What is this Brand Thing Anyway?
A primer on brand for product teams
“It just doesn’t feel like us.”
Every member of a startup or product team interacts with and shapes the product’s brand. And yet, while many of us have an instinctive understanding of the whole “Brand Thing”, we don’t have a full conceptual model or the language to anchor that understanding around.
That leaves us with many different interpretations of what brand is. Then, we approach conversations from different vantage points involving a lot of subjective opinions, which often leaves us vaguely confused and dissatisfied when the conversation is over.
And though many startups and product teams have some of the Brand Thing figured out, they’re often missing the bits that everything else is built around, leaving us grasping for something that’s not there.
This is a primer for startups and product teams that want to get a better understanding of the whole Brand Thing.
This primer will make it easier to:
- Have conversations about brand with a shared vocabulary and from a shared conceptual understanding of what brand is.
- Make better decisions faster about not just the brand, but the product itself.
- Reduce ambiguity and subjectivity in conversations related to brand.
- Make onboarding easier for new members of the team.
- Create consistency across a product and all of its touchpoints.
This primer is high-level but includes deeper dives in context for readers who want to get into the nitty-gritty.
Product vs. company vs. organization
Most startups have a single product, and their brand is intertwined between the product and the company itself. This primer uses the terms “product,” “company,” and “organization” interchangeably. When your company introduces more products, the concepts in this primer still apply, but each product is likely to have its own brand platform distinct from the company’s brand platform.
The things you need to know
Brand isn’t a tangible thing. You can’t “do the brand.”
Brand is how others perceive your product or company. It’s inherently abstract, emotional, and jumbles together a bunch of things: the whole of their experience with your product or company, their interactions with you, what they hear about you in the media, how others describe you, and how they feel when you magically solve that thing they’ve been wasting ten hours on every week.
Then it’s mingled with their own experiences and beliefs and worldview and that outcome is your brand, as far as that person is concerned.
While we can’t “do the brand,” we can articulate what we want the brand to be. This is the brand platform.
If brand is a concept, branding is a process. “Branding” is the process of, among other things, creating the brand platform.
The better we articulate our brand platform, the more likely it is that others will perceive the brand the way we want it to be perceived.
The brand platform is made up of three broad hierarchical areas and one adjacent area:
├─ Brand identity
│ ├─ Brand expression
Let’s take a look at each.
1. Brand strategy
Brand strategy includes things like:
Together, these share a common purpose of defining what the company is in itself and how it’s positioned in the broader marketplace.
These rarely change, and when they do, it has to be for a really good reason, because it reflects that the company has changed in a really deep and fundamental way.
If a company is defined by a single product, pivoting to achieve product-market fit will almost always result in changes.
Vision and mission
Vision statements and mission statements are both ways of articulating what the product or company is from a high-level, compelling, and action-driving point of view. They’re also weirdly complicated to write and easy to conflate and that’s why I’m explaining them together in one place.
Your vision is an optimistic and inspiring call to action for the future. It reflects how the world will be changed for the better because of you.
Your mission is a statement of what you’re doing now to reach your vision.
While your vision is aspirational, your mission is tangible.
Vision: Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.
Mission: The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation is to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.
Brand vision vs. product vision
A brand vision reflects a broad aspirational view of the future shared with the company and its customers. A product vision is a narrower, more actionable vision meant to align the product team.
While the brand vision guides the company, the product vision guides the product team.
Writing vision and mission statements
There’s no simple template for vision and mission statements, but check out what other companies have written and create your own along those lines. If it’s more than one or two sentences, it’s probably trying to do too much.
Vision: Digital currency will bring about more innovation, efficiency, and equality of opportunity in the world by creating an open financial system.
Mission: Create an open financial system for the world.
Vision: Building a better internet.
Mission: Our mission is to ensure the Internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all.
A mission statement can also be replaced with a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.
Big Hairy Audacious Goal
A Big Hairy Audacious Goal is a compelling, long-term goal that lights a fire under the team. It’s big and intimidating and looks 5–10 years into the future.
Unlike samey-sounding corporate mission statements, Big Hairy Audacious Goals can be inspiring not only for your product team, but for your customers, which means it can do a lot of work to support the brand.
Here’s a real hairy, real big goal from SpaceX:
Enable human exploration and settlement of Mars.
A brand doesn’t need a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, but it can add a level of impact that isn’t always going to come across in a mission statement.
Writing a Big Hairy Audacious Goal
A good Big Hairy Audacious Goal is a bit scary. It might be that you don’t actually accomplish it. That’s okay! The sheer commitment and effort your team puts in towards achieving it will make your product and team better.
A Big Hairy Audacious Goal also has to be measurable. There has to be a very obvious finish line that you’re working towards.
There’s four types of Big Hair Audacious Goals: target-oriented, competitive, role model, or internal transformation.
