Show + Tell: Starting with a Minimum Viable Brand
How to know the direction, even when you don’t quite know the exact destination.
The Story in Numbers:
Time in business: 6 years, 9 months.
Staff: 8 (Full + Part-Time).
Active Clients: 13
Website Staging Version: 55.
Current stage: staging.
Last time: Introducing our own rebrand
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You’ve probably heard the term “Minimum Viable Product” before. You probably heard it from a techbro, who maybe horse clicked at you and also said something about being “data driven” or “pivoting”. Don’t work with that guy.
Messenger aside, the MVP message is sound enough: quickly build a working version of your product, then get it out there to see if it has an audience or a niche. Create a lowest-cost version of the concept so you can collect objective feedback from disinterested parties. As David Deutsch would say, Conjecture followed by Criticism = Creativity. Once you’ve confirmed your hypothesis (that you have a good idea, one the world wants) you can then put the time and money into building out the real thing. Launch early, fail fast, invest once you know it’s worth it.
Want an example of an MVP? Here’s ours. We’re launching this on Gatsby, Netlifty and maybe Tailwind; a bit of an experiment for us (more on this later). We’ve also linked this up with Hotjar, so by viewing this, you’re actually giving us valuable user feedback. Cheers.
While the virtues of MVP have been well established (and documented) (and documented) (and documented), businesses can apply the same principles to their brand. If you want to start a new business or release a new product and you don’t have the time or money to create an entire brand system from scratch, a Minimum Viable Brand is your best bet. Otherwise, you might spend time and money you don’t have on creating something that’s not right for you. As we like to say, giving a Ferrari to a 14 year-old.
At its core, MVB involves identifying the same core components that a fuller, fancier Brand Strategy would:
- People: who you are, and who you’re trying to connect with (Target Audience)
- Product: what your product or service does on a functional level, including core benefits (which can and should be both emotional and rational)
- Purpose: what you‘re striving to do (beyond just making money)
- Proposition: the thing you’re offering your audience that nobody else is (this is usually the culmination of all the above, and is typically the hardest thing to do. It’s also the thing that has the most proprietary names and acronyms assigned to it: Brand Promise, BVP, KVP, Etc, Blah Blah Blah)—I want to put a pin in this, and come back to it at the end.
- Personality: how you behave both visually and verbally, implicitly and explicitly—if the above constitutes your message, this is how you deliver it.
Strategists among you will even recognise this as Brand Strategy because a) there are an even number of things in a list, and; b) they all alliterate.
You can read more on these components here. I can go into more depth later if at all necessary, though again, I suspect it’s been well-enough documented. Point for now is, while these don’t need to be perfectly written, they do need to be clearly defined. Your business is likely to change and morph a lot in its early years, and while it’s important to be able to roll with these changes, it’s even more important not to lose sight of what you’re meant to be doing in the first place.
Think of it as a compass — we call it a North Star.
I hate to explain via analogy, but it’s like a yacht race: a good sailor tacks and jibes (changes direction) to make the most of the wind, but always has a finish line that they’re shooting for. In the same way, set to the reference point of your North Star, “Pivoting” (changing tack in order to respond to feedback) is still oriented to a single general direction. You don’t all of a sudden do a complete 180 or veer off course just because a certain breeze is blowing.
We did this with Frank Body years ago.
There was a clear idea of who our People were (Millennials), what our Product was (caffeinated exfoliant scrub that made you look dirty lol), our Purpose (to make people feel connected and self-confident via a simple social media meme), and, of course, the Personality. We put a simple idea at the heart of the brand, along with a clear (and super basic) visual identity we knew could scale.
It wasn’t until 18 months later, when we’d seen months of positive feedback and had an idea of where we needed to be, that we really gave Frank the full brand that you see today. Only after a protracted dialogue with our audience were we able to arrive at a Proposition that was a true reflection of what we could offer. We coined the line “Every Body is a Babe”, encapsulating not just who we were but how we made our audience see themselves.
