Growth hacking is one of the newest ‘buzzwords’ in marketing. However, Sean Ellis actually introduced it in 2010 when trying to come up with a new job description for the next generation of marketeers with a strong focus on growth. The term made its presence known in the start-up world quite a few years ago. Today, more and more big organisations want to work with growth hackers, who use an innovation process of continuous experimenting, measuring and optimising.

As a marketer whose true north has been growth, I am definitely a big fan of growth hacking. The moment you join a growth hacking boot camp, you immediately sense the exhilaration of the new kids on the block, keen to reinvent old school marketing, advertising and sales. But does this process of trial and error match long-term branding? Or is growth hacking a threat for brand building? And is branding an inhibiting factor for hacking growth? No, it doesn’t have to be. Growth hacking and branding can go hand in hand. And when they do, real magic happens.

Looking for tips on how to prepare your brand for the future?

Download expert guide

‘Growth Tribe’ teaches that branding is part of the immune system

The essence of growth hacking is rapid experimentation, prototyping and A/B testing across channels, targets and product development to create an ongoing optimisation of the customer journey, lead generation and eventually business results. Working with growth hacking in the last years, I have been convinced about the enormous power of the growth hacking mindset, skills and tools.

Branding appears to be something most growth hackers are not particularly fond of or skilled in. The growth hacking academy Growth Tribe teaches that branding is a part of the immune system of an organisation; like legal, procurement, compliance and governance. What they mean is that they consider branding as a limitation for growth instead of a growth driver, as it should be. Apparently, Growth Tribe sees branding mainly as a department or function that defends the organisation against inappropriate use of the brand logo and design, instead of an inspiring platform that brings cohesion to an organisation and that drives all areas of business performance.

“Growth hackers tend to see branding as a limitation for growth instead of a driver.”

A missed opportunity

The brand should never be seen as a constraint for growth. On the contrary, when done well, the brand will inspire growth and will be of great help and inspiration for everyone in the organisation, including growth hackers. A strong brand can give strategic direction. It can function as the ‘North Star’ that steers everything and everybody in an organisation. It stimulates imagination and can inspire the development of countless innovative ideas and experiments. But at the same time, the brand also ensures that all these experiments will fit within the broad strategic direction the company wants to sail.

Branding helps you to connect with people in every stage of the buyer’s journey

Branding is about value creation. It is about knowing who you are and where you want to go as a company. It is about communicating what your motives are, your purpose, your values, your promises and your uniqueness. Branding helps companies to connect with people. By making it clear what the company stands for, people can decide if this appeals to them. They can also decide if they would like to connect themselves with the brand, by buying the company’s products or services or maybe even by becoming a brand ambassador. When done well, branding helps the company connect with people in every stage of the funnel with every (potential) target. 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 and Zeeman have grown bigger.

Bart Karis, former Dutch Chairman of IKEA and Zeeman: “The brand identity connects all daily growth activities with the ultimate long-term goal. It forms an umbrella which everything the company does should fit underneath.”

In a recent chat about this topic with Bart Karis, the former Dutch Chairman of both companies, he puts it like this – “An organisation 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 democratise 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 which everything the company does should fit underneath. It builds inner pride and puts things in motion in the right direction.”

The risks of growth hacking without good branding

The growth hacking process starts with brainstorming many ideas inspired by user interviews, usability tests, analytics, and UX testing. In this brainstorming phase, it is crucial for growth hackers to have a clear and in-depth understanding of the purpose of the company and the idea behind the brand. If this understanding is absent, growth hacking experiments come no further than conversion tactics, incremental changes, and cheap sales triggers. Also, not taking the purpose or reputation to heart in growth hacking can carry a huge business risk. A single growth hack that turns out wrong can ruin trust or reputation that took years to build. Harry Dekker from Unilever recently stated: “Just as in politics and institutions, trust in brands has fallen dramatically in recent years – and trust is hard to gain but easy to lose.” Tom Kollee, Lead Growth Hacker from the Talent Institute, argues that growth hackers should sometimes consider using mechanisms, such as white label testing, to enable them to experiment without harming the brand in case the experiment fails.

“A single growth hack that turns out wrong can ruin trust or reputation that took years to build.”

Growth hacking can and should be more than short-term conversion optimisation. It has far more potential than just being used as a tactical instrument. By increasing the branding affinity, and competency of growth hackers, we assure that growth hacking will also contribute to and fit in the long-term company strategy. This strategy will become of even more importance now that growth hacking is applied more often in existing brand-driven companies.

How to make growth hacking and brand building go hand in hand

The moment a business starts, a brand is born. Over the years, when the company develops, the brand equity also develops. In the first years, this often happens unconsciously as the brand lives primarily in the hearts and minds of its founders and first employees. At a certain moment – as the organisation expands – it becomes necessary that the brand is organised and managed in a structured way and that there are initiatives set up to get the brand message ‘living’ within all employees, including growth hackers. Our Brand Performance Study and research, resulting in the brand orientation index by Johan Gromark, shows organisations perform significantly better when they have a real brand orientation and a well-organised brand – therefore a coherent brand experience across all brand touchpoints.

In organisations with a strong brand orientation, the brand is a driver for marketing, sales, and all organisational behaviour. The brand is not a set of mandatory guidelines from corporate identity police that slow down or prevent fast growth experiments. When growth hackers start to use the brand as an inspiring, guiding principle for brainstorming great experiments, then I am convinced even more magic will happen soon.

Read more in our expert guide:

8 tips to future-proof your brand

How do you ensure that your brand continues to perform well in a rapidly changing world?

Download our expert guide