Joshua Long
March 11, 2020

Should I start with product or brand?

A perspective on how to sequence your creative efforts.

Companies that are launching a product for the first time are under pressure to prove a broader story of success for the business. By definition an MVP is a test of value props. The launch should give the company a better understanding of who their customers are and what they value most.

We start with this explanation because often we’re asked about where we think teams should spend their creative resources (time and money). Brand and product are discussed as two different areas, typically outsourced to two different types of experts (most commonly branding agencies, dev shops, or individual freelancers).

When talking to a founding team, we think about the company’s stage and expertise. What motions have already been done to establish a strategy for the business? What is working? Where are the gaps? We look to understand the skills and perspective of the team so we can give them better advice and ultimately partner with them on the right plan for their business and opportunity.

There’s two different strategies we’re typically thinking about (a third is corporate strategy but that’s for a later conversation.)

Product Strategy

Let's start by talking about what motions need to happen to launch an effective MVP.

Typically, you're defining the value of the product for a specific set of users with the explicit intent on testing the viability of your product as a business. You need to understand your audience better, how big the market is, and how the value of the product resonates with users. The exercise will inform the value props, feature set, and UX of the product.

Often people working in product strategy will visualize it like this:

Brand Strategy

Brand strategy has a similar motion and overarching goal to product strategy. You’re looking to understand your audience better—more specifically, what do they value and how does it resonate with them. The brand strategy helps you connect emotionally with your audience. It abstracts features and functions to help clarify a product's value in a tangible way.

A creative team takes this strategy and uses it to inform all the big and small details about a brand system, from font decisions to user experience and everything in between. It’s the outer layer that touches the user and is a critical aspect of creating a system that resonates conceptually. The sum of the parts and the representation of them across a series of touchpoints is what makes a brand.

Building this system starts with product value.

Strategists working on the brand side often have visual frameworks to demonstrate the pillars of brand building.

Both product and brand strategy are often simplified into frameworks to codify who users are and what they value. These frameworks guide both product development and brand identity. They also provide stakeholders within and outside of the company with a shared understanding for how to articulate the company’s focus and priorities to a broader team. This focus enables aligned mobilization across multiple channels and activities.

How do these two paths differ?

Product strategy is informing if the business is viable. Do we have an audience? Does this product serve their needs? Is the market big enough?

It focuses on taking an idea and pressure testing it through a user research/testing process that helps clarify your audience, their unmet needs, and what they value most. We focus on looking for patterns and trends as well as testing conceptual solutions to sharpen and validate the value props, feature set, and experience.

Brand strategy is amplifying the values props, features, and attributes into a system that resonates with a known audience.

Brand work takes the core product value and translates it into a layer that surrounds the brand. Brand strategy does this by taking product features and functions with validated value and turning them into emotional benefits. Brand strategy mobilizes product strategy in a way that resonates with users and fulfills the product promise.

How do these strategies inform which path to develop down?

The most effective way to apply one approach to the other is to translate learnings from early product validation (most often MVP testing and research) into brand strategy. A direct translation of this would look something like this visual.

From a design perspective, product validation, ideally through development of a rigorously iterated product strategy helps aim the creative machine. Hardening a clear understanding of users and their needs directly impacts the bottom of the brand strategy funnel (features, attributes, and functional benefits).

In reality, streams of work that are closely related are better off overlapping (agile over waterfall). An agile process works particularly well for this type of product informed brand design, which is taking tangible insights and creating experiences that not only achieve a job or function for the user (product design) but also feel good and create a lasting memory (brand design).

That’s the key.

With this understanding a better staging of these activities might look like this:

Or depending on your market….


Starting a branding project without having validated your product strategy based on MVP or user research/testing will increase the risk of misaligning your product to your brand and compromising how your product resonates with your target users.

On the flip side, a product strategy that’s not informing a clear brand strategy creates a fragmented user experience system, seeding confusion and often a riff in trust with your audience.  

The best way to mobilize a great product that emotionally stays with and pulls in your audience is to tightly align your strategy work across both product and brand and to  integrate design early to start pulling threads from the core of a validated product value to the outer layer of the brand touchpoints with customers.