Agile Branding

Agile branding is the art of quickly creating and improving your brand positioning so you can iterate and improve your marketing. When you’re starting out on a new venture you may feel the need to map out every step of your go to market strategy in advance. Normal project planning would tell you that a detailed roadmap is a great way to execute a large project. But when it comes to branding and marketing, you are in a constant dance with your customer. And we all know that dancing can be chaotic. There is real value in taking a more iterative and agile approach to building your brand.

The book Lean Startup by Eric Ries is a great reminder of just how powerful the tools of lean thinking, agility and adaptability can be in growing a business. The iterative thinking from the world of product development can also be applied to marketing.

A truly agile brand is user-focused and iterative. Building an agile brand is not about the rituals of agile software development such as sprints, scrums, stand-ups, and retrospectives. Instead, it’s about adopting the customer cantered thinking of the agile mindset into every part of your marketing.

To create an agile brand you will likely still need an agile workflow and processes, but that’s not what will make your brand agile. Brand agility comes from a fundamentally agile and iterative approach.

In a large organisation where you’re looking to bring formal agile methods into the company to speed up the learning cycle for your day-to-day marketing, then the process may be more formalised. But the agile mindset of delivering customer value, testing things quickly and learning from your mistakes will be the same for big and small companies.

Branding all at once

To create an agile brand you are going to move forward on all fronts at once. Parallel processing is an unusual way for a company to create a new brand, but it’s remarkably similar to the way that an individual designer works when they are actually doing the job of designing a new brand. 

I look at a brand as three main elements, the strategy & intent, the copywriting messagingand the visual system design. You can be prototyping, improving and iterating all three of these brand elements at once. To create a new brand quickly you need to address the strategy, messaging and design together.

1. Agile brand strategy

Creating and iterating a strategy is all about creating just enough strategic clarity to be able to make decisions and move forward day by day. Most strategies have so many different elements and so many different components that people spend as much time creating the strategy as they do implementing it. By the time traditional companies have implemented anything, they have to go back and create a new strategy.

There is a saying in the sport of boxing that “Everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the face.” Your brand strategy needs to be able to adapt quickly in the face of adverse feedback. To be resilient, an agile brand strategy needs to answer three questions:

  1. Who do you want to serve?
  2. What pain do you solve for your audience?
  3. How do you do it better than your competitors and substitutes?

An agile approach to brand strategy means that the answer to these three questions may change on a week to week basis as you collect customer feedback and monitor the performance of your trial marketing campaigns.

2. Agile brand messaging

Having an agile tagline that is constantly being updated would seem like a weird thing to do, but the way that you describe your brand should be evolving as you learn from your ongoing customer discovery and market research. Therefore, you need to be able to change the way that you describe your business over time. You don’t want to lock too many things in too rigidly into your brand.

The link between strategy and copywriting is the stories that you tell. If you find yourself, on a repeated basis, re-telling particular anecdotes about your brand, then those are a good place to look for copywriting and key messages.

A story is the functional unit of meaning; it is a way of conveying meaning to an audience. You should aim to standardise and modularise your copywriting so that you and the rest of your team can take key elements and recombine them to create collateral and correspondence on the fly.

The next important thing to realise about agile copywriting is the importance of testing:

  • With traditional ad agency copywriting you would rely entirely on market research, intuition and instinct to create pieces of communication that would persuade your audience.
  • With agile approaches to copywriting you can test the effectiveness of different pieces of copy and improve it as you go. This approach draws as much from the direct marketing and direct response school of advertising as it does from ad agency copywriting.

3. Agile brand design

The visual design system can seem like the least agile part of a brand. However, in the age of digital communication, with the right tools you can constantly be improving and iterating your brand’s visual design.

Your visual appearance as a brand can be just as lean, agile and adaptable as any other part of your strategy.

  • The problem is usually that companies are too reluctant to invest in good quality design as a priority and to continue investing in design over time.
  • The other half of the problem is that the providers of design services have been far too willing to sell their wares as one-off batch-and-queue projects instead of fighting for retainers to act as brand stewards.

