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Lean Branding by Laura Busche

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Chapter 1. What Is a Brand?

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

David Ogilvy

I’ve been there. You just came up with the ultimate product idea—and there’s a 99.9% chance that it will change the world as we know it.

You can’t sleep. You build, and build, and build. You eat. Then you build some more.

Then it suddenly hits you: how’s this “thing” that you’re building going to change the world? Better yet, what is the name of this “thing”? At this point, you’re so passionate about it you’d probably wear a t-shirt. What would be on that t-shirt anyway? What is your unique message to the world? Do you have one? What symbols stand strong behind that message?

We’ll dive into all of these questions in this chapter, which will cover how to think strategically about brands and a few central concepts in Lean Branding theory.

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is you not only can, but you must, use a lifeline: go ahead and ask the audience. The bad news is you need to wrap up an early version of your product, stop working, and go outside right now. Your marathon will have to wait until you figure out if this “thing” you’re building has a place in the world. Don’t get too comfortable when you find it; “Is that your final answer?” questions are irrelevant in this game. This game is about constantly retesting your answers, coming up with new questions, and using lifelines as much as you can.

Defining Brand

A brand is the unique story that consumers recall when they think of you. This story associates your product with their personal stories, a particular personality, what you promise to solve, and your position relative to your competitors. Your brand is represented by your visual symbols and feeds from multiple conversations where you must participate strategically.

As you can imagine, this story is written and rewritten every time consumers interact with everything related to your offer:

  • Your name

  • Your pitch

  • Your employees

  • Your interface

  • Your point of purchase

  • Your email signature

  • (Pretty much everything else you can think of)

The ball is in their court. Consumers nowadays don’t just listen: they love talking back. They don’t just consume; they cocreate. You don’t get to dictate the terms of how they experience your brand. Nobody’s sitting around waiting for you to tell “your story”; instead, consumers are creating their own based on a snowballing amount of voices. I wrote this book to encourage you to enter this conversation—and to give you the tools to do it successfully.

A simple way to understand why branding is crucial for business is thinking about your name. Is it fair to say that “you” and “your product” are two completely unrelated items? Or “you” and your personality? How about “you” and your ancestry? Take this as far as you like: your thoughts, the way you look, or your education. The bottom line is:

Everything and everyone represents at least one brand.


To brand or not to brand is not even a question.

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Aren’t we all complex, multifaceted beings under a single name? Isn’t that name how other people remember and recognize us? What are you doing today to make that name mean something that others remember and buy?

A Closer Look at Lean Branding

Lean principles have changed how we create, sustain, and recreate brands. There’s no time to rest on our laurels when consumers are doing everything but that. They, as a matter of fact, have become unbelievably savvy about brands that work and those that don’t. Consumers can pick up sketchy brands from miles away—and thanks to the Internet, thousands of miles away.

The Business Model Canvas and the build-measure-learn loop described by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup (Crown Business) are game-changing tools that have undoubtedly made an impact in the way we build and sustain startups. But, after working with over 300 entrepreneurs in the implementation of this model, I realized that those who went on to perform successfully in demo days, investor meetings, and client acquisition were those who had managed to build dynamic brands. These brands generated traction and interest and positioned themselves more effectively in consumers’ minds. (Let me make a quick point here: brands are not logos. Please stop thinking that; it’ll ruin you. Read Chapter 2.) I saw dozens of startups lose opportunities to others with simpler MVPs (minimum viable products) but a deeper sense of what their brand meant.

While losing out to a startup with a simpler MVP might seem unfair, let me tell you why it’s not.

Brand creation should not be a background process for startups. It’s not voodoo, it doesn’t happen randomly, and it’s definitely not something you put together the night before. Branding is not just about fancy graphics on your landing page. A strong brand, or lack thereof, could make or break you.

In today’s saturated marketplace, you’ll go nowhere selling a “bunch of features.”

We are in the business of disrupting the market with brands that matter.

