When Product Design and Brand Join Forces
In 2015, I was the Head of Design for a New York City based startup called Kitchensurfing. Kitchensurfing, simply put, brings an actual chef to your kitchen to make you a fresh meal, on the spot, in about 30 minutes for the price of fancy takeout.
When I was hired, my responsibilities were first and foremost product design — building a team to design a great digital user experience across web and mobile. I was not hired as a brand designer.
Over my tenure at the company, my team and I would end up rebranding the company from the ground up alongside a major pivot to our business model. This is the story of how and why it happened.
Product Crossing Over to Brand
Prior to 2010, most of my experience as a product designer was with mature corporations with sophisticated and evolved brand stories. As a product designer, my deepest experience was in UX, but I’ve also been trained in graphic design, psychology and computer science and have always made an effort to try to keep myself well-rounded.
When I started my own digital studio in 2010, that was my first foray into the chaotic and exciting world of startups. I worked with companies ranging from an early Uber to companies that you will never hear of.
While the majority of our partners hired us for product design in its purest form, many of our partnerships spilled over into brand strategy, particularly early stage startups.
For a decent portion of those clients, we were helping not just evolve WHAT the product was, but refine the narrative around WHO it was for and HOW to connect with them.
Often as product designers, we develop such a deep empathy for customer needs, fears, and desires, that it can become a natural extension of our thinking from product requirements to emotional brand attributes.
Brands are always evolutionary, whether scrappy startup or decades-old corporation. For startups, the speed of that evolution is just incredibly fast, and the relationship between product and brand are especially intimate.
For many young companies such as Kitchensurfing, the paradox is that any customer-facing product needs to have a brand. However it may take months or years to truly understand what your product is and who it’s for — two key pieces of information that any good brand needs to identify to truly connect with customers on an emotional level.
User Research Sparks Epiphany
When I started working at Kitchensurfing, the company was several years and two major pivots into its business model. Over the course of that evolution, many different types of customers (or personas) have connected with and fallen in love with the idea of a chef making magic in their kitchens, each persona for very different reasons.
Coincidentally, a new CEO joined Kitchensurfing the same week that I joined the team. As we were both getting up to speed, we spoke about prioritizing our personas to help focus our product decisions in a more disciplined way. So I led a brainstorm. The outcome of this brainstorm — we narrowed down our target personas to about 15 types of customers. This broad an audience is a recipe for disaster for any lean startup trying to focus its limited resources to find traction with its more passionate users.
I suggested a series of lean research exercises (more on scrappy research at Kitchensurfing here) to try to gain more insight into how different types of customers thought about food throughout their week, as well as how they perceived and used our product.
For one of our early research endeavors, we recruited a very targeted set of non-customers — people who had never heard of Kitchensurfing before — and used a research tool called Dscout to have our participants document every meal and snack they’ve had, morning, noon and night, for seven days.
These artifacts and stories gave us a great sense of who these individuals were, what their homes looked like, who they ate with, and their goals and affinities towards food itself. We then gave each of them a private Kitchensurfing meal in their own homes and brought them in to HQ to discuss their experiences as a group.
While everyone agreed it was a great experience, the different types of customer varied in terms of what they imagined they would use Kitchensurfing for. Some saw it as a way to show off to their visiting friends. Others thought it was great for a dinner party, a few times a year.
One mother of two children, however, had the following feedback: “The kids loved the chef, and I thought it was a steal to get my children excited about food. I can imagine doing this every week.”
A hypothesis started surfacing: while many types of people certainly enjoy a home-cooked meal where they don’t have to lift a finger, one type of customer — families with young children — saw it as a lifesaver.
The Chef vs. the Box: (Re)considering our Value Proposition
Looking at the spectrum of products on the market that attempt to solve for dinner, we saw that all services fell into two camps:
- Services where your food is cooked in your home.
- Services where the food is prepared for you offsite.
Kitchensurfing was an interesting hybrid.
On the one hand, our food is cooked in your home, like Blue Apron, thus freshly made and you know exactly what’s in your meal. But instead of you cooking the food, it’s prepared by a skilled chef, and you save time on prepping and cleaning.
On the other hand, Kitchensurfing is also a product where like delivery, the food is presented to you fully cooked without you having to lift a finger, though certainly less convenient than tapping a button for delivery whenever your heart desires.
For Kitchensurfing to succeed, we’d have to be easier than cooking (that one’s easy) and better than delivery for our target persona.
So for families specifically, what’s better about having a chef in your home than delivery?
I started ordering food from many delivery services, and compared the food photography to the real life experience.
The drop in quality from photoshoot to reality shouldn’t be a surprise — the logistics of delivery are incredibly challenging, the temperature and presentation of the food itself being among the toughest to solve for.
I happen to love delivery — especially for my office lunches, for casual and impromptu get-togethers with friends, or for nights when my girlfriend and I are too tired to cook.
