Workshops that will Fix Your Messaging Problems and Save Your Marketing Life

Workshops that will Fix Your Messaging Problems and Save Your Marketing Life 1080 1080 Kim Donlan

If your prospects aren’t buying or you can’t articulate your value, you have a messaging problem. Don’t worry, most brands do.

Sometimes, your message is so similar to the competitor, customers can’t really tell the difference. So you end up in a perpetual pricing battle. Or worse, your product is superior but your competition has a slicker campaign that makes them seem better. Consequently, you are stuck in a longer sales cycle to prove your value.

Great messaging comes from seeing your brand differently. For many marketers and entrepreneurs, it is a struggle to simplify brand messaging because there is no formal process or framework. Until now.

Foundation of all marketing is great messaging. Yet, we don't teach the skills, process or strategy from which great messaging is born.

Learn the psychology, process, and framework of great messaging in a workshop taught by legendary messaging expert, Kim Donlan. You will master the problems holding you back from being top of your game – pick one, two or all three workshops:

  1. Scalable messaging – For a cohesive brand
  2. Customer-centric Strategy – “Get’ their point of view
  3. Advanced Personal Branding – Be your own Superhero

Define your brand and learn to grow to #1 with messaging that cuts through the noise. Better yet, you will work with your own materials and data so you leave with an action plan and creative to implement right away.


  • Sign up now! Limited to 10 participants each. It will sell out.
  • Held at our studio – 119 Braintree St, Suite 503, Allston

Learn how to fix your messaging problem.  Be scalable. Be customer-centric. Be effective.

Any question, email Kim Donlan

Customer-centric Messaging Survey Results: Struggle is Real

Customer-centric Messaging Survey Results: Struggle is Real 650 650 Kim Donlan

I like a survey just as much as the next girl, but what I love is looking deeper into the stats to untangle the sentiments.  I look closely at comments people make when they think no one is paying attention. Analyzing the angry snippets, hushed wishes, and juicy tidbits revealed in comments that tell a more honest story. Most comments are based on belief more than truth. Finding beliefs is the secret to messaging.

The survey was answered by CMOs, product managers, brand managers, and entrepreneurs. Every company was generating revenue – so no pure startups in the mix. One surprise was how many respondents have the word strategy in their title but sit outside of marketing.

customer centric messaging survey infographic. Survey of markets and their struggles with messaging
Marketers Customer-Centric Messaging Survey

Quick Snapshot

  • 90% of marketers and entrepreneurs recognize they need help with messaging
  • 81% rate customer-centric messaging as extremely or highly important
  • #1 issue marketers struggle with is “Thinking from the customer’s perspective.”

But that wasn’t the full story. I asked two questions to see if there was a correlation between what marketers believe and how they behave. I wanted to know if what they struggled with and what they would pay to get help with was different. Because the data was dense, I make this lovely infographic to clarify how marketers rate their struggles. 

There is rich information in the responses. The customer-centric messaging survey showed marketers think differently than they act. Email if you’d find it helpful to learn more.  Also, check out this article for another take on messaging.

how to create unique messaging by identifying your value

How to Create Unique Messaging by Identifying Your Value

How to Create Unique Messaging by Identifying Your Value 650 650 Kim Donlan

Recently, I had an opportunity to help my mentor with her latest startup and create a unique message that would connect with the right audience. Over 20 years ago, I met Lois Lindauer, one of Boston’s most successful women CEOs, when I joined The Commonwealth Institute. Lois had sold Diet Workshop and was just starting her second business, Lois L. Lindauer Searches. In a sea of conservative-chic trailblazers, Lois had this creative flair. I, the digital, email, web-conferencing maven, immediately connected with Lois, whose mantra was “Why don’t you come in and we can talk face to face?”

Look to the founders for clues to create unique messaging

Back then, I was razor-focused on raising money and closing early customers for my marketing software firm, Perfect Pitch. When I say razor-focused, I mean head-down, nothing else matters, if I can just do this, please God, I won’t ask for anything else kind of focus. The bursting of the tech bubble put an end to that particular dream. In many ways, it should have put an end to the relationship I had with Lois Lindauer. It didn’t.

