How to brand a product that doesn’t exist

Jun 17 2013

Because of the short amount of time we have this summer, the structure of the Reese News Lab Summer Startup is a little condensed. The teams are simultaneously working on marketing strategies, business plans and prototype testing, which in the long run will create a better product, but in the meantime it presents some major branding challenges.

It’s difficult to effectively present a product to the world when we don’t even fully have a grasp on it yet. For those of you reading who don’t quite understand what I mean, it’s analogous to parents having to write their child’s college application while the kid is still in third grade. Just because little Kathy finished her first Judy Blume book doesn’t necessarily mean she will be a pioneer in feminist literature. Just because one lawyer said he prefers the idea of an archive to an alert system doesn’t mean we’ve found the universal selling point of our product. In fact, we don’t even know if that feature is possible.

Watching both teams face these dilemmas, I’ve come up with three main guidelines on how to brand a product that doesn’t exist.

Focus on the problem your product is solving
Being able to sell someone on your product with a concise explanation is key for branding. Every time someone new walks into the lab, Executive Director John Clark makes one person from each team give a short pitch, and it’s not easy. Strive to explain your product in terms of the problem it’s solving rather than the specifics of how it works. The latter will likely continue to evolve, whereas the premise of why you’re creating the product is pretty stable and likely more convincing.

Define by its unique factor
Some major parts of branding that we’re beginning to toy with are the logo and name. As the proud parent of this pseudo-product, there are so many features we want to show off. But these features are ill-defined and likely to change. My advice: After researching your competitors, try to find the one factor of your product that makes it unique and show off that. While the legislature transcription product’s name is still under construction, we’re beginning to focus in on the fact that our product helps users to understand the conversations that lead to legislation, which gives the product a new insider appeal that no other competitor has.

Don’t get attached
The research aspect of branding can be very frustrating when what users want doesn’t match up to the direction you want the product to go. Suck it up. Most likely if you’re someone who’s taking the time to go through this process, you’re passionate about what you’re creating. I know I personally get easily excited about an idea and will try anything to make it succeed. For example, one of my original pitches was for a second-screen app that would give the viewer more information about the broadcast. It turns out no one wants that, and that was not exactly what I wanted to hear. However, the team has found a market for the app in the Spanish-speaking community, and I have even more faith and excitement in its possible success.

I realize that this view of branding gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it,” but at least we can try to fake it well.

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