Pivot Your Business Plan But Not Your Brand Core

Pivoting can be a start-up’s smartest move or the last nail in its coffin.  For every Twitter (which started as a podcast subscription network before its founders realized that iTunes would quickly overtake them, so they turned their attention to microblogging), there’s a Color (a photo-sharing cellphone application whose founders tried unsuccessfully to pivot into a Facebook service).  What’s the secret to a successful pivot?pivot

Success is more likely if you are clear about what kind of pivot you need to make.  Eric Ries describes 10 types of pivots in his book The Lean StartUp, including a platform pivot and a customer segment pivot (excerpt here).  Another key factor is good timing – relative to the company’s development (you need to pivot before customer and investor confidence is lost) as well as the competitive context (before similar companies have locked in customers or suppliers.)

Staying true to the core of your brand platform can also drive a successful pivot.  Like a political platform that outlines what a candidate, group, or party stands for and tries to accomplish, your brand platform indicates the values, attributes, and positioning  of your brand.  Recently I wrote a blogpost for the Harvard Business Review that outlined a framework that start-ups can use to draft their brand platform.  The framework, the Minimum Viable Brand, included “6 What’s”:

  1. what you stand for – your brand essence
  2. what you believe in – your defining values
  3. what people you seek to engage – your target audience(s)
  4. what you offer – your overarching experience
  5. what distinguishes you – your key differentiators
  6. what you say and show – your logo, look, and lines

These six elements cover the basic tenets that should be clearly articulated and commonly understood within an organization and baked in to the product and customer experience prior to finalizing and launching a new brand.  The core of the MVB – #1 what you stand for and #2 what you believe in – is what should remain consistent when executing a pivot.  Moreover, these elements should guide the decisions about if and how to pivot.

What you stand for – your brand essence — serves as your North Star, helping you to navigate decisions about what to do and what not to do.  Sometimes this is your mission statement.  Some people recommend articulating this in the form of a purpose or an ideal.  It matters less what you call it and how you phase it, and more that you ensure it embodies the ultimate value you seek to create.  Zappos stands for delivering “wow” through service.  Chipotle’s brand essence is well-captured in its tagline “Food with Integrity.”

What you believe in – your values – is equally foundational.  Just like family values, brand values explain “the way we do things around here.”  The Virgin group of companies led by Richard Branson includes “Competitive challenge. Respond to our customer’s needs.” as one of its brand values.  Google believes “Fast is better than slow.”  Values explain the distinctive way you do business, a primary source of differentiation in this era of product commoditization.

Commitment to these two elements grounds and guides a successful pivot.  My colleague Ashley Konson, founder and managing partner of consultancy Global Brand Leaders, describes them as a “beacon” that you rely on to direct you as you move forward.*  Like a beacon, your core essence and values help you steer clear of distractions from your competencies and your passions.  They keep you focused on value creation.  They light the destination you should keep moving toward.

But they allow you to change the way you get there.  They don’t tie to you a specific positioning, product attributes, or functional benefits.  They allow you to test hypotheses about the product, business model, and engine of growth and incorporate that learning into future iterations.  In other words, they allow you to pivot while still moving in the right direction.

PayPal has always stood for a “convenient, secure, cost-effective payment solution,” but the company has gone through many business strategies and scopes.  From its humble beginnings as a money transfer service between Palm Pilots, it became the payment method of choice by eBay users and then the e-commerce engine for many online businesses.  From the very beginning, Pinterest founders have been interested in helping people build and share their personal collections.  The company first started with users collecting items from retailers but has pivoted into a service for collecting any content from anywhere.

Navigating your options may be the trickiest part of executing a pivot.  Use your brand core as your compass and you’re likely to make the right decisions.

*This post was inspired and shaped by a conversation I had with Ashley – thanks, Ashley, for advancing my thinking.

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