- Target-oriented: Become the dominant player in commercial aircraft and bring the world into the jet age. (Boeing, 1950)
- Competitive: Crush Adidas. (Nike, 1960s)
- Role model: Become the Nike of the cycling industry (Giro, 1986)
- Internal transformation: Transform this company from a chemical manufacturer into one of the pre-eminent drug-making companies in the world. (Merch, 1930s)
Positioning is how your customers think about your brand (and how you want them to think about your brand) in relation to your competitors and the alternatives.
Mission statements and vision statements and Big Hairy Audacious Goals are what the brand does. But positioning helps define what it is about a brand that the competitors aren’t.
Sometimes positioning is articulated in positioning statements—one or two sentences that are cruelly hard to write—and other times it’s conveyed through manifestos or slogans or memos.
Ways of positioning
There’re quite a few different approaches to positioning. A brand might use one or many of these approaches to position themselves relative to their competition.
Here’s some examples directly from Wikipedia:
- Preemptive: Smith’s Chips—the original and still the best.
- Within a category: Volvo is the safest choice in the prestige car category.
- Price or premium: Apple products are premium quality for premium prices.
Writing positioning statements
Positioning statements help take abstract thoughts about positioning and make them tangible. The exact structure of a positioning statement changes from company to company, but the bones are the same.
For (target customer) who (statement of need), (product) is a (product category) that (statement of key benefit). Unlike (alternative product or solution), (product) (statement of primary differentiation).
Amazon, literally two decades ago
For World Wide Web users who enjoy books, Amazon.com is a retail bookseller that provides instant access to over 1.1 million books. Unlike traditional book retailers, Amazon.com provides a combination of extraordinary convenience, low prices, and comprehensive selection.
Positioning statements like these are hard to write and awkward to read. Keep in mind that it’s for you. You’re not going to stick it on your landing page and wave it in front of your customers.
2. Brand identity
Brand identity includes:
Each facet of brand identity combines to create an inherent personification of the brand. Each informs the other (but usually values and principles come first).
What’s sometimes weird and uncomfortable about brand identity is that it doesn’t include things like logos or visuals. It’s mostly abstract concepts and a bunch of stuff written down. Look at it this way: no matter what you wear, your friends and family know you’re still the same person underneath.
Much like brand strategy, brand identity doesn’t change all that often, and when it does, it’s always for a very good reason.
Values are the unchanging, inexorable rules or beliefs upon which a brand will never compromise. The more specific they are to the brand and the work they do, the more power they have to shape the brand identity.
Values are usually a word or two that summarize the theme, and a bit of extrapolation to explain what it means. Values are a way to capture expectations, mostly around actions and behaviour, both internally for the team and externally for customers.
• High quality.
• We not I.
• Open and transparent.
Values are similar to, but not exactly, principles.
A brand’s principles are the brand’s point of view. While values capture internal expectations for actions and behaviour, principles capture a stance on the way the world is, or should be.
A brand with clear principles has a perspective on the world. This perspective then becomes a part of that brand’s identity, and gives its team a point of reference for making decisions.
When you put together a few principles in one place, it becomes a manifesto. A manifesto is a powerful tool to share what matters most all in one place.
Some of Mozilla’s principles
The internet is an integral part of modern life—a key component in education, communication, collaboration, business, entertainment and society as a whole.
The internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible.
The internet must enrich the lives of individual human beings.
Check out the Mozilla Manifesto →
Character and personality
When you think of a friend, a colleague, or someone in your family, you can probably find all kinds of ways to describe their personality. Brands are the same. Brands have personality.
Brand character and personality is more often than not the missing link in a company’s brand platform. When we look at visual designs and logos and think about the voice we use while writing stuff for the brand, we talk about look and feel. Character and personality is what provides the basis of that look and feel that we evaluate against: the character attributes.
Brand character attributes are rarely shared publicly. For that reason, I'm going to make something up to give you an example.
Character attributes for a fake outdoor gear brand
This company is steadfast, studious, rustic, and playful.
Clear and explicit character attributes provide a baseline for everyone on your product team to make decisions while minimizing the subjective differences of interpretation around what is or isn’t “the brand.”
Much like positioning statements, you’re not going to go out and wave your character attributes in front of your customers. They’re for you, to better talk about your brand’s personality and use to create expressions of your brand that capture that personality.
A product or company’s name does a whole lot of work in defining the brand identity. It’s for a very simple reason: a word is simply a symbol that represents a lot more than its literal definition.
The process of “branding” is all about creating a certain perception for your product. A good name can shortcut the process, because if a word is a symbol that represents a lot more than its literal definition, then using that word for your name means your identity comes batteries-included with all that word represents.
Consider these names and think about how much work each name does from its own symbolism:
- Tesla (electric cars)
- Hey (email reimagined)
- A Hundred Monkeys (A consultancy that helps you name companies and products)
3. Brand expression
Once the brand strategy and identity is figured out, brand expression is where all those abstract bits become concrete and tangible.
It’s a super wide area and the world is full of brilliant people who specialize in taking brand strategy and identity and expressing it in ways that make everyone else in the same field vaguely irritated and questioning their chosen career path.
