(As appeared in Forbes.)
Much of the lean movement is based on the understanding that as organizations mature, the things that make them more competitive (more resources, better talent and more sophisticated processes) are the very things that now slow them down. Continuous improvement is the only way to sustainable, competitive advantage focused on the future.
Steve Blank, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, is credited with creating the lean movement that Eric Ries popularized in his book, The Lean Startup. Many place earlier credit for lean squarely with the Toyota company under the tutelage of Dr. W. Edwards Deming.
What does lean look like? Startups, the successful ones anyway, move fast, whiteboard to map solutions, get out in the field with customers, and develop a quicker minimum viable product (MVP) that can be iterated and improved once in the market.
In marketing, an MVP model looks like: a select target audience, a sketch of the customer’s buyer journey, a well-reasoned positioning of product/company, a potentially compelling value proposition, and testable offers or calls to action. Stand the campaign up as soon as possible and see what happens.
How big business applies lean marketing
Digital marketing and media make it possible to create, launch and glean rapid performance insight more immediately. But those things only work if the rest of the “corporate machine” divests the old ways of doing marketing.
It is no longer plausible to perfect campaigns for six months or more, ensuring “the executives love the work.” While the corporate or global brand is still rightly the purview of the C-suite and corporate communications executives, the everyday marketing and selling of stuff at a product or solution level must be lean.
Individuals accountable for marketing performance must have the right tools and the autonomy to test campaigns rapidly, so the market refines what’s “best.” It makes sense, but it’s still difficult for corporate executives to cede control over performance to the market and get their fingerprints off the work.
Small businesses must retain a lean marketing culture
Businesses begin with an idea that is tested to see who will buy, for how much, and whether the exercise can be repeated. Small businesses must retain this way of marketing, constantly testing new offerings to new segments while the company continues to market the things that make them revenue today.
As the business collects new leaders, more disciplines, more complex offerings, and investors, it accumulates more opinions. Not all opinions are relevant to the marketing process or marketing success. A marketing practice, to remain lean, must work to quickly map the buyer’s journey and test campaigns with customers to show business leaders what performs, rather than asking corporate executives what they like.
Startups who want to do more homework and better formalize their processes can find great content on lean marketing at The Lean Marketers Blog. Also, McKinsey, in 2016, developed a guide to agile marketing that is tremendously useful in thinking through the people, process and technology requirements of a lean approach.
Big and small businesses marketing collaboration
Large corporations often bring in consultants, agencies, and marketing freelancers for an outside-in perspective to move more quickly and creatively—without getting hung up in the corporate machine. Small businesses must remember the power of their agility and work to keep the skids greased.
Executives and subject matter experts are critically important. Still, they are best tapped to share what they know about market differentiators and the ways of the customer, rather than prescribing the kind of marketing they want. It is here that marketing specialists, typically small businesses, come to the aid of corporations whose core competencies may not be marketing (which is increasingly digital, data-driven and draws on a specialized skillset).
Strip marketing processes, tools and creative executions down to a minimum viable product. Organizations don’t need six to nine months to complete a microsite, an app, television and radio spots, collateral, signage and trade show swag to determine if people or businesses will buy something.
In a fraction of the time and cost, internal and external marketing professionals can test banner ads, place dynamic content on a landing page, and have inside sales or the account-management team approach key customers with an offer.
Marketing won’t always be optimal, but that’s the point of testing methodology and a lean approach. Trim the fat, take the devil’s advocates (you know you have them) out of the marketing review process, and let the market demonstrate the value of lean marketing performance.