Designing a new corporate logo has become something that is so mystified and sacrosanct that it is impossible to imagine quick, small, agile improvements to a company’s logo over time. But if you step back and look at Shell’s logo over the years or Pepsi or Coke (or any great brand taken from a far enough viewpoint), they have all iterated and improved their logos significantly over the years.

The challenge for a startup is simply to accelerate this process and to be willing to make changes faster to improve the brand. The unspoken restraint here is that startups are unwilling to invest in good visual design. It makes perfect sense for a startup to hire a developer and to be continually improving their product, yet somehow it seems self-indulgent for them to hire a graphic designer and to be continually improving their brand. This is because most startups misunderstand what design really is.

Good design doesn’t just make a product look good; good design makes a product work better for the user. Good design is user-centred design and that type of design is always going to be lean and agile, practical and grounded.

Clarity of strategy, message and design

Clarity is the key to agile branding. The way to create a brand that can survive rapid iteration is to increase the amount of clarity across strategy, messaging and design.

  • A clear strategy will be repeatable and articulable to all of your team members. It will help guide all aspects of your decision making in marketing, product and customer experience.
  • A clear set of messages to describe your brand and to persuade your audience will be more likely to be useful to the rest of your team and therefore more likely to be actively used.
  • Clear visual identity, through colours, fonts and shapes, increases the chances that your brand will be applied by the team members in a consistent and high-quality way.

An agile brand has a clear strategy, a clear message, and a clear look and feel.

Growth Hacking in New Zealand

Growth hacking is the application of the mindsets and tools of a computer hacker to the challenge of growing a company. Basically, growth hacking is what happens when software developers try to do marketing. The essence of the growth hacking mindset is the scientific method and an iterative rapid prototyping approach to marketing. This type of marketing can be faster, cheaper and more effective than traditional marketing so growth hacking is becoming popular in many industries.

New Zealand has normally been pretty slow to adopt global trends in sales, marketing and design. As far as I can tell, there are still only a small number of New Zealand companies such as Vend, TradeMe and 90 Seconds TV that are applying growth hacking techniques to rapidly expand their businesses. I’m hoping to find more people doing growth hacking in Auckland and the rest of New Zealand to swap stories and share lessons learned.
Continue reading Growth Hacking in New Zealand

Value Proposition Canvas Template

A value proposition is the place where your company’s product intersects with your customer’s desires. It’s the magic fit between what you make and why people buy it. Your value proposition is the crunch point between business strategy and brand strategy.

value proposition canvas
A value proposition canvas includes elements from behavioural psychology and design thinking.

When you’re starting a new project, or a new company, you need practical tools to help you focus on executing things faster and better. Good strategy tools exist only to help you focus on getting the right things done. The value proposition canvas is a fairly simple tool that quickly gets you to the ‘minimum viable clarity’ required to start building and testing a product or service.

Continue reading Value Proposition Canvas Template

Minimum Viable Brand with Wolff Olins

According to Wolff Olins, a brand exists in the overlap between commerce, culture and technology. The purpose of a minimum viable brand is to engage people without overcomplicating things. This morning we had a chance to hear from Ije Nwokorie and Melissa Andrada of Wolff Olins at the Google Startup Campus, in a talk organised by General Assembly. Ije and Melissa work with some of the biggest brands in the world so it was a little weird to hear them adopting the tools and mindset of a small startup. But the fit was perfect and the lessons were really practical.

Minimum Viable Brand General Assembly
General Assembly organised the talk by Wolff Olins at the Google Startup Campus.

To me, lean branding is an ongoing process that dovetails well with the Growth Hacking trend in Silicon Valley (identified by Patrick Vlaskovits and friends). The ‘Lean Startup’ movement has already influenced how small companies do their marketing, but it’s now starting to influence how bigger companies think about branding. The manifesto of lean is speed, agility, experimentation and iterative improvements. All of which are useful when rethinking any company’s brand (big or small).