In our own way, we’ve done this with L+M.
After hundreds of hours of agonising and strategising over who we are and what we look like and what we do and how we talk about it, I’ve realised that our brand has only really been the product of what we 1) know about ourselves and our market in the moment, and 2) can afford to invest in and maintain.
Over the years we’ve been chipping away: testing and updating our own brand, attempting to find the overlapping centre of what we value, what we enjoy, what we feel we’re good at, and what the market wants from us/understands. We tried not to get too graphic designer OCD, testing and sharing new and unfinished prototypes of who we were into the world (see my first post about letting go of perfect in order to get to productive).
I’ve fought constantly against being a “full-service” agency. A jack of all trades. But it’s fucking hard to say no to things when you’re trying to get business. And if you’ve got an ego anything like mine, it’s really fucking hard to admit that there are some things that you’re just not all that good at. So while we never wanted to come across as one, we’d list all of our many accomplishments and talents like a kid displaying their participation trophies. We were playing the game.
It’s taken seven years to have the courage to admit both what we don’t do well, and what we don’t want to do. To admit that while we do many things, we do a few well, and even fewer of those better than others. (We actually did a company-wide exercise around this, taking all of our key services and outcomes, rating them both on our own merits and then against everyone else we considered to be competition. There’s a sobering exercise to do in front of your staff.) Here’s a 2x2 my friend @nhallam did about it.
We found our core competency comes down to two key elements: Brand + Digital. Most crucially: not each alone, but the fact that each is designed with the other in mind. From this principle, we’ve started building again from the ground up. Again, you can see here how we’re building a website that’s based on this core connection (much more on that later.) We’ve got a new font (we’ll shout out to that, too, soon) and a new visual language we’re working through.
And this is where I think my thinking may have genuinely shifted.
Since learning Brand Strategy (it’s nice, isn’t it, that the acronym is BS?) in the hallowed halls of Big Agencies, I’ve come to realise that a lot of ego is caught up in the Big Idea. While it feels extremely gratifying to crack the snappy one-liner insight (we called it an Aphorism) as soon as possible, and then treat The Clever Thing You Said as the defining parable of your brand, I’d wager that more often than not, nobody knows what the fuck the Big Idea is, because there simply isn’t enough data to make any kind of informed prediction. It’s all the more dangerous when you can turn a phrase, because you wind up writing something that sounds profound, but ultimately proves hollow or unintelligible. (We thought Fluff was going to be about being “Made up, not made up”, until we realised that nobody actually knew what that meant.)
This is where an MVB truly can serve as a strong first step. It’s comprehensive enough to give you oversight to the constituent elements of your brand in the broader sense. It orients you based on who you are, what you have, and what you want to do. It’s an investment in time and energy that requires focus and intellectual vigor, which is important if you want the Huge Fucking Risk you’re about to take to be in some way calculated. But it’s just short and sharp and scrappy enough that you don’t have to be too attached to it. It’s not the gospel, and it’s not immortal. You can set a direction (North) without needing an exact destination.
At Love + Money we’ve completely moved away from Brand Strategy unless we feel a brand or business really justifies it. Instead, we now favour Brand 101s, which are shorter, sharper, and more focussed on tangible, actionable advice. They’re closer to a managerial handbook than they are an ad campaign. They still require a good zinger or two—this is often how you create a memetic idea that clients will spread—but on the whole, they’re a little less… pretentious.
The end of the beginning.
A brand is a living, breathing thing. A garden you’re constantly tending. This next iteration is only that — an iteration. Stage in a journey, yadda yadda. Long, long gone are the days when you picked a font and a Pantone and stuck to it religiously for a decade or so. Today’s an age of dialogue between company and consumer (👋🏽). Like any dynamic and durable company, a modern brand can tack and jibe to keep its momentum up. If you can be thoughtful, purposeful, and aware of all of the elements that make you you, you can be a little less precious. You can learn from your audience, without losing yourself in the wash of public opinion.