Now and again, I would email Lois with questions on how to pivot my own businesses or the VC-backed tech firms I was leading. Out of deep respect, I didn’t ask often. Each time, she would insist we meet. Her advice was always insightful, thoughtful and wise. And right.

Lois and I are both relentless entrepreneurs. From her, I learned to give people time and advice whenever they asked. When I got a call in November, Lois was now the razor-focused woman looking to capitalize on her small business selling postcards on Etsy. A small project had morphed into a potential business. It was time to create unique messaging that would connect with the right audience.

A simple framework to create unique messaging

It happens to many founders and executive teams. Creating a unique message that connects is hard. It’s there, but each time you try to articulate it, you ramble on and on. An explanation of WHAT you are offering can be trapped inside the reason WHY you are offering your products and services. The struggle with the messaging problem is a conflict between the WHAT and the WHY. If you can’t connect the WHAT and the WHY, it becomes difficult to create messaging that matters to your audience.

For founders with an idea chasing funding and customers and VC-backed teams disrupting a market, defining the messaging framework is key. You often need a framework to uncover the link between WHAT and WHY. As I wrote about in my article “I Just Need a Landing Page” and Other Mistakes You Are Making with Your Early-Stage Branding, there are discovery questions that can help get you thinking about this connection. To further that thinking, here are the two principles I keep in mind when creating unique messaging that connects:

  1. Messaging is the ability to communicate your unique value.
  2. Your unique value is always a core principle of you, as a person, or your team, as a collective.

Here is an example of the two principles at work in the case of Lois Lindauer and Keep Me Posted Postcards.

Creating unique messaging is the ability to communicate your unique value.

There has been a resurgence of direct mail and postcards in particular. People are reading postcards in greater numbers, with a 3.9% year-over-year increase (USPS Household Diary Study). Postcards have a 5.7% response rate (DMA) and, when combined with other methods, increase branding efforts. And 57% of customers feel more valued when they receive a postcard. (The Private Life of Mail Study). For example, when we conducted our consumer insight and SEO research, we found that people struggle with how to follow up after meetings, networking functions, and other events.

Clearly, Lois’s unique value is that her business allows customers to grow their networks and businesses using postcards and sign up for tips on what to actually write on the postcards. This is a unique value. This could be core to creating unqiue messaging that connects. But is it enough?

Your unique value is always a core principle of you or your team

Your target market is critical and oh-so-hard to nail. Everyone can benefit, but which market is the easiest to enter? For personal postcards that help a business grow, it made sense to think about salespeople, consultants, freelancers, business development folks and small-business owners. We then looked at  Lois’ philosophy and history of supporting women. This led to insightful consumer research that reveals that:

  • Women have a tendency to harbor moral concerns about “exploiting” social ties. It causes them to under-benefit from networking activities (Science Daily Press Release)
  • And “women build less effective professional networks than men as they underestimate self-worth.” (Science Daily Press Release)

So we have a unique value (personalized postcards that can help networks and businesses grow). And a target market (women consultants, small-business owners, freelancers, and sales/business developers).

When we really look at the products (postcards) and the service (the tips for what to say to stand out, grow your business and add to your marketing toolkit), there is a clear WHAT. But we still need the emotional connection. Many marketers and entrepreneurs skim over this step. It’s understandable. It involves getting to the root of WHY you? Why choose Keep Me Posted Postcards over MailChimp or Moo? How do you think about creating messaging that is the right emotional balance.

Finding the emotional connection

For Lois, the emotional connection is the value of lifelong, personal relationships that are the direct result of meaningful, thoughtful interactions. A handwritten note, a personal message, or a face-to-face meeting can have a lasting impact. The personal postcards are a tangible reminder that in this digital world, human connection is extremely important. Human connection is what built Lois’ deep network and success. Her new business is a way of sharing her know-how with others.

