Growth Hacking and Brand Building seem to be viewed as largely antithetical. Here’s why.
To look at the differences and similarities, let’s first get clear exactly what we’re talking about when we say “Growth Hacking” and “Brand Building”.
The definition of Growth Hacking
By Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown who coined the phrase:
“A rigorous approach to fueling rapid market growth through high-speed, cross-functional experimentation.”
According to Ellis and Brown, the core elements of growth hacking are:
- A cross-functional team combining marketing and technical product development skills.
- Using qualitative and quantitative data to gain insights on user behavior and preferences.
- High-tempo testing and the use of rigorous metrics to evaluate and act on the results.
Growth hacking is not just a process for marketers. It can be applied to product development and to the continuous improvement of products as well as to growing an existing customer base. The goal is to rapidly test ideas that can improve the customer journey, and replicate and scale the ideas that work, and modify or abandon the ones that don’t before investing a lot of resources.
The definition of Brand Building
First, what is Brand Identity? Here’s Wally Olins:
“The fundamental idea behind the brand is that in everything the organization does, everything it owns, and everything it produces it should project a clear idea of what it is and what its aims are.”
In other words, at the core of a brand lies an idea; a mission, a belief, or a Purpose.
The multi-award-winning Wally Olins was one of the world’s most respected and experienced practitioners of corporate identity and branding.
In his seminal “The Brand Handbook”, he explains there are four vectors through which a brand — as defined by its core idea — manifests itself. These four vectors are Product, Environment, Communication, and Behavior.
What makes a brand stand out? Wally Olins 4 vectors — Erwin Lima
The fifth element or vector — permeating all four other elements — would be the physical appearance of the brand through its logo, colors, design et cetera.
So if that’s Brand Identity, then what is Brand Building?
Building a brand is the practice of strategically translating and reinforcing the core idea of the brand through the various vectors and visual representations of that brand. With the objective of creating desired associations and brand preference in the minds of people in your target audience — leading to greater market share and revenue.
When a brand has been built up to a certain level of maturity, brand building gradually shifts into managing a brand. This would be the governance and strategically guided evolution of the core idea and its manifestations across the four vectors and its physical appearance.
How Brand Building and Growth Marketing are at odds with each other
Now, you could see in reading these above definitions how the two approaches to growth could get in the way of each other.
What the contrast seems to be on the surface, is this: Growth Hacking equals rapid and often bold changes, rapid growth and rapid results; Branding is focused on intangible ideas and the long term — and often in practice seems to equal stale, old, strict guidelines and barely measurable growth effects.
In fact, fast ROI-driven (acquisition or activation) campaigns that are successful in the short term can even be downright detrimental to sustainable growth, brand value and long-term financial results.
On the other hand, brand identity and guidelines seem to be viewed as stifling from the point of view of growth hackers such as growth tribe. As you can see in the diagram below, Branding is listed under the “Immune system” of the organization, helping it “resist” the experimenting that is Growth Hacking’s life’s blood.
What most people get wrong about Branding and Growth Hacking
The thing is: Brand building and short-term growth activities like acquisition and activation — which is fairly often an important part of what Growth Hackers focus on— help you achieve the same thing, only on different timescales:
Building a brand
Is about much more than how the thing looks, or the stale, old guidelines about how it must always look at all costs. It’s about the core idea or mission, or even the purpose of a company.
And it’s about the validation and refinement of that core idea from step number one: actually creating the brand story and all of the expressions of the brand identity.
All the way down to constantly refining and market-validating how the product or service works, looks, feels, and how the product is promoted through how the content looks and sounds — by way of using the brand as a guideline and conversely adapting and evolving the brand strategically.
And if you do this well, building a brand can get you immense value — in terms of employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and financial growth — in the long run.
Is not just quick grey-hat and black-hat techniques to get faster growth in terms of marketing metrics such as views and more so leads and actual sales. And it’s not simply about activation and direct sales push either.
It’s about attaching a measurable value to the core idea or mission of a company aka a North Star Metric. And it’s about attaching objectives and measurable key results (that you think are important) to that north star — based on a combination of creative ideation, data and customer insights.
These objectives could have to do with awareness, acquisition, activation, retention, referral, or revenue (as per the Pirate Funnel).
And then using data and experimentation to validate, and adapt those ideas according to what is proving to actually be important.
[At least, this is the way that we at Bammboo Growth Hacking believe it should be done.]
