Product managers have traditionally been known to focus on the strategy, roadmap and feature definition of products and product lines. And while some focus on the product marketing side of things, all too often branding is overlooked in digital product management. Depending on the size and stage of the company, there may not even be a branding team.
Whether you are launching a new product or enhancing an existing one, not having a strong brand that resonates with customers can kill your efforts as a product manager. So how can you contribute to a product’s brand and why is it so important to your product’s success?
Products vs Brands
We first need to distinguish between products and brands and how they impact one another. Great products create value and a strong brand tells a great story that communicates that value. As product managers we focus on the design of products and the tangible use of features by our users and customers. Branding, on the other hand, is more abstract and looks at the perception of how a product and company are viewed by the public at large.
How do these two come together? Effective brands tie the product benefits back to the company, and help the company acquire new customers and build customer loyalty. Even still, it’s astonishing how often branding is an afterthought in the development of digital products!
Challenging The Status Quo
As product managers, we all know a product person or two who believe that brand identity and positioning are too time intensive, the process too cumbersome and expensive, and that all resources should be put into product development. After all, a great product sells itself, right? Not so!
Why does this gap occur and where does it come from? Well for one companies have traditionally analyzed brand positioning and business performance separately, and this status quo has resulted in lost opportunities and fragmentation. That said many companies still lack a branding team and decide that budget and schedule constraints as well as potential future market pivots present too many challenges to invest in branding.
Brand Experience Before Product Improvement
Much to the chagrin of some product people, marketing experts recommend improving a product’s brand experience over improving the product itself. Take a look at Airbnb’s recent rebranding efforts. Beyond the new logo and colors, the product and marketing teams innovated the perception of the company by creating a story of belonging, of connection, anywhere and at anytime. That connection can be realized throughout all of the home sharing sites products and services, and the messaging, company expression, and features and functions – whether you are a host or a traveler – can be felt, remain prominent and share alignment.
While the rebranding effort was happening for Airbnb, their business model was changing too; what their products and services do, who they serve and how they create value is part of this. And while Airbnb’s efforts were major, even a little work in this area goes a long way. The important thing is to start off with the proper sequence: products should reinforce the brand and its promise, not the other way around.
Bridging The Gap
If you create your product based upon what you assume your customers will love in terms of design and messaging, you’re taking a risk that your brand won’t resonate with it’s target market. And that won’t help your product become a success.
Product managers can bridge the gap without being branding experts by identifying perception through discovery and interviews, and defining product features and functions based on the intended brand experience and brand promise.
One specific way to do this is in the design phase. As product managers who know how important user experience is, we must have empathy. Often this is developed through user research and customer interviews. Empathy often crosses over into the requirements of product features and functions, which lends itself back to not only what the product is but who we are serving and how we are serving them.
As those at Google Ventures have reflected in the artful crafting of their 5 Day Design Sprint,
Getting your brand right is everything: what you build, the way you build it, who you build it for, and how you do your work.
And while focusing only on the design is not the ultimate way to go in terms of branding, it is a very effective strategy for product managers who need to make sure the brand is strong for a product to be successful.
As product managers we know that products are not projects, and do not have an end date but rather evolve over time. Just as it takes time to truly understand how to create consistent value from our products, it takes considerable time figuring out how our brand will resonate with our audience.
The best way to do this is to bring branding experts to create the brand and validate messaging from the start. We must champion branding as part of the product development process by helping identify important aspects of the brand, tie that back to the product, and work in increments. By taking baby steps from the start, you can be sure your product gets the traction it needs and you can feel the sense of accomplishment you’ve been working towards