Branding a New Product
How to create the minimum viable brand for a new startup
In general, creating an “exceptional brand” is not crucial to a new product's success; going beyond a “good enough” brand should not be an immediate priority. You can achieve 80 percent of the results with 20 percent of the effort.
A “good enough” brand will still allow you to achieve most of the results for click through rates, content sharing, virality, etc. Here’s my personal process and insights on how to achieve this.
What is Branding
Branding involves taking 10,000 abstract thoughts and distilling them into something more concrete and workable. According to Seth Godin, a brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer's decision to choose one product or service over another. Aside from the commercial impact of branding, it can also create a common language to make subsequent internal decisions about visuals, voice, and identity a lot easier.
When to Start Branding
New product teams often get distracted by focusing on the brand first, viewing it as the required first step. Branding first is a mistake, as the most critical step is to define the audience and the problem first. In other words, come up with a product-market fit hypothesis before all else. During this process, your product concept will change and evolve. If you were to brand first, you'd end up with a mismatched product-to-brand experience.
Once your team has sufficient conviction about a particular direction, only then should you start the branding process. In general, you should only begin branding when naming your company, designing a logo, hiring an agency, or writing a manifesto.
Google Ventures Design Sprint
The best branding framework I've stumbled upon is Google Venture's three-hour brand sprint. In general, you need two to six participants for the brand sprint. At the minimum, you need the CEO (the decider), and optionally one or two facilitators (marketing or design), and a customer expert.
The brand sprint consists of six exercises across three parts. The first part consists of two exercises to articulate the company's motivation: 1) a 20-year roadmap (think long term), and 2) what, how, and why (why the company exists). The second part goes into the details: 3) top three values (makes your why more specific), and 4) top three audiences (focus on the target for the brand). The last part focuses on brand positioning: 5) personality sliders (defines the attitude and style of the brand), and 6) competitive landscape (compares brand to other companies). I won't go into details about running these individual exercises, as Jake Knapp has done a brilliant job explaining this here (use this template if you're doing this remotely).
These exercises create six powerful diagrams which are a concrete representation of a company's brand. When facing big decisions about naming, identity, and marketing, these diagrams will be a helpful guide.
Naming a Product or Business
A name is the face of your product. It needs to capture your essence, values, and what makes you different from the competition. Therefore, it's best to start this process after the GV brand sprint.
The naming process requires a good understanding of brand vision; hence the need for the GV brand sprint. I usually start by decreasing my product in one simple sentence, and distilling it down into two words. I also think about the market my product is in, how people will learn about the product, what our “secret sauce” is that differentiates us from competition, and who our target audience is. With all these factors in mind, I create a list of words (1-5) reflective of the brand’s personality (e.g., responsible, confident, steadfast). You can find a starting point for your brand personality adjectives here.
Afterwards, I start brainstorming names using those words as reference. There are 10 naming categories for brands, and I try to create at least a couple candidates for each (don’t forget to use a thesaurus). These categories include:
Naming that challenge the ordinary (e.g., Yahoo, Monster, Guess)
Alliteration (e.g., Dunkin Donuts, PayPal)
Made up words (e.g., Kodak, Google)
Clear descriptions or attributes (e.g., Holiday Inn, KitchenAid)
Tributes to a specific inspiration for the brand (e.g., Hilton, Linamar)
Names that blend a mix of modern, technical, and functional words: (e.g., Xerox, Panasonic)
Combination names (e.g., Fedex)
Acronyms (e.g., BMW, IBM, UPS)
Names that borrow from stories or cultural icons (e.g., Apple, Mustang, Monster, Virgin)
Made up random words that might be appropriate over time (e.g., Old Navy)
Factors to Consider
Naming is subjective, and is more of an art than a science. However, there are two major traits that are common amongst successful brand names. They are: “familiarity” and “distinctiveness”.
Familiarly is more important when naming a product as part of a master brand; it’s about naming according to a convention your customers understand. For example, Apple's naming convention for mobile products starts with "i" (iPad, iPod, iPhone). Using a naming convention allows you to leverage your existing brand perception and sets an expectation for your customers' quality with the new products you release.
Distinctiveness refers to how unique and memorable your product name is in the minds of consumers. Think about the names of your competitors, and what common naming conventions arise. Can you think of a new convention so your product name stands out from the crowd?
Tactical Evaluation Checklist
If you want to be more methodical in how you evaluate your name candidates, here’s a helpful checklist to run through:
Is your first impression of the name strong?
Is it memorable?
Does it sound and look good?
Is it easy to pronounce?
Use it in multiple sentences. Does it feel right?
Are quick associations positive?
Does it relate to the primary benefits of the product?
Does it sound credible?
Can it work internationally?
Is it registerable and protectable?
Does it make you nervous?
Does it relate to your market positioning?
You don’t need to perfectly pass every criteria on this list, but it should help you pick out the strongest names from your list of candidates. If you want even more conviction, you can even test out your names using surveys & word association exercises.
Influencing Value Perception
A product’s name has a huge impact on customer perception. The right name can influence customers to spend more money or use your product more often.
For example, a study examining the effects of naming on wine perception indicated that exotic names make customers more willing to spend more money. Exotic sounding wines were given the highest quality ratings, had the "highest intent to buy" score, and most people said they would pay a higher price for it.
“People don’t buy products because of the actual value of the products — they buy stuff because the price of the product closely matches their perceived value of the product.”
Another consideration is “trigger phrases” that influence a customer’s perception. For example, when cereal brands added the phrase “ancient grains” to their label, customers were willing to pay 50-300 percent more. This trigger phrase's success is due to the association between "ancient grains and simplicity & health.
The next step after coming up with a name is creating a moodboard. A moodboard is a collage of images, materials, text, and other design elements that embodies a cohesive brand direction. This often involves gathering inspiration across various media formats and from multiple sources. Note that you shouldn’t be constrained to just digital inspiration. You’ll find great references from architecture, print ads, industrial design, fashion, and art.
After gathering inspiration, start grouping them into distinct moodboards; I think three moodboards with less than six references is ideal. I find it's much better to have fewer references that represent the quintessence of the concept rather than a large handful tangentially related references. Explorations for brand assets such as: names, logos, and brand elements are all built on the foundation of a moodboard.
As mentioned at the start, my typical goal is to create a "good enough" brand that circumvents common and avoidable branding mistakes. Overall, this is the process I personally use, so you may want to adapt this based on the specifics of your work.