Continue reading Minimum Viable Brand with Wolff Olins

Innovation Warehouse 10: Customer Personas

Customer personas and archetypes are usually vapid and prosaic lists of generic attributes. “What car does your ideal customer drive?” is a hackneyed favourite of marketing consultants everywhere. I prefer to work with a “customer narrative” that forces me (and the client) to really think from the customer’s perspective. We can’t have meaningful empathy for an anonymous customer persona. But we can feel the pain of the lead character in a well-told customer story.

Customer narrative
The ideal customer for the Innovation Warehouse is a hard-working and intelligent entrepreneur with a team of 3-5 people. The best way to understand them is to understand their story.

An end-user narrative is a semi-fictional story of an idealised customer. The point of the story is to create a shared understanding across the design team of the audience’s emotions, behaviours and motivations. As in any good story, the moments of tension and friction are the most interesting.

Continue reading Innovation Warehouse 10: Customer Personas

Innovation Warehouse 9: Design System

After several rounds of review, we’ve completed the design system for the Innovation Warehouse. The new design is based on the insight that starting a business is one of the most intense things that any person can do. An entrepreneur is looking for both the freedom to do their own thing and the support of having a peer group.

Peter Drucker Quote The best way to predict the future
The new Innovation Warehouse design system includes a new wordmark, visual system and typography.

We’ve created a design system that reflects the brand values, product architecture and company aspirations of the Innovation Warehouse. It’s also focused on the end-user journey and prioritised according to the business model. One of the main project goals was to help launch the new angel investing and startup accelerator offerings.

Continue reading Innovation Warehouse 9: Design System

Innovation Warehouse 8: Design Process

Creating a new brand identity can be a chaotic experience. Having a robust design process makes it easier to keep moving when the going gets tough.

Design Team Crit Review
The design process allows an entire team to work together coherently.

Some clients are easy to create a brand for because they already know who they want to target and what they want to say. But most clients have a surprisingly high degree of uncertainty about their strategy, messaging and design. We use lean branding to iterate and improve the brand as we go, but we still need a critical path design process to help us stay focused.

Continue reading Innovation Warehouse 8: Design Process

Innovation Warehouse 7: Brand Personality

Brand personality is the link between the internal brand architecture and the external brand expression. The main step in creating a coherent brand personality is to identify the team’s shared sayings and catch-phrases. These statements of conviction aren’t taglines and aren’t necessarily things that you would communicate externally.

Brand Personality
The Brand Personality is a translation tool between internal Brand Strategy and external Communications.

Some of the sayings will provide visual cues for the graphic design process. Some of the sayings will inform the key messages for PR and web copywriting. As a whole, the saying capture a multi-faceted personality, mood and voice for the brand. Later on in the project, some of these sayings might be part of the brand manifesto. But for now, they are just a tool to help translate the internal brand values into customer-centered language.

Continue reading Innovation Warehouse 7: Brand Personality

Innovation Warehouse 6: Brand Architecture

The secret to building a great brand is to find a deep human truth about the end user. A brand architecture provides a structured way to uncover these insights together with the client. If we can find it, the singular customer insight behind the Innovation Warehouse will inform every aspect of the strategy, messaging and design.

Innovation Warehouse Members
We interviewed dozens of members to help define the shared values.

Building a brand architecture isn’t a substitute for the hard work of empathy and creativity. Instead, it’s a rigorous process that helps triangulate the problem space. First, we build a set of brand attributes, then distill the brand values, then we converge on a brand essence. It feels like a process of deduction or corporate archeology. I believe that the best brands are already latent in the existing organisation, they just needs to be coaxed out.

Continue reading Innovation Warehouse 6: Brand Architecture

Innovation Warehouse 4: Competitive Positioning

The Innovation Warehouse doesn’t compete directly with other co-working spaces or accelerators. The team believes strongly in making the pie bigger. But the market for startup support is becoming more competitive. Understanding the competitive playing field will make make it easier to differentiate the Innovation Warehouse from the competition.

London Accelerators
Entrepreneurs now have lots of options for co-working, accelerators and angel investment.

We find that the competitor mapping stage is vital for helping a client realise just how high the standard of competition can be. We use competitor mapping partially as a diagnostic tool and partially as a creative thinking tool. Continue reading Innovation Warehouse 4: Competitive Positioning