What comes first? Universal dilemma of Brand vs. Product

As a designer, advising startups in complex domains such as healthcare, wellbeing and social-good, has brought me face to face with many challenging questions. Questions on design thinking, user research, product design, building organizations etc., but none have intrigued me more than about how to build a brand for startup?

7 min readNov 19, 2019


Firstly let us try and understand if there is a difference between a product and a brand. If there are any boundaries and overlaps and how each of this helps an organization to solve problems and grow their business.

Understanding Brands

In 2006, late Robyn Putter, then the leader of the Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Creative Council, coined that “The brands we most admire are built not just on big ideas, but on big ideaLs”. The emphasis here was on how the organizations perceive themselves through their values, mission and vision or alternatively how they think they want to be perceived by the rest of the world. The fundamental thought was to rally all the stakeholders to create a belief system to move an idea, or ideal for Robyn, to fruition.

Let’s take few examples.

The Smarter Planet

IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative is rooted in their belief system that the work they are doing is to make our planet, cities and overall human life more “smarter”. The fact that a big corporate like IBM is able to rally their thought process around a single idea of a Smarter Planet is branding at its best. But this is not where it stops — it becomes an “ideal” and has helped them define their product and services around this core concept. This is evident in their positioning as well:

“With so much technology and networking available at such low cost, what wouldn’t you enhance? What wouldn’t you connect? What information wouldn’t you mine for insight? What service wouldn’t you provide a customer, a citizen, a student or a patient?”

- “Conversations for a Smarter Planet: 1 in a Series,” IBM. 2008.

IBM — Smarter Planet (Image Credits: http://makerpro.cc/2015/03/the-keys-to-success-in-the-iot-era/)

Lets take a pause here and see if we can name 5 IBM products in next few seconds. Watson…! The recall is hard. There are about 10 product categories at IBM. From server tools to networking, software, storage etc. There is a lot, but one thing which augers well is that IBM is able to position these really well around the concept of “Smarter Planet”.

“Made In” brand

The World is Flat and it is getting paper thin. This mindset has forced countries to behave like corporates, where they are beginning to use branding to help them market themselves for investment, tourism and global trade. The association of a product or a service with its country of origin has, more recently, influenced how consumers perceive (from safety, quality and ecological perspectives) products.

The other big factor contributing to perception of an organization is easy access to information about the organization, products and the brand itself. This is no different for countries. Countries which are trying to build a place for themselves on the Global Maturity Index, for better trade, tourism and economics are focusing their energies in building a brand for themselves in ever competing marketplace of nations.

See how Estonia has been trying that. or, how India tried and succeeded with Incredible!India

Whatever the outcome of these branding exercise is, one thing is sure that this flows downstream and organizations start aligning themselves with that ideology.

Made In vs Designed In vs Country of Origin

As the “Made In” ideology matures globally, organizations are trying to further distinguish (or in some cases align) themselves with ethos of either their parent country or the country where the products are being manufactured or sourced.

“Designed by Apple in California” is a master exercise in safeguarding a brand and its authenticity. With shadows of global economic crisis in mid 2000 and the labor market condition in their “country of manufacturing”, Apple maintained brand promise to their customers with positioning of authenticity, quality, differentiation and expertise in their products.

Design consists of the ideas that make things; it’s not much different from software in that it isn’t tangible. By being a design rather than a manufacturing company, Apple is actually more like a software company than a traditional manufacturing one.

In the examples above various brand levers have been used to amplify an existing product or an organization. The approach is to create an understanding for the consumers which they can clearly associate with above and beyond the function of the product itself.

Personal Values

In some cases it is the ideology, in others geography of manufacturing and in some cases it is about the values of consumers themselves. Patagonia ran an ad in New York Times on Friday, November 25, 2011. Here is what the ad and the company said:

Why run an ad in The New York Times on Black Friday telling people, “Don’t Buy This Jacket”? It’s time for us as a company to address the issue of consumerism and do it head on.

The most challenging, and important, element of the Common Threads Initiative is this: to lighten our environmental footprint, everyone needs to consume less. Businesses need to make fewer things but of higher quality. Customers need to think twice before they buy.

Why? Everything we make takes something from the planet we can’t give back. Each piece of Patagonia clothing, whether or not it’s organic or uses recycled materials, emits several times its weight in greenhouse gases, generates at least another half garment’s worth of scrap, and draws down copious amounts of freshwater now growing scarce everywhere on the planet.

It’s part of our mission to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

It would be hypocritical for us to work for environmental change without encouraging customers to think before they buy. To reduce environmental damage, we all have to reduce consumption as well as make products in more environmentally sensitive, less harmful ways. It’s not hypocrisy for us to address the need to reduce consumption. On the other hand, it’s folly to assume that a healthy economy can be based on buying and selling more and more things people don’t need — and it’s time for people who believe that’s folly to say so.

- By Patagonia in NY Times, Nov. 25, 2011

To understand this simply, Patagonia has taken a stand on sustainability and pushes its brand envelope on similar lines. What they are attempting to do here is rally their customers on the same set of ideology through challenging their values.

The truth about products and brand is somewhere in the middle.

The examples above are well and true for established organizations like IBM, Apple or Patagonia. But back to the original question of what comes first product or brand, especially for startups, the inconvenient truth lies somewhere in the middle. Startups need to have a great product that solves real problems for consumers, but at the same time they need to have values and principles that define them for the long run. These values and principles later on can become the bedrock of their brand and how the consumers perceive them.

When asked by many startups my simple honest answer to this question has always been to build products that solve real problems and the users will not only love but also spread the word for you. Spending time and energy to build brand for an average or a poorly designed product/ service is something that does not auger well in the long run.

Here are few things to keep in mind if you face this question:


Having intrinsic values within an organization is the key to build successful products and a sustainable brand over time. Start-ups that have strong ethos and are focused on customer needs go a long way in building brands that last.


Consumers love companies (and in turn the brand) that are authentic and focus on real world problems.


Develop an empathic approach in design thinking as that will help build the personality of your products and ultimately your brand.


Products that show consistency in services, experience and support are natural winners.

Having worked with both big and small brands, upcoming startups and other design peers, we at yform.studio strongly believe that the best brands are built on the foundations of a great product and a happy consumer. If you have any questions or interested in building awesome brands through product first approach then reach out to us at info@yform.studio. We’ll be happy to chat!




yform.studio is a strategy + design firm using design to bring clarity to complex problems, frame new opportunities and build meaningful and impactful products.