If you do this right, your company will be able to adapt to changing demands much faster, and innovate at a much more fundamental level — all the way down to your business model or even the kinds of services or products you offer.
And maybe even down to your core: your identity as a company.
But more on that, later.
Why Brand Building and Growth Hacking are actually two sides to a coin
Now. The reveal. If you’ve read closely, you’ll have noticed that both Growth Hacking and Brand Building are about continuously seeking for and finding ways to create value for intended customers.
“Rather than treating your marketing like a sprint, you need to treat it like an ultramarathon.”
— Samuel Timothy, at Forbes.com.
Brand building = mission-market fit
The Brand (mission/purpose/why; what; how does it work/look/feel/sound) is about the feeling you want people to attach to a product or service. The emotional response that makes them buy it, be happy using it, buy it again and buy the next thing you offer them.
It’s the mission you have, the idea and belief that’s attached to that and the feeling associated with these.
And this is the thing: You don’t actually want to get your customers the results they’re looking for. You want to get them the feeling that those results will give them.
Why are feelings so important?
Because humans are not rational decision-making machines. We’re rational/emotional-hybrid decision-making machines. Where emotion trumps reason in the defining moment of the decision to buy or not to buy.
Brand identity or brand management is your idea-, feeling-, or mission-market fit. Does the core idea you’re promoting resonate with your intended customers? Do you deliver your intended audience the feeling (and connected results) they’re looking for?
And this is something that you ideate on, and then market-test and keep adapting to achieve market-fit; to then keep evolving, measuring and re-achieving market-fit on.
Brand management is the continuous process of strategically evolving your brand.
But what about Product-led Growth? Does the importance of brand and the management of it also apply when you’re in SaaS?
Why yes, yes it does — and here’s why. The short and sweet: people use your product and keep using it because you’ve thought about how you want them to feel, and how to consistently deliver on that through all interactions. Not thinking about brand in SaaS equals churn.
Growth hacking = product-market-fit
Growth Hacking is about validating a new idea, often in the tangible form of a new product or service— but this could just as well be a new idea for how to talk about your brand, how your visual brand should look, or a new storyline for brand storytelling content — and continuous evolution, measuring, etc.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Both brand building and growth marketing have to do with initial and continuously refined and validated product-market fit. Which ends in creating value. In continuous cycles.
Which. Is. What. Marketing. Is.
Really? Well here’s a Definition of marketing by the AMA:
“Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”
So. Brand building and Growth Hacking are actually two different ways of attacking or viewing the same thing: Marketing. Aka: continuous value creation.
Only one focuses on soul, heart, creativity and relatively long-term gains, and the other focuses on direct clear added value, direct clear relevance, and relatively short-term insights and results.
Now, remember our chess metaphor from the beginning of this story?
You can’t win chess games consistently if you focus on only the next five moves. And you can’t win chess games if you’re always only focused on the end game.
You need to do both. To win, consistently. And to play elegantly and make diehard fans along the way.
Well damn. That sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? Especially when applied to Growth Hacking combined with Brand Building. But…how do you do that?
How to create synergy between your growth hacking and brand-building efforts
First: Use your brand identity as a compass — it will show you your north star. And your North Star Metric. Oh, and if it doesn’t, that means you have to workshop your brand identity. Which starts with a story. Need help with that? Click here.
Practically speaking, this means that before you start to map out your first Growth Sprint, you check the following five things:
- What is the Brand’s stated purpose or mission? Is it up-to-date?
- How mature is the organization’s Brand Identity?
- How flexible and adaptable is the organization’s approach to Strategic Brand Evolution?
- What Brand guidelines can we bend, and which do we absolutely need to respect and follow?
- Is there a logical case to be made that the new idea(s) we want to test can be aligned with the existing Brand Identity and Brand Story?
After you have a fairly clear intake on the above questions, start designing your Growth Strategy and your first Growth experiments.
Ideate on whatever you want to growth hack with not only the compass but also the current expressions of the brand identity in mind. Don’t mess up the future and value of a brand by reckless experimentation — sometimes it can be valuable to run an experiment with a new product or value proposition on a white label (especially if the answer to question number 5 above, is ‘no’).
Run your growth experiments, validate what you can, and come up with the right solution for growth.