Entrepreneurs struggle to create unique messaging when they can’t see their businesses as a direct extension of who they are. Customers and prospects respond positively to those who are clear about what they care about. And they really respond when they know you care about them.

I just need a landing page and other mistakes you are making with your early stage branding

Startup Branding: The Best Discovery Questions and Digital Framework

Startup Branding: The Best Discovery Questions and Digital Framework 650 650 Kim Donlan

Brand strategy for startups is complex. As you launch your new ideas, seek financing and find initial customers, branding is often pushed to the side. It is costly, time-consuming, and simply not a priority. While full branding and messaging do take time, a failure to understand the pitfalls of startup branding can stop your company from ever really taking off.

Some think, “We’ll figure out the branding later—all I need is a landing page.” Another is, “We’re in stealth mode, so I can’t publicly share what we really do.” Or, “We can just use a template for now.” The problem with this thinking is it prevents you from addressing the fundamental questions that define your brand. As a result, it keeps you from communicating why your early adopters should trust you.

Where startups go wrong with brand strategy

A digital presence—even a seemingly simple landing page—need to address the foundational business questions early customers have. Branding and messaging require you to answer the tough discovery questions that prospective customers have about you and your idea. It is painstaking work to articulate your idea. But it does lead to a better customer experience that builds trust and a sales funnel from the beginning.

Best brand startup discovery questions

  • What is the impetus of your idea?
  • Who are you?
  • Can you succinctly describe your products or services?
  • What kind of organization or business model are you?
  • Where you are in the marketplace, and where you would like to go?
  • How do you currently market your products and services?
  • What is your competitive advantage?
  • Are there any trends or changes that are affecting your industry?
  • Are there any potential barriers to success for your product or service?
  • Where do you want to be in three years?
  • If you could communicate one single message about your company, what would it be?

These startup brand strategy discovery questions are vital to your digital presence and, in fact, the identity of your brand. Most noteworthy, your answers shape the content and structure of your preliminary digital engagement plan. It does not matter whether you have a single landing page, a small site, a predominantly social approach, or just a sign-up form—it must reflect the answers to the discovery questions to some degree.

Think customer experience even with a templated site

Yes, it is true that your brand will change as you go to market. Certainly, there is fluidity as you refine your messaging and learn more about how the market will be impacted by your idea. Having a branding and messaging starting point will prevent you from taking the shortcut offered by templated landing pages. Because templated landing pages give you a cookie-cutter digital presence that makes you look just like everyone else, they rob you of your uniqueness.

Because templates are quick and easy, they allow you to save money on designers and developers. Add a hero image (check), list the features and benefits (got it), incorporate clever team bios (yup) and a contact form (done). But these templates are being used by every other early-stage company and can trap you in an online experience does not distinguish you. More importantly, templates deployed without the branding and messaging can lead you down a path that fails to address the customer’s perspective.

Brand startup digital framework

The Startup Brand Discovery Questions help you examine your idea more closely—what is your idea, how does it fit in the market and where are you going with it? (To get the full list of discovery questions, please email me at The answers to these questions are from your perspective. As you move towards the Startup Digital Branding Framework, you need to think about how your answers can be framed from the customer’s perspective.

Imagine you have a small site, just something built to support your efforts to close initial pilots and secure funding. First of all, branding and messaging are embedded in the typical sections. The template will have you fill in features, benefits, and product information. Furthermore, all the information will be from your perspective and not help you present your business with a customer-centric message. Finally, the templates make it hard to address what the customer is really thinking. Take a look at the framework below that presents shows how the map the messaging to the site.

Align the CX with what customers seek

Startup branding digital framework that diagrams how to build a site in a way that makes you customer-centric from the beginning.
To see how this framework changes the site content, checkout out our case study on Nataly Kogan, here. Or go right to her great site we created,

Startup branding and messaging is hard work. The pressure to create a digital presence that supports current goals and shows the long-term vision is a balancing act. Above all, focusing on the customer experience in front of you is the best approach. The discovery questions and framework will get those critical first customers. As a result, you and your company will be around long enough to evolve.

