How to make a Minimum Viable Brand work for your startup

Your company brand doesn't have to be complicated!
Breena Fain
October 31, 2023
A list of personality traits the team chose from (See #3 below)

Brands are often thought of as nice-to-have’s — something you get to later, long after the product has shipped and meaningful revenue has been secured. And while many startups have found success with that approach, it doesn’t work for everyone. Because brands are not just a function of marketing or an attempt to glossy up your website — brands provide clear direction on who you are as a company, why you matter, and how you offer value to your customers, employees, and key stakeholders. The problem you’re solving gives your team purpose, and a brand provides alignment toward that purpose.

It also gives your customers a sense for who you are as a company and what they may expect if they buy your product. This isn’t to say that your team can’t express individuality, but a brand is going to ensure some alignment in promises and how those promises are communicated.

If you are a solo founder, creating a single product, and hold every title from CEO to support rep, one can assume that you are going to give a customer a consistent experience. However, as soon as you start adding team members, developing a brand can be helpful in aligning the team and increasing momentum as a company.

Now, I know early on there’s not going to be a lot of time for this. And it is likely that you’ll shift your brand tone as you find yourself in the market. But this isn’t enough reason to avoid it completely. Because just like not choosing a direction is choosing a direction… not choosing a brand is actually choosing a brand. It’ll just be a bad one.

At PSV, we’re constantly thinking of new product ideas. This means that we have to move quickly on developing a brand so we can ship things. Not every product has an involved branding process, but we do have a discussion about it. And after a couple years of going ‘round the horn with this, I wanted to share a few tips:

  1. Go with the Minimum Viable Brand
    If you’re on an agile team who can’t be bothered with branding, go with the MVB approach. I’m convinced if you just put “Minimum Viable…” in front of anything you want to do, it’ll be received better. Just like with a MVP (minimum viable product), you’re presenting a low-stakes, focused approached to what you want to build. There is plenty of content out there about how to create a Minimum Viable Brand, including this blog post from our friends over at High Alpha, so I won’t go into the details here. But read up on this and learn to cut out as much as you can.

    If you have an agency or corporate background and are used to months of back-and-forth on brand development, this will either feel really good to do or really bad. But either way it’s necessary.

    I’d recommend reading up on MVBs to get your process down, and the following tips are how to make that process go a bit faster.
  2. Multiple choice vs. open-ended brainstorm
    Now this one is going to be dependent on if you have a brand champion or marketing expert on your team who is willing to put in the prep work. One of the things that takes branding work so long is the unending back-and-forth “brainstorm” with what is usually way too many people.

    To avoid this, for everything you need to decide, make it multiple choice. If you want to define your Brand Values, provide a list of words to choose from. If you want to define your Brand Personality, put each one on a numbered scale and let people pick a number. Whatever you do, don’t let them veer off into uncharted brainstorming territory — this is where the time suck happens. Create clear and boundaried options so you're not working with a blank canvas. This will help everyone move forward together, and faster.
  3. Optimize everyone’s time
    This is related to the previous point, but I find that on a small team that’s used to moving quickly, two-hour branding meetings tend to drain everyone — except me, but that’s because I love this work. However, I can admit it isn’t the best use of everyone’s time, even though I do want buy-in and agreement.

    So to keep everyone in good spirits, I’ll actually take all those questions around our brand values and personality traits and Slack each person individually with a deadline for their response. That way, no one is influenced and everyone can quickly decide what they think. Moving this quickly is okay because the reality is we may change things later. So the goal here is to get clarity on where everyone’s heads are at so that we can surface any large objections about what we offer and how we’re communicating that offer.
  4. Come together for agreement (or timed debate)
    Once everyone’s answers are sent, we get together for about 30 minutes to an hour to discuss our choices and debate any strong opinions. At this point you will start to get into the nuances of language, and while it can seem like you’re arguing semantics — those semantics will matter. For example, see if you can tell the difference between…

    Bold vs Aggressive
    Friendly vs Playful
    Innovative vs Creative

    These words can often be interchanged, but when you read them… you sense there is a difference, yes? Choosing the right words to go with will make every step after this much easier, because the next move is to…
  5. Choose a brand archetype
    Working with a blank canvas when it comes to anything creative can be daunting. This is why I rely heavily on the 12 Brand Archetypes. While there may be different flavors and style differences within each archetype, nearly every brand will fall into one pretty clearly. This stage is where people who do not work in marketing can start to make sense of all my nagging questions that preceded this step. ;)

    Once we have decided what our value and personality traits are, I take those words and attempt to match them with a brand personality. (Ex: The Jester is “playful” but the Everyman is “friendly.”)

    I also take into consideration the product offering, us as a team, and the reality that there are only four of us so our internal personalities will likely impact how we present ourselves to the world. For the most part our team is innovative, risk-taking, friendly, and spontaneous. These attributes are unwavering and will be applied to every PSV project we build. So maybe ask yourself, how does your team or leadership impact your brand archetype?

    It shouldn’t take long to eliminate at least half the options. But the work isn’t over just yet. I also map any competitors or folks in our space who have a strong hold on any single archetype. If I think someone out there has taken hold of “Magician,” and it’s one of our top archetypes, chances are I will remove it. I want to make sure our brand stands out as much as possible, and while it’s okay for multiple companies to have a similar brand — that’s not who we are.

    At this point, there are usually only one or two options left and most times it becomes clear which one we want select. It's a collective gut feeling at that point. Or I'm left to simply choose it. I’ve yet to narrow it down to something we don’t like or feel is true to who we are and what we offer.
  6. Let it simmer and see how it fits
    If done well, everything above should take under a week to complete. And there’s reason for that. Whizzing through this work allows your team to understand the process and rehearse how it is integrated.

    Depending on where we are with a project, it’s possible we launch a simple website with the chosen archetype in mind to see how it feels. We'll also refer to customer conversations and compare it to some of the words we've chosen. Or maybe we dig deeper and conduct more involved research on that brand archetype and how we want to build it out. Either way, we start to weave that brand into our conversations with customers, and make note of whether it feels right.

None of this is rocket science. In fact, much of it is on intuition. But in order to make sure everyone’s intuition is moving forward together, setting up a clear process and getting buy-in early will help.

If you want more tips on how to get your MVB started or have ideas of your own to share, I’d love to connect!

Thanks for reading!

Breena Fain

Breena Fain is Head of Marketing at Plain Sight Ventures. In her free time, you can find Breena in the garden, at the clay studio, or gabbing with neighbors over coffee at Blackbird Bookstore.

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