Why Your MVP Needs a Brand Strategy
As a designer who has worked on startup projects at Viget for over a decade, one of the biggest opportunities I see getting overlooked (especially by those in the early stages) is brand strategy.
Viget has a long history of working with startups at every stage of their growth. Over the years we’ve helped a wide variety of organizations innovate through development, design, or both. Along the way we’ve learned a lot about where we can add the most value.
As a designer who has worked on these projects at Viget for over a decade, one of the biggest opportunities I see getting overlooked (especially by those in the early stages) is brand strategy.
Ok... so what’s brand strategy?
Right now, you might be thinking about logos and taglines. But when I say brand strategy, what I’m thinking about is much fundamental than that. Things like a logo, typeface, color palette, and tagline are all executions of a well-defined brand strategy. Before you design these brand elements, you need a strong foundation on which to build them. A good brand strategy communicates, in a clear and compelling way, WHO you are as an organization, WHAT you do, and WHY that matter to your users. It’s the core foundation upon which everything else is built.
Examples of successful brand strategies:
Simple Banking - “Banking should be simple.”
Simple targeted millennials who value convenience, budget, and beauty. They simplified banking down to the most essential needs and focused on doing those really well. To deliver on their strategy, they built a streamlined and elegant mobile app and backed that up with stellar customer service.
Airbnb - “Belong anywhere”
One of Airbnb’s key goals is to make people feel like they can “belong” anywhere in the world. The difference between Airbnb and its competitors is the community they’ve created, full of hosts who go out of their way to share their favorite restaurants and guide you toward local must-dos. The resulting experience? You’re not renting a house, you’re renting a home.
Why is brand strategy important for an MVP?
When you’re thinking about developing a product MVP, brand strategy probably isn’t on your must-have list. Time, money, and attention are all in short supply. It’s easy to believe your game-changing product will be so loved and adored by users it’ll practically sell itself. Or to assume that adding a killer feature is more important than establishing a voice and tone for your sign-up page.
Branding might feel like a can you can kick down the road and address when your product has some market traction. And to some extent, that’s true. We wouldn’t recommend that an early-stage startup spend all their capital on a detailed 100-page brand guide, or hold the product launch up for 3 months while they settle on the perfect logo -- any more than we’d suggest building a full-featured product before testing an MVP.
The thing is, having a solid brand strategy is perhaps never more important than when you’re trying to win over investors and new users. Because whether you’re thoughtful about it or not, the headlines you write for your beta sign-up become a part of your brand. The typeface you choose for the dashboard becomes a part of your brand. The microcopy on every button becomes a part of your brand. And, most importantly, the features you lead with (and those you leave out) become a part of your brand. Every decision you make, intentional or not, is going to shape the way people perceive your product. If you don’t establish a brand strategy early and make decisions based on meeting it, you’ll create a brand for your product accidentally -- and it’s likely it’ll be inconsistent, unclear, and utterly forgettable.
How does it work?
The easiest way to illustrate how brand strategy can work for an MVP product is to walk through an example, so I'll share a project I worked on recently.
Pam Krulitz came to us with a vision for improving leadership development through a digital platform that connected clients with the coaches and materials they need to realize their potential.
A copywriter and I worked with Pam and her stakeholder team to define a brand strategy for the product. We started with a few exercises, including a workshop to identify brand attributes and another to identify problems and goals. This helped us define what success (and failure) would look like for this product.
We used the information gathered in those discussions to develop three unique strategy concepts. Each leaned into an angle we knew would differentiate Pam’s product in the marketplace while communicating her core values. Pam and her team weighed the pros and cons for each, and through those discussions we whittled down and refined a single direction: Demystifying leadership development.
The strategy communicated Pam’s vision to make personalized coaching and practical training resources accessible to those outside the C-Suite. It inspired the product name, Optify, and the accompanying visual identity. It shapes the messaging used in the marketing site, the headlines used in social media, and the microcopy used within the app. It determines how our dev and UX teams are thinking about each of the features going into the MVP. Last but not least, it gives the Optify team something to refer back to when developing new presentations and refining their 10-second elevator pitch. It's the foundational idea behind every touchpoint.
The initial launch was a big success, and we’re busy adding new features to the Optify MVP and extending the Optify brand. At every point, we’re checking back to make sure our decisions align with the strategy. The brand strategy acts as a guidepost to keep design, development, and marketing on a shared path forward.
Should you consider it?
Having a brand strategy in place helps teams align around the same goals. It also helps to differentiate your product from competitors and win loyal users. If you’re an early stage startup looking to launch a new product, I definitely think it’s worth your time to lay a strong foundation that isn’t built on technology alone.
- Does My Project Need A Strategy? (Ally Fouts, Viget) What does your project really need? A brand strategy, a content strategy, or just a clear-cut visual redesign?
- Do the Brand First (Paul Ford, Postlight) Don't build your product until you know who you are.
- Brand as Strategy, a Guide for Startups (23 Design) How your brand can be your startup’s most powerful decision-making tool.