Finally, think of startup branding as your version of the Grey’s Anatomy scene where Dr. Meredith Grey says, “So pick me. Choose Me. Love Me.” And the Startup Digital Branding Framework will ensure your idea connects with those who’ll love you most.

When you are the brand a look at how to connect your corporate and personal brand

When You Are the Brand: How to Blend Your Corporate and Personal Brands

When You Are the Brand: How to Blend Your Corporate and Personal Brands 650 650 Kim Donlan

Managing our personal brand is something we all do. We update our LinkedIn profiles, write blogs and manage our social accounts — all with the hope that expressing our beliefs, opinions, and expertise allows us to create an identity that represents who we are and what we do.

For some people, a personal brand escalates into something separate from the company they work for or own. They connect to others in a way that strikes a chord — reverberating across industries and segments. For a while, the personal brand and the corporate brand work extremely well together. The personal brand provides a closer look at the person, and the corporate brand benefits when the audience feels a more intimate, human connection.

In some cases, the personal brand begins to compete with or overshadow the corporate brand. The brand story gets muddled as audiences engage with the individual and her personal posts more than the corporate content. It can be challenging to detangle what the audience is responding to and how the corporation should proceed.

Our recent work with Nataly Kogan and her company, Happier Inc offers an excellent example of the process of rethinking personal and corporate brand strategies. Nataly’s business success was due, in part, to the sharing of her personal journey and lessons learned in an effort to help others achieve their dreams. Customers responded with loyalty to the business, a deeper connection was growing between Nataly and her customers and followers.  

When your personal brand and corporate brand collide

Prior to the publication of her new book Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments (Even the Difficult Ones), Nataly wanted to investigate how to best handle three products, each with its own identity:, and the book Happier Now.

Who does the audience love? What do they love? And what is the story that can be told to turn that love into engagement, loyalty, and revenue?

Kim Donlan, RedSwan5

Clearly, developing a new strategy to determine how personal brand and corporate brands should work was required.

When YOU are the brand

When you are the brand — or at least a significant part of one — a simple story is hard to craft. First, it’s hard to think of yourself as a product. For example,

  • Nataly Kogan is an inspiring speaker (product 1)
  • a CEO of Happier Inc (product 2)
  • the author of a book (product 3)
  • a workshop leader (product 4)
  • and a trailblazer with a new view of happiness (product 5)

Second, when you begin to explore how to scale the services you offer, it can be difficult to imagine how you will be able to handle that level of work. You are only one person. Nataly wanted to continue to help businesses shift their corporate culture. Engagement levels continued to increase long after her workshops. Changes in employees and management spread to internal communication, meetings and project productivity. To grow, there would need to be more than Nataly. To reach more business and humans would require a highly trained team of Happier Super Users and products that could help bring Nataly’s thinking and magic to interactions where she could not be there in person.

Blending personal and corporate brands

The attributes that Nataly brings — the deep desire to help people and companies, the ability to make scientifically proven happiness practices easy to adopt and the gift for sharing her personal story in a way that connects the audience to her and to one another — are very much who Nataly Kogan is as a person. The Happier mobile application, new Happier Now book, 1 Minute Boost practices, and workshops are extensions of personal brand pillars. This alignment allowed us to blend personal and corporate brands.

Risks and rewards of merging corporate and personal brand

A personal brand garnering a following that is outpacing the corporate identity can begin to feel, well, intoxicating. It’s great when you are popular, listened to and capturing attention. Personal brand awareness often spills over to the corporate brand. It can get addictive. Yes, they like YOU! Yet you are not a business unless you make a conscious effort to become one. Should you? Examining the long-term strategy of both a personal and a corporate trajectory will help you evaluate which is the best path. Here are a few ways to think about it:

If you have a star in the ranks

  • Have you hired a well-followed rising influencer?
  • Is there a potential to create a celebrity that your audience can relate to?
  • Are you interested in using your personal network to support your business goals?
  • Is your company at a pivot point where you need to build a bridge of personal trust as you transition?

