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.

Why is building a website so hard?

I’ve been working in tech startups for the last couple of years and have been up close and personal with what it takes to get something designed, built and onto the internet.

During the consulting parts of my career I’ve helped build plenty websites for clients. But it’s a whole different thing when you are in-house and personally responsible for whether the site is delivering results. I’ve found that as soon as you’re responsible for the actual business results, your whole mindset changes. Personally, I’ve found that all of a sudden usability and simplicity become more important than aesthetics.

I’ve always been fascinated by how things that seem like a nice easy website project can become complex, stressful and expensive. It’s not just the normal “things take longer than you expect” effect from project management. Something more profound is going on when building digital products. There are several interesting issues that cause website projects to be harder than you’d expect: Continue reading Why is building a website so hard?

Lean Copywriting

The Lean Branding process consists of strategy, messaging and design. Of these three, messaging and copywriting is often the hardest to apply lean principles to. Language can be very subjective, so judging how best to create copy in a fast-paced environment is not easy. There are a few lessons I’ve learned from creating copy to help express a refreshed brand position.

Copy and messaging is where your brand comes to life in the written word. People are visual creatures, but language is still one of the most powerful ways to communicate and persuade. In almost every industry copy and messaging is a vital part of bringing the brand to life.

Continue reading Lean Copywriting

Traction: A startup guide to getting customers

One of my favorite marketing books to refer to for ideas is Traction: A startup guide to getting customers by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares. Their first edition was also available as an audiobook on Audible. They are now in the process of publishing a 2015 second edition so I thought I’d take a moment to share some of my favorite parts of the book. Continue reading Traction: A startup guide to getting customers

Equity crowdfunding at Seedrs

Seedrs provides a tool that startups can use to raise capital from their friends, family, customers and the crowd. This process is often called “equity crowdfunding” because it’s like Kiva or Kickstarter, except that the investors get equity in the company instead of a product or a loan. In January 2014, I joined Seedrs as part of the marketing team.

Seedrs Team Wired Magazine
The Seedrs team have been featured in Wired, TechCrunch, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.

At the end of last year, Seedrs raised 2.58 million pounds from over 900 investors using their own platform. That means that in my new marketing role, I now have over 900 bosses. I feel very accountable for the success and growth of the business. In this blog post, I want to share two main things about my new role, the expanded view of marketing that we’re taking at Seedrs, and the way that we’re incorporating lean manufacturing habits and processes into our team culture.

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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.

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Growth Hacking with Patrick Vlaskovits

Patrick Vlaskovits, arguably the sharpest modern thinker on Lean, visited us at the Innovation Warehouse last week. Patrick has recently published his new book, The Lean Entrepreneur. He spoke to us about growth hacking, which is a new way of thinking about marketing (within a startup or innovative company environment). Growth hacking is the application of the mindset of a hacker to the challenge of growing the demand for a product.

Patrick Vlaskovits and Peter Thomson
Patrick Vlaskovits was in London for a few hours so he dropped by the Innovation Warehouse.

Patrick has reverse engineered what causes rapid growth in some disruptive products but not others. He’s pulled together thinking from advertising, marketing, lean and even black-hat affiliate marketing. The key (to Patrick) is that the Medium is the Message (a quote from Marshall McLuhan). Disruptive ideas need disruptive marketing channels. To get an innovative idea to spread quickly, it needs an innovative communications medium.

Continue reading Growth Hacking with Patrick Vlaskovits

The difference between marketing and design

Marketing and design a very different mindsets and professions. I’m guessing that both your company’s marketing and your design probably sucks. But then again so does everyone else’s. It’s been driven to blandness by a combination of focus groups that couldn’t “get” your new idea, repeated changes from your management team, internal squabbles and old ideas left over from a time when advertising spend equalled market success. But maybe there is an even deeper problem…

What's the difference between design and marketing
The difference between marketing and design is the focus on the end-user as an individual.

The difference between marketing and design isn’t obvious. They’re different professional disciplines but the real difference is in the mindsets that they bring to approaching a problem.

Continue reading The difference between marketing and design