Applying the Lean Startup philosophy

Often as critically as in the public sector, the world’s biggest and most effective consumer brands still can’t get process right – and waste hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours in pursuit of elusive audiences.

While my work has included a breadth of public affairs clients and programs, when I consider the lean startup philosophy, the critical role of the minimum viable product and the notion of applying the persevere-pivot-perish decision tree, I am most reminded of my work in the private sector. Within the advertising and marketing arena, the flawed approach to creativity continues to waste time and money for high-value businesses that can and should behave more nimbly. In one particular case, a certain single-cup coffee brewer and brand (K Company, name changed to protect the brand), my marketing and communications teams on multiple occasions developed failed digital products for which there was no proven value hypothesis – and no clear growth opportunity.

At the outset, our work with K Company arrived at a fascinating moment for the beverage industry. K Company represented a family of beverage brands and connected beverage offerings, licenses and co-production contracts for which there were literally hundreds of combinations of coffee, tea and refreshment choices, and also held the core asset of an in-demand consumer and B2B “hardware” product with a significant foothold in American households and workplaces. In many respects, the demand was self-sustaining, but the brand lacked an emotional connection to its core audience, an on-the-go beverage drinker. We struggled to build passion and strengthen a funnel when it mattered most, specifically connecting social marketing to sales.

Creative development is frequently a hybrid of waterfall and “Just Do It!:” our general agency process would often follow the same route – audience analysis through social listening and known resources like Mintel to validate observations and assumptions, followed by a handover of that strategic validation for brainstorm and ideation sessions where the most out-there and whimsical creative ideas delivered by the most visible creative leaders would rise to the top, and then an arduous sales process to “sell in” the idea and unlock budget within the client organization. In answering K Company’s emotional connection and social sales challenge, after consulting social listening tools and articulating what we believed and had convinced our client was a clear value hypothesis, we ultimately developed a number of original digital ideas that would drive interest and engagement among K Company power users and ideally build a bridge to new audiences.

Once sold in, my digital creatives and producers honed these ideas into solutions that were often expensive and hard-to-reproduce, customized widgets and tools, and leveraged these same power users and K Company fans to validate value hypotheses. We saw mixed results, but once user testing initiated we were so far advanced in the efforts to prove the viability of these projects that we feared difficult conversations with stakeholders within our agency, and uncomfortable scope edits with our clients for whom investments of this scale required months of approval from procurement and supply chain leaders.

One of our greatest failures in this vein was a music site designed to help music lovers match their tastes to their favorite beverage – an expensive and complex algorithm and tool, a multiparty marketing and media agreement, all bolstered by a site that ultimately did nothing to contribute to sales or even build community. We built it, they did not come.

The lean startup method would have enabled sequential and concurrent testing of various hypotheses with the brand and its digital marketing presence, affirming whether these users were our users, whether users outside the K Company obsessives and early adopters would engage or care, and ultimately whether a digital product was the most effective tool to formulate a new funnel from the brand’s various social media presences to their ecommerce platform. We would have seen our failure far earlier, and particularly in the case of the music app and tool we would have understood the root cause of this mismatch and the customers we thought we understood. Instead of going “big” at the outset we might have iterated many approaches to social marketing platforms and created a series of MVPs to build a sustainable solution with validated value and growth hypotheses. Rather than spending several hundred thousand dollars in the pursuit of an unproven creative idea and in the development of a one-off cultural platform, we might have created a product with true utility for our busy users.

In short, a validated learning process would have proven that these insights and investments in programs would not solely provide one-off public relations benefit and useless tool but a true longstanding, additive consumer benefit.

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