Jeremiah Gardner author of the Lean Brand Book on Lean Brand Development and Design for startups



RM: How is lean brand development different from the usual?

JG: Great question. Traditionally, branding has been built around one-way broadcasts using big brand artifacts like logos, color schemes, experiences, decks, personalities, etc. But this type of “waterfall” approach isn’t working in a new world of savvy, hyper-connected, and global customers.

The end of the Industrial Age has shifted power to the consumer. Digital fabrication means the consumer now chooses the color, style, features, delivery time, and so on. While most products are not created this way, virtually all products have shifted toward that end point. It’s the epitome of a lean approach: just in time, on demand manufacturing.

It makes sense, then, the relationships formed between an audience and an organization (brand) must also shift in this direction. Great products produce satisfied customers, but for scalability and sustainability, organizations must produce passionate customers. This is done by forming a relationship around shared value with your audience.

It can’t be artificial or based on a linear one-way broadcast any longer. Instead, you have to work to discover a shared aspiration, invite customers to be part of the story and to join your quest to make change. This is what Lean Brand development is all about.

Lean branding is based on iterative cycles of development to help you discover the value that’s being created and for whom that value is being created.

RM: Design plays a critical part in establishing brand recall, do you agree?

JG: I agree…to an extent. When we talk about design, what we’re really talking about is the development of brand artifacts – surface expressions of the relationship forming between an organization and their audience. A pink moustache, for example, is an artifact of Lyft. Or the golden arches are a visual artifact of McDonald’s. In other words, design works to point a customer back to the larger organization on the whole and reflect the relationship that organization has with their audience.

Any cue (touch, experience, see, etc) is an artifact. The goal is to find artifacts that tell your story and engage people with who you are in a familiar and meaningful way. That means every time your artifacts show up, they are consistent in their appearance, use, size, scope, aesthetic, feel, etc. Consistency allows your audience to build a memory structure around who you are and what value you have to offer.

But it isn’t just about the design. Design can help immensely in communicating with your audience, but the work is in learning which artifacts create the most value for your audience. Design plays a role, but isn’t the end goal. A well designed website that doesn’t create any value is just a well designed website…not a valuable artifact for an organization.

RM: The top 5 tips you’d offer startups trying to build their brand!


  1. Start building relationships with your customers now. Don’t wait until your product is ready. Don’t wait until you have your “identity system” together. Don’t wait until you have a logo. Start building relationships now in any way you can think of. Generally, products are about satisfaction, branding is about passion. Don’t wait too long to dive in.

  2. Learn, learn, learn. Everything you do in your brand-formation should be about learning. Ask yourself, 1) What do we need to learn? 2) How will we measure success or failure? And 3) What do we need to build at a minimum level to generate learning? This should be your developmental lens throughout your brand-formation.

  3. Fail often, fail fast. In the old way, branding was way too much about polish. Today, branding isn’t about polish, it’s about discovering shared value. Failure is a natural part of that journey. Don’t be afraid of failure. Embrace it and learn from it. You won’t hit a home run with every experiment, and you shouldn’t be afraid of striking out once in a while.

  4. Start small → validate → scale. To build a sustainable brand, start small and run experiments to either validate or invalidate the elements you’re building. If they work, preserve and prep for scale. If they don’t, keep iterating and testing until you know the value the element is creating.

  5. Focus, focus, focus. Your greatest advantage as a startup is your ability to focus. Focus your brand-formation efforts around a small, powerful shared aspiration and work hard to articulate that in the market. The more you attempt to become “all things to all people,” the less potent and powerful your branding efforts become.

RM: What exactly is a ‘minimum viable brand’, as your book suggests?

JG: The Minimum Viable Brand distills your brand value offering down to the essential parts needed to test with an audience – story, artifacts, and invitation. To successfully use an MVB, you have to find the minimum expressions of each of these components to get through a full turn of the Build-Measure-Learn loop as quickly as possible to test them in the market.

If an element in your MVB works, keep it and prepare it for scale. If it falls flat, iterate and test again. Validation is demonstrated by business growth. The MVB is the vehicle to discover a foundation for growth and every iteration to your MVB merits another round of experimentation.

In the long run, your MVB is the strategic foundation of your brand. It provides the groundwork from which you approach your relationship with your audience. Initially, an MVB will articulate the relationship you hope to develop with your audience and provide your customers with an initial interaction point. As you grow, an MVB becomes the scaffolding that supports the fully fleshed out version of your brand.

RM: Does the ‘design’ (UI/ UX) of a product affect the brand?

JG: Everything is connected to everything else. Despite what branding experts may say, there is no real way to extract the brand from the product or the product from the brand. In your customer’s eyes, they are experienced together, not separate. As such, it’s important to co-evolve both the product and the brand. Remember, products create satisfaction through their functionality while brand creates passion through the relationship. UI / UX is absolutely part of both.

However, often startups get too narrowly focused on a UI or UX feature. It is very easy to over-feature or over-design a product in lieu of discovering the value that product is creating. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. The goal is not to get stuck in endless design iterations without understanding how the product and brand impact the overall value of your offering.

RM: Building on the lean methodology, do you advise businesses to use design and rapid prototyping methodologies / principles to quickly build an MVP, launch, take feedback and iterate?

JG: Absolutely. But lean thinking isn’t only for products, it’s also about brand development. Not to beat a dead horse, but lean thinking can impact the entire business. No matter what business you’re trying to build, discovering the value you are creating is crucial for success.

RM: Do you think large businesses (enterprise) can leverage the power of lean brand development while launching new products without spending millions on marketing?

JG: There is no doubt lean thinking is impacting the enterprise world. But centralized branding teams are struggling to keep pace as product teams embrace new ways of working optimized for speed, experimentation, and iteration. The “command and control” paradigm of both in-house branding teams and outsourced branding agencies is coming undone in this new innovation ecosystem. Existing channels, modes of thought, best practices, and existing processes are unable to handle innovation at this speed.

Using Lean Brand principles and tools, the goal for any enterprise is to run parallel innovation between product innovation and brand innovation. This type of parallel innovation effort has a significant impact on the speed and delivery of value to the customer. Instead of the long cycle times from product innovation, to marketing, to shelf taking often years, applying Lean Brand techniques can significantly reduce the amount of time it takes a larger corporation to deliver value to its customers.

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Jeremiah Gardner Lean Brand Development

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One Comment

  1. i love the way in which you describe how ‘everything is connected’! All of us slave after that one killer feature that can create success but, as you say, there isn’t such a thing because its all interlinked – you can’t do one without the other.

    Perhaps, if anything LEAN is that single attribute of every endeavour that can spell success?


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