The Lean Startup's Dilemma

Are you familiar with the concept of the lean startup? Its champions believe that early-stage startups should continuously revise their product or service offering based on rigorous testing and consumer feedback, in order to find the perfect market fit. The concept was originally only applied to tech startups, but has since been successfully adapted by other sectors. The act of responsively changing a business' approach in this way has become known as a pivot, which is itself rapidly becoming the ubiquitous buzzword d'jour right across the business landscape.

It's an attractive idea, and one that's undoubtedly been successful, but as a brand man I can't help but see a conflict between the lean startup ideal and the principles of effective brand management. In order to encourage customer conversions, repeat business, and positive word of mouth promotion, a business needs to build strong and consistent consumer experiences at every touchpoint. How can that need for consistency be reconciled with the benefits of the pivot?

What if, in redefining your product, you discover that it fits better with an entirely different demographic than you originally intended? Where does that leave the brand equity you've been building during that time? Essentially you're back to square one. How are you supposed to build loyalty, recognition, and meaningful consumer engagement if what your business actually does keeps pivoting further and further away from the identity that you've been working hard to project?

My guess is that the proponents of the lean startup method would say that there'll be plenty of time to realign your brand identity later, after you've found the right market fit. Perhaps there's some merit to that, but what if by that time you've irreparably confused and alienated your consumers? What if you've spent so much time pivoting that your funding is about to run out, and there's no budget for a rebranding or repositioning initiative? 

I'm sure there are no right answers here. Every startup will need to address these issues based on it's own unique set of circumstances. But in the rush to scientifically develop the perfect product or business model, I really hope lean startups don't forget that their brand identity (and how consumers engage with it) is the emotional heart of their business.



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