How to Apply Lean Startup Principles to Marketing & Brand Strategy
If anybody knows me, they know that I run my marketing teams and brand strategies like a lean, mean, marketing machine! I have been a HUGE fan of the Lean Startup for many years, as I love applying various lean principles to large, enterprise-level clients all the way down to the one-person founders I work with. In fact, the Lean Startup is the foundation to the Sohuis Framework, and a really critical piece of my course, the Sohuis StartupBlueprint. I stumbled across Lean Startup about 6 years ago, and while Lean isn’t always the perfect strategy for every situation, I find that my most successful projects pull in Lean elements in areas of the most uncertainty. For the past 6 years, I’ve run several Lean Startup Meetups, taught a ton of workshops, and used lean principles during the two years that I helped organize Startup Weekend Orlando.
So, imagine my surprise when Lean Startup Co. sent me an email asking me to chat with them on their webcast – I about fell off my chair. The webcast just aired yesterday, and I would love to share our fun conversation with you! Check out the video below.
Just Start Somewhere
Jessica Korthuis started her first company with her husband after her corporate dream job was eliminated. She didn’t have a ton of experience helping entrepreneurs brand themselves but she had a lot of experience in marketing communications and a can-do spirit. “We built this super-crappy website and then poof, we just started our first agency,” Jessica said.
The agency grew organically to include such clients as TED Women, Red Bull and Stanford University, but was completely bootstrapped. “It was this absolutely scrappy thing,” Jessica said.
Through the local business ecosystem in Orlando, Florida she learned about Lean Startup, which is where she got involved in helping entrepreneurs brand themselves using Lean Startup tools.
Jessica admitted that she was naive at that early stage of her business, but that was both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, she said, it helped not to know how much work was in front of them, but it was also scary. Her biggest takeaway from starting with so little knowledge is that sometimes the best thing to do is to, “Just start.”
Once she was deeper into the process, Jessica saw the value in Lean Startup methods and began to use it, suggesting founders should learn who your early adopters are going to be and determine your minimum viable product (MVP) as early as possible, but “Don’t try to slay the dragon all at once,” she said.
When she closed that first agency to start a family she wasn’t expecting the next iteration of her business to happen so quickly. However, while on maternity leave with her daughter, a former client from a large global organization she’d worked with, called her in a panic with a desperate need for help rebranding a nonprofit. Jessica leaped at the chance, so long as she could work from home to be with her daughter.
“I wanted to have the complete freedom to be my own boss again,” Jessica said. And SOHUIS was born.
Jessica took all the learning from her first agency and developed a marketing framework she could use with larger clients, which became the foundation for SOHUIS.
Rebranding is Not a Quick Fix
One thing Jessica has found is that rebranding can appeal to lot of companies for the wrong reasons. “Oftentimes people don’t actually know why they’re rebranding,” Jessica said. “They think that sales are stagnant…or it’s not progressing or growing the way that they should.” They leap at rebranding as a fix but, she cautioned, “It’s not always the solution.”
What companies need to do before rebranding, Jessica said, is really understand what part of the company is not growing and what kind of experiments they can run to validate or invalidate the hypothesis.
She engages her companies in a brand persona building exercise that involves asking them five questions that break down, “If your brand were a person today, who would you be and why?”
One of her clients discovered that their existing personas were like Hillary Clinton pre-election, and Walter Matthau from Grumpy Old Men, which might have been popular with an older segment of customers but were not attracting new ones. Instead, they determined they wanted to rebrand to become a combination of Ellen Degeneres and Jimmy Fallon.
While this exercise might sound abstract, Jessica explained, “It’s actually quite helpful because what it does is give you a roadmap of where you are today as a brand versus where you want to be.”
Once the company knows who they want to be, she helps them be “relentless in that vision” and asking what steps they need to take to shift the brand in that new direction.
Rebranding does sometimes mean losing older customers, but Jessica said, if you’re doing it right, you’ll gain new ones. Her client saw a 200 percent increase in brand new members after one year of the rebrand.
Validate the Brand
This brought Elliot to the question, how do you validate a rebrand?
First Jessica pointed out that companies should not look to the customer to tell you if you need to rebrand. “Your job is to ask the customer the right questions in order for you to get the feedback that you need to decide whether or not a rebrand is useful.”
To find the metric that says the rebrand itself is responsible for any change is harder to determine, but Jessica engaged in “a ton of surveys and interviewing members” about what sort of content they would like and what would be helpful to them.
“And then…we actually created solutions to things that they wanted,” Jessica said.
One of those things was to invite members to participate in webinars and webcasts “to make them feel loved and appreciated” and to ensure that they didn’t contact members only when trying to get them to renew their membership.
So for Jessica’s client, the goal of the rebrand was to increase membership, and they did that, and with a new market segment that they hadn’t had before.
Jessica said she takes her clients through a “pretty regimented, hard core process” of validating and understanding customers. “What are their problems? Before you go into the solutions phase…let’s really understand what the problems are that customers are having. And then solve those problems.”
“Your job is to ask the customer the right questions in order for you to get the feedback that you need to decide whether or not a rebrand is useful.”
Set up the Right Hypotheses
Of course, before validation you need to have a solid hypothesis. The big hypothesis Jessica set up for her business was that building a brand should follow the same steps no matter whether you are a startup, a nonprofit or a giant corporation. She set out to validate that hypothesis in creating the SOHUIS framework.
Jessica said she pulled all the “core common denominators” that she’s learned over the years about brand building and combined that with Lean Startup concepts like validated learning, the build-measure-learn feedback loop, and innovation accounting as well as some other tools such as the Business Model Canvas and the Value Proposition Design Canvas and a few others.
To test her hypothesis with users she built a beta framework and offered it free to several clients: a nonprofit, a global organization and a small startup founder. “I tested it in different market segments and different verticals and the results were awesome,” she said.
She has found that a lot of people are aware of Lean Startup concepts but don’t know what order to use them in, or when. Her framework advises on that.
Focus On a Customer Segment
Once Jessica had the evidence that her framework worked, she narrowed down her customer base to startup founders, particularly female business owners, which is her passion. She noted that all of her clients were asking the same questions, so she came up with a second hypothesis: Could she take all of these questions and pain points and pare down her in-person workshops into an online course?
Jessica turned to her instagram platform where she invests the most time and energy in terms of social media because her main customers, female startup owners, spend a lot of time there. Jessica engaged in “hashtag research” which allowed her to see what people were searching for and interested in. Then, using Canva, she developed a landing page with a ton of information about her course and what people would learn, all of which she gleaned from her in-person workshops.
She did a limited six-week promotion run offering a free beta program and spent just $98. Her goal was to get 25 people to sign up. 100 people signed up instead. She knew the course was going to be a hit. As part of the beta program, she asked users to answer questions along the way about where they get confused or fall behind to help her with the next iteration.
The beta version finished in January and she’s launching the paid version in February.
“If you do not fully understand the pain point that you are solving with your product or service, the brand that you create is just going to be noise.”
Lean Startup for Branding
For people who want to use Lean Startup to help build a better brand or rebrand, Jessica said the most important part is understanding your customers. “If you do not fully understand the pain point that you are solving with your product or service, your brand that you create is going to be noise.”
Jessica urged founders to enter a scientific mindset and “remove your emotions.”
Additionally, Jessica reminded people that “failure is required” and that startups should “fail fast” by doing experiments and testing and validating. Elliot interjected that failing fast “means learning fast.”
Jessica and Elliot agreed that the most important thing when using Lean Startup is to know the real problem you’re solving, and a brand is no exception.