The most relevant forms of brand expression for product teams include things like:
- App icons
- The gestalt of the thing (the “whole of perception” through the combination of all of these elements and things like how white space is used, how figure and ground relationships are used, and so on)
- UI elements
- Features (yes, really: the better you understand your brand, the easier it is to decide what features are most in line with your brand)
- Flows (also yes, really: the whole of a flow in a product draws from, and reinforces, your brand)
Other examples of brand expression, though not always as relevant to product teams:
- Video and motion
- Printed materials and collateral
- Environmental design
- Sound design
- And lots more!
Brand stewardship is separate but crucial for growing companies.
Organizing all of this so people can get at it
- Brand guidelines that capture and share the brand strategy and identity, and provide guidance around brand expression.
- Asset libraries so that everyone’s using the same files and assets wherever the brand is expressed.
Having a plan for making changes
- If you’re reading a novel and the character’s personality changes every chapter, they’ll feel badly written and artificial, and even untrustworthy.
- The higher you go in the hierarchy of strategy – identity – expression, the more purposeful and deliberate you have to be about making changes.
Understanding and commitment from leadership and making brand part of culture
- Leaders have to have a strong understanding of brand concepts and the company’s own brand, and take ownership of the core strategy and identity.
- Brand becomes culture: the entire team has to deeply understand the brand, and feel confident making decisions informed by that understanding.
I have questions
I invented a bunch of questions and answered them. As I get more real questions from real readers, I’ll answer them.
Oh wow how much work is this gonna be
As much or as little as you want it to be!
Big companies with big branding projects might take a year or more. That’s because there’s a lot of people involved, a lot of money involved, and a lot of tangible-real-world outcomes (imagine doing a rebranding for a multinational car rental corporation and having the responsibility of replacing all the signage and all the vehicle wraps and all the brochures and now I have a headache).
Most product teams don’t need anything near that much time and effort.
Brand strategy and identity can be articulated in a single one-page document. If it’s much longer than that, you’re not going to remember it or read it or care much about it anyway.
Brand identity and expression are often conflated because expression is where things become less abstract and more concrete, and there’s an infinite world of opportunity to explore, which is super overwhelming and frustrating and so it’s great to have an identity to add some constraints and make it easier to make decisions already.
My product is doing fine without a brand
Here’s the thing: brand exists even if you didn’t go about articulating it in a purposeful way. And if you haven’t articulated it in a purposeful way, it’s really easy for it to start becoming inconsistent or start finding it hard to make decisions.
Instead of letting the brand exist in its own weird, murky space, take a little bit of time to articulate it so that it exists with purpose!
Can brand make up for a bad product
No, not at all. Brand ultimately shapes how people perceive your product in itself and in relation to your competitors.
If you spend all your time making a solid brand identity eye-wateringly beautiful brand expressions, but there’s no substance behind it, nobody’s going to buy your product (a second time). Thankfully, if you’ve done a good job defining your brand strategy, this shouldn’t be a problem, because articulating your vision, mission, promise, and positioning forces you to have a point.
We already have a logo and stuff but not the bits like character, do we have to start over
Sure, it’s easier to make decisions about the logo and UI design system if you already have these. But just because you didn’t do this work first, doesn’t mean that you don’t have a brand character and personality, or vision or mission or positioning. These things exist whether or not you defined them explicitly.
The logo and UI design system has inherent attributes that reflect your brand. There was probably a lot of “it doesn’t feel like us” or “it doesn’t feel right somehow” in the decision-making process.
The tricky part is the future: making decisions about what is or isn’t “the brand,” keeping consistency, helping new team members understand the brand.
Reverse-engineer it! Figure out what’s missing and fill those things out.
Has every company done all this work?
Smaller companies and particularly individuals are often great at understanding their own brand strategy and identity, even if they haven’t formally articulated it. That’s fine!
But it’s still worthwhile to articulate the whole brand platform. It’ll make you reflect on things in deeply uncomfortable and frustrating ways and I bet you’ll come out of it with a clearer understanding of your product’s values, your vision, how you’re positioning yourself against your competition, and what aspects of your brand identity most make you you.
Wait a moment, XYZ doesn’t do it like this
The whole field of branding is a relatively new one that’s still going through really rapid and profound changes. The language and conceptual frameworks we use to take all these abstract notions and turn them into tangible outcomes that we can talk about (and sell to each other as Brand Strategy Consultants and Brand Firms and Agencies) are continuously evolving.
This primer is a summary and a useful starting point for product teams. Other companies do things in different ways, and that’s okay! Pick and choose the concepts that work best for your team.
What about marketing and sales?
Branding and marketing (and sales) are all inherently connected and feed into each other, but branding isn’t marketing and marketing isn’t branding.
Suppose you wanted to advertise your product to a potential audience. Marketing’s concerns include choosing where to place advertising to reach the right audience, what specific messaging would best connect with that audience in that context, and whether tools like incentives should be used to help drive conversions. Branding’s concerns are the elements of brand expression within that advertising, which in turn are based on the