working for their customers (or it may not be working!), but it has nothing to do with your customers or your unique value.

A lean company is a fast company and a smart company. Read our other articles on Lean Branding for more advice on launching a startup in the new economy.

*Visit The Lean Startup to buy the book and learn more about Eric Ries.