The MVB – Minimum Viable Brand

In the MVP model, the cardboard cutout is being judged on its ability to connect with users.

The startup world is all a twitter (see what I did there?) with the utilization of the MVP (minimum viable product) approach to launching new ideas. If you aren’t familiar with the MVP, check out a few definitions here and here for context. In a nutshell, the MVP is a streamlined version of a full fledged idea that incorporates only the core pieces of a product, platform or program that represent the functionality and differentiating features of the idea. There’s so much to discuss around this approach, including the much needed course correction in thinking to solutions it has provided, as well as the grossly misunderstood meaning of the MVP and its contribution to the failing of many ideas. We could debate that for hours, but the one thing I want to address is the missing link that the MVP teachings has yet to address.

Often the MVP is solely focused on the product itself… the website, app, etc. In launching an MVP very often business modeling is in its early stages, customer definition and engagement is in its infancy, and use of the MVP product is the driver to inform decisions surrounding these elements of the ultimate business to be built. All attention is focused on the tangible product and its usage to drive decision making. Makes sense on the surface, but a tremendous gap is left in terms of valid data being gathered on sentiment and usage of the product.

The gap is in the lack of recognition of the influence of the brand wrapped around a product or idea that is being trialed.

Yes logos are developed, and visual layers are added to the products, but very often there is no attention payed to what this idea is meant to mean to its users… which ultimately is the role of a brand. This work is left on the table until much later in the business’s maturity.

All too often we put products into the market with not enough thought in regards to what it represents for the people we want to use it. It’s the difference between putting a cardboard cutout of yourself in the middle of a party vs you. Sure people will get an idea of what you look like—maybe even some of your mannerisms based on poses—but they will not know whether they want to hang out and chat with you. Yet in the MVP model, the cardboard cutout is being judged on its ability to connect with those in the room. Even worse, the person whose image is represented is being judged for their relevance based on the interaction of its cardboard counterpart. Doesn’t seem like a recipe for success to me.

Branding work has been overlooked as a “nice to have” in the startup world. Much of the reason has to do with the focus on the product alone. There is a misconception about the influence brand has on product acceptance, as well as the assumptions that branding work—much like marketing—are side projects to be thought about once the product proves itself in the market. All of this is false. It all works together. And if one is not addressed in the context of the others, the data gathered will be inherently flawed.

But I will concede that traditional branding work has been reserved for the elite few, which has contributed to the shelving of brand development in the startup world. But I argue that it does not need to be an unattainable part of a smartly designed MVP launch. The same principles that drive the notion of a minimum viable product can and should be applied to the brand that product represents. Part of the startup launch should be figuring out the MVB—Minimum Viable Brand—of the company or product, and utilizing that MVB as an asset to establish learnings in the field. Just like the product model, the MVB should be developed to represent the core features of the brand: those elements that without, there would essentially be no idea. It should focus on communicating an essence or feel of a personality without tying it too tightly to one character trait or another, allowing the same flexibility in evolving the brand as the MVP allows in evolving the product. It should be a hired actor in the room instead of the cardboard cutout. One who can read the room, interact in the role, and balance the character with the needs of those they interact with. There’s a lot more feedback that will be brought back from the actor than the cutout.

So how do you develop an MVB? The art and science of branding is well established. Done correctly, it’s rooted in psychology and human behavior as much as it is in creativity and business outcomes. The same principles that go into scoping and developing your MVP should be applied to the MVB. As a starting point, try answering these questions and see how the exercise may or may not change your decisions on features presentation, visual design and tone of communication:

  • What problem is the product solving?
  • What mindspace would the user put the problem in? (urgent, emotional, hero making, etc)
  • What sentiments are going to support that type of solution? (familiarity and trust, new and cutting edge, utility vs exploratory)
  • What adjectives represent those sentiments? (playful, corporate, high-tech, professional, snarky)
  • What visual direction and message tone support those adjectives?

It’s a short list. And by no means is an end answer. But the exercise will start to paint a picture that will support the idea’s differentiators, and will be a tool to use in unifying decisions and capitalizing on benefits of developing a brand, not just a logo.