Finally, create the ultimate synergy in your last step:
Before going all-in on the Growth Hack that you have identified as the most promising, decide if the campaign ultimately needs to be brand-washed to remain consistent with the brand, if you need to create a new or sub-brand, or if the core brand needs to evolve to remain consistent with the new direction for your (client’s) company.
Don’t forget to attach a long-term brand strategy to your shorter-term Growth Hacking campaign, activation-oriented or otherwise. Based on their research, Binet & Fields advise a golden ratio of 60/40 investment in brand messaging versus activation to get synergy and sustainable growth.
The idea is that as short-term activation spikes growth in sales in the short term, and brand building creates long-term growth — maximum results are found in some combination of both.
This is because short-term activation-oriented campaigns help brand awareness on the one hand. Brand campaigns on the other hand, make brands more emotionally appealing, keep brands salient and make activation-oriented campaigns more efficient because leads become easier and therefore less costly to close.
According to Binet and Fields, in most industries and markets the perfect ratio to create this loop of mutual reinforcement will be somewhere around 60/40, however in more recent research, they dive in deeper to find the sweet spot for various industries.
Examples of companies built to greatness by Brand Building X Growth Hacking
Great, all of this, in theory. But are there actual examples of companies that have created this synergy of brand evolution and growth hacking successfully? Why, I’m very glad you asked.
Arjan Kapteijns at VIM Group puts it very nicely:
“Let us not forget that the most quoted growth hacking examples such as Netflix, Airbnb, Uber, Instagram, Facebook, and Alibaba have built immensely strong brands in a very short period of time. This is also how successful companies such as IKEA have grown bigger.”
The successes of these companies and the way their logos just pop up into memory as you read them, speak to the point. Remember how Uber was branded to feel like something that was only for cool young people in urban areas? Or how Facebook was first exclusively for Harvard students, then other Ivy League institutions, et cetera?
Here’s Arjan Kapteijns again:
“Bart Karis, the former [Dutch] Chairman of IKEA NL, […]puts it like this — ‘An organization needs an ultimate long-term goal that is aspirational, and a clear and simple business idea on how to pursue this goal.
The ultimate goal of IKEA is to contribute to a better life for as many people as possible. The business idea is to democratize design and to make well-designed products affordable and available for the majority of people.
The brand identity connects all daily growth activities with the ultimate long-term goal. It forms an umbrella [under] which everything the company does, [fits]. It builds inner pride and puts things in motion in the right direction.”
The ultimate level of Sustained Growth, Innovation, and Brand Management
If you manage to combine Growth Hacking and Brand Building in this way, this is what you might expect:
Whatever initiative, new offering, feature, value proposition, business model, visual style, tone-of-voice or whatever that you now know is relevant and valuable to your customer, will not only massively contribute to your growth in the short term.
It will also add to your growth in the long term because it adds to the value of your brand — and adding value in the long term is what investing in your brand does.
And that’s ultimately what you want from your Growth Hacking activities as well, isn’t it?
If you do this: your brand will evolve in a fresh, healthy, and data-driven way. Or, better said: purpose-driven and data-assisted way.
This is the definition of true innovation and simultaneously the definition of strategic brand management: knowing when and to what extent to defer to the original purpose, identity, or soul of the company — and knowing when to adapt and change even the core of who you are to accommodate what you might become.
Are You Looking for Ways to Improve and Strengthen Your Brand?
My name is Erwin Lima, I am a Brand Growth Storytelling Consultant at Neo Alpha [www.lifebeyond.one] and co-founder and Head of Storytelling at StoryLab.ai. Over the course of the last 10 years, I have helped hundreds of people, teams, and brands grow their reach, engagement, and revenue through the power of their own story.
Are you looking for more help in improving and strengthening your brand?
Would you like to learn more about Growth Hacking?
Book a call with me, here and learn about the Master of Growth course from the MoG collaboration between BAMMBOO Growth Hacking Agency and Business Models, Inc.
Fantastic article describing the differences and similarities between Growth Hacking and Growth Marketing:
Tom Roach at WARC about the problems with a focus on short-term ROI in marketing:
Erwin Lima: What inspires Erwin is helping people, teams and brands to become the best version of themselves. Guiding them with curiosity, empathy, and Growth Storytelling.
Over the past 10+ years as a copywriter, author, consultant, and coach, he’s helped dozens of Brands, Teams, and individual human beings to grow their sense of motivation and focus, but also their reach, engagement, and revenue— through the power of their own story. You can find Erwin on LinkedIn and on his website.