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A Little Lean Branding Theory, or Why Chameleons > Dinosaurs

For years, we thought that customers’ ideas of who they were/wanted to be (self-concepts) were pretty static. A piece of brick. So we created huge dinosaur brands to satisfy them. Today we know that a stiff, sedentary brand can’t satisfy customers beyond a very short period of time. Here’s a word on dinosaurs: they’re extinct. Gone. Couldn’t handle evolution. Similarly, thick-skinned brand certainty just doesn’t work anymore.

Take a minute to come up with a one-sentence summary of who you are today and write it down: “professional rock climber,” “crazy person,” “working parent”—whatever it is you are (or think you are). Now consider what a 5-year-old you would’ve answered, and write a second descriptive phrase: “crayola lover,” “recess specialist,” “full-time napper.”

Now please imagine these phrases, plus a picture of a younger, toothless you, on your LinkedIn profile today.

This obviously doesn’t work. If everything’s going the way it’s supposed to, you’ve evolved from the time you were five. Five-year-old me dressed up as a unicorn for Halloween. It’s safe to say I’ve changed. And so have you. And so should brands.

The point here is that we’ve realized that consumers constantly and proactively change their hopes, fears, and aspirations (something psychologists like Markus and Wurf[2] have called “working self concept”) in response to everything around them. We realized that we no longer see ourselves as astronauts soaring through the universe, as our 5-year-old selves did. We realized that’s OK.

Every day, consumers are activating new (possible)[3] self-concepts that affect the way they decide what to do and buy. I want to be my “competent-mom self,” so I buy maternity books. I want to be my “summa-cum-laude self,” so I pull all-nighters at the library. I want to be my “hell-of-a-designer self,” so I buy top-of-the-line software, and mobile apps, and books, and cloud space, and whatever else brands like Adobe are selling these days.

Lean Branding is about building chameleon brands, which are brands that adapt to consumer’s ever-changing needs and desires. There’s no use in standing still in the marketplace when consumers’ ideas of themselves are changing all over the place. Brands today are better off listening to these changes and learning from them. Lean brands have conversations, not monologues. They embrace the fact that their mission is to help consumers get closer to who they want to be. They’re comfortable with the fact that this “who they want to be” is always evolving. So they evolve, too: iterating continuously in endless cycles of building, measuring, and learning. Hence, the three sections of this book.

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Bottom line: being a chameleon brand makes more sense than being a dinosaur brand. Reminder: dinosaurs are extinct.

Lean Brands Offer Shortcuts to Self-Realization

What is the “Once upon a time” of your brand story? Ask yourself this: “How does what I’m building help consumers close the gap between who they are today and who they want to be tomorrow?” To stand out in a saturated marketplace, brands must introduce themselves to their audience as propellers. Positioning your brand as an enabler of your target customer’s desired state is a way to empathize and build long-term relationships. More on brand stories in Chapter 3.

In our world, there’s really no other choice but to be a lean brand—no other choice but to mean something and be a means to something. Lean brands inspire consumers to buy apps, order food, trust certain people, and pull books off the shelf by offering ever-evolving shortcuts to their self-realization.

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How is your brand building a bridge between who your consumers are and who they want to be?


In today’s saturated marketplace, you’ll go nowhere selling a “bunch of features.” People want to realize their aspirations, going from point A to point B in their lives, and strong brands provide shortcuts to facilitate that. Lean brands inspire consumers by offering ever-evolving shortcuts to their self-realization. Though you might not think of yourself as a brand manager right now, everything and everyone (and that includes you!) represents at least one brand.

As you navigate through this book, embrace brand development as an evidence-based process—not black magic. You need to go outside right now and start listening. The upcoming chapters will show you what to do once you’re there.

[2] Hazel Markus and Elissa Wurf (1987), “The Dynamic Self-Concept: A Social Psychological Perspective,” Annual Review of Psychology 38, 299.

[3] Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius (1986), “Possible Selves,” American Psychologist, 41, 9, 954.

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