A brand is a pointer

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Unevolved Brands by Graham Smith via flickr.com

As someone with an engineering background, I was always far more concerned with the features of the product I was building, rather than the hype and bullshit that gets built up by marketing. But eventually, I changed my mind about marketing. The practice of something and its intent are two separate things. 

The core intent of marketing is actually about clear communication and teaching others so they can understand your product, use your product, and stay with it. Given you actually have something of value for others to make their lives better, they will need help understanding how and why you’re able to do that. [1] 

Part of being able to clearly communicate your product is having a brand or a positioning. So what is a brand? Is it a great looking logo? Or great looking packaging? I’d argue that those are just manifestations of its core purpose:

A brand is essentially a pointer.

Just as in you have memory addresses pointing to other sections of memory, a brand is a pointer that uniquely refers to a product, whether it’s a 5 word description, a logo, commercial, or nowadays, an internet meme. Every time you think of solving a problem or doing an activity, chances are, you only think of one or two solutions. 

Where do you go if you want to play with toy bricks?
Where do you go if you want to see funny videos?
Where do you go if you want to review your personal finances?
Where do you go if you want to read rants about Apple?

When you’re describing your startup or your product to other people, it needs to be simple and succinct enough to write a pointer in their minds about a specific problem they need solved. So that the next time they want this problem solved, they think of your product. Or even better, the next time someone asks them how to solve a particular problem, they’ll be reminded of your product.

That’s why you so often hear the phrase, “It’s X for Y” when someone’s describing their startup. As clichéd as the phrase is, it’s effective in giving the listener a mental hook to hang their understanding on. 

But, “my product does more than that!” you might retort. Don’t fall into this trap of feeling sheepish that your product only solves one problem. Many startups fail because they don’t even manage to do that. Clearly, in the four examples I gave above, you can do far more with their products than what I described, but the four short problem descriptions above is what reminds you of those products. It gets your product’s foot in the door of someone’s mind so they can start exploring what else your product does. The enemy of most beginning products is not a lack of features, but obscurity. 

In addition, smart people can usually think a step or two out, but they need some basis to work from. When you’ve established “It’s X for Y” for your product in someone’s mind, they’re free to let their imagination fly. They’ll probably come up with more ideas and perspectives than you would have thought of. But if you never get them there, you won’t be able to reap the benefits of people’s enthusiasm and imagination. 

Lastly, having a pointer to your product helps with narrowing down your minimum viable product if you can describe it succinctly. Many times, when you’re in the early stages of product development, you’re not actually quite sure what you’re building as of yet. Having a short description goes a long way in focusing your efforts and help determine what your MVP should be. The less you can describe what the core functionality should be, the longer it will take for you to launch, and the longer it’ll take for you to get feedback on whether you’re even on track or not.

So think long and hard about how to whittle down what your product is suppose to do, if it can only do one thing. If you get stuck, If your product is useless if it doesn’t do X, then keep X. If your product is still useful without X, then cut X.

If you get stuck, think about control tower software. Despite it being very complicated and having lots of features, it’s only suppose to do one thing its core: land planes. Your product should just land planes too, by analogy. And the next time someone needs to land their plane, they’ll think of you.

[1] Marketing gets a bad rap because, often times people do marketing even when they have shitty products or products that are inherently harmful.

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