But for families, we were hearing in our interviews that “putting Pad Thai in front of the kids is a Hail Mary — not something we want to make a habit of”.
As a contrast, we noticed that our own Instagram mentions showed customers celebrating not just the flavors but the experience of a home-cooked meal, often in situations that involved eating meaningfully with family and loved ones:
As our customer experience team looked closer at customer feedback from families on our platform, we were seeing that an effortless home-cooked meal was a luxury both magical and attainable on a regular basis — not just on special occasions. And that got us thinking.
Product Tests to Validate Hypotheses
Being a product designer at a startup means lots of testing and iterating. We used the same tools of build-test-iterate to start to validate our hypothesis of this new customer focus and value proposition — families with young kids having Kitchensurfing each week for casual, mid-week dinners.
Our product team conducted a series of tests, incorporating a variety of copy and imagery. Each direction proposed different target audiences and value propositions, from social singles and families to healthy eating, saving time, and eating more meaningfully. The results of these tests not only showed an astounding increase in conversion around family-focused imagery and habitual eating, we also saw a higher retention rate for those customers. Put another way, when we framed the product as a solution for families for a casual mid-week dinner, we saw more of those customers using the product that way.
After many more tests and conversations that spanned product, operations, customer experience, and engineering, we drew the following conclusions:
- That we found a persona that had a place for a chef in their home, multiple times a month, even multiple times a week.
- That a new product — a subscription-based service — could be designed and built that makes having a personal chef as easy as opening up an app and choosing from your favorite menu (or skipping) each week.
- That this new, crisp focus warranted a closer look at our brand as a whole and see if it reflected this new value proposition and audience.
The Rebranding Process: Evolution of a Logo
The existing Kitchensurfing brand was built for a different era of the company, with a completely different audience and use case than what we were moving towards.
To refine the new brand system, we iterated broadly on directions for logo, typography, color, and product photography, using UX tools such as qualitative feedback and online testing software to gauge how concepts connected with customers and non-customers.
The final new Kitchensurfing logo and visual identity system was intended to show a softer, more approachable brand that conveyed many of the attributes that came directly out of customer interviews, including authenticity, luxury, approachability, reliability, hospitality, and playfulness.
The mark and color was a collaboration between myself and Kyle Tezak, a talented brand designer who had created the identity for the likes of UNICEF and Yo-Yo Ma.
Beyond the Logo: Visual Storytelling
While our product, design and engineering teams designed, built and launched the subscription service, our marketing team was in transition to new leadership. The product design team continued to work with talented creative folks (and rolled up our sleeves to pitch in) to create compelling storytelling around the colorful scenarios we were hearing weekly from our customer experience team.
I hired Bows + Arrows, a boutique visual storytelling firm that has created video work for brands like Conde Nast and Spotify, to film three real chefs going to three real homes. This initiative came directly out of feedback we gathering from live customer intercepts that prospective customers did not fully grasp what the in-home experience was like. We worked closely with them on storyboarding the shots to clearly communicate the service, and identifying the right variety of chefs, customers, and homes — ensuring that we make it clear Kitchensurfing works in the biggest and smallest kitchens in Manhattan.
Lisa Weatherbee, a renowned photographer specializing in authentic family portraits, also worked closely with the product design and customer experience team to recruit, understand contexts for location scouting, and refine the storytelling around our understanding of the customer.
I commissioned Lisa to help us capture images that we could use everywhere from onboarding flows to marketing campaigns, communicating Kitchensurfing as the perfect solution for family dinners.
One of the customer insights we learned in research was the fear from new customers that “having a chef in your home seems like it would be awkward”. Many of our photographs tried to show the chef as professional and present, but without getting in the way the customer’s desire to unwind after work or spend time with their kids.
As we launched new neighborhoods, such as family-centric Park Slope in Brooklyn, we even occasionally designed print collateral. Many elements from these print pieces had already proven themselves successful online, using tools like CrazyEgg and Optimizely to track performance. Our customer experience team would often have these at local events, and use them as a supplement to explain what we’re all about, coming back to us with feedback about what was and wasn’t working in their pitch.
This chef sticker illustration series was a collectable for kids, to get them excited about their next chef-prepared (and healthy) meal. We already saw how excitable kids were when the chef was around, and we thought they might make even better customers than their parents.
The source and execution of the pivot to the subscription service and the accompanying product and brand came from a singular spark of inspiration — the voice of the customer. The formal rebrand only took several weeks, but the learnings leading up to it took the better part of a year, with many of the brand assets being produced along the way as we attempted to validate our hypotheses about our customers and use cases.
The process was a rare and exciting opportunity to evolve a product and brand in tandem, not with one as the aftermath of the other. It was an exhilarating process to work through some big questions with a talented team, and see the tangible effects of our efforts on the business. I’m looking forward to seeing Kitchensurfing continue to serve the needs of families looking to eat more purposefully.
I love talking about product design, customer research methodologies, and the relationship between UX and brand. Drop me a line to chat by emailing email@example.com.