If you are an entrepreneur (or want to be)

  • Do you aspire to be the next Oprah, Richard Branson, Bill Gates or Sramana Mitra?
  • No matter what business you are in now, do you secretly wish for a lucrative consulting and speaking practice supported by a best-selling book or at least fame?
  • Are you compelled to share your view with the world?

Deciding on the appropriate strategy for the personal and corporate brands depends on your objective. Consider these questions:

  • Are customers following the brand or the person?
  • Should corporate and personal brands be blended?
  • Would the audience be lost if the personal brand were to fade?
  • What are the attributes of the person that should belong to the corporate brand?
  • Are personal and corporate attributes similar or far apart?
  • Have you thought through the risks and discipline needed to sustain a personal brand?

The power of personal brands

To truly breakthrough, your brand must feel real and meaningful. This can come from the very people who believe in it the most — the founders, senior team or developers who embody the brand. Or, the personality can come from the users — the audience who consumes it. It is no longer a matter of personal or corporate brand. It is a personal brand. And the question is, how personal?

I believe it is no longer a matter of personal or corporate brand. It is a personal brand. And the question is, how personal?

Kim Donlan, RedSwan5

5 Critical Question to Drive Your Strategic Marketing Metrics

5 Critical Question to Drive Your Strategic Marketing Metrics 650 650 Kim Donlan

Clients are frustrated when their impressions, page views, the number of unique visitors, email opens vs. industry standard, likes, shares and time spent on any landing page aren’t generating revenue. Same is true for those with large email lists that aren’t leading to new sales. Not all marketing metrics are strategic. 

What might look like a marketing problem is, in fact, a perspective problem. In our data-obsessed marketing culture, the measurement mindset leads to marketing spend and success metrics that lose sight of the longer strategic initiatives. Aligning metrics to strategy requires a fundamental shift in what and who you care about. 

Marketing metrics aren’t adding up to revenue

It’s not a marketing problem, it’s is a perspective problem. A demand generation program, you would establish strategic marketing goals based on a sales funnel. Need to improve the customer experience, you would set the marketing goals on the loyalty, retention or referrals.

In our data-obsessed marketing culture, the measurement mindset leads to marketing spend and success metrics that lose sight of the longer strategic initiatives. To align metrics to strategy requires a fundamental shift in what and who you care about.

Ask customer-centric questions:

  1. Is what your customers say about you similar to what industry analysts say?
  2. Are your customers buying your product but never actually using it? Or, using it differently?
  3. How are the customers interacting with your brand story?
  4. What types of interaction are leading to the most referrals?
  5. Do you know what is happening in the lives of your users before they even know they need you?

There are driving questions that direct your attention, money and marketing. Driving questions fall under two mindsets: Marketing Driven Approach and Strategic Thinking Mindset. The chart below helps you understand how the questions and metrics tell you which mindset you are in. Market Driven Approach vs Strategic Thinking Mindset

Note: If you are looking for more questions, check out this article on Discovery Questions.

A longer-term perspective that focuses on the customer experience allows brands to think broadly about success. And, make progress towards strategic marketing goals that measure relevance to customers’ lives.

How Brands Get Stuck

How Brands Get Stuck 650 650 Kim Donlan

Brand_Alignment_RedSwan5RedSwan5 Redesigns (and Realigns)

I could tell Ben Sachs was a lawyer every time he jumped to his feet during our kids’ games shouting “INTERFERENCE!” like he was the Perry Mason of softball. As a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School and the co-founder of OnLabor, a blog devoted to workers, unions and politics, Prof Sachs and his contributors provide guidance and perspective on the union movement and new forms of worker organization. During the less exciting innings (there may have been a few), we got to talking about how his very popular site,,  needed a redesign and an opportunity to refocus. This got me thinking about how brand value is continuously evolving yet we often resist opportunities to evaluate it.

How Brands Get Stuck

The blog had grown quickly to over 800 posts including a popular daily News and Commentary vertical that provides a snapshot of the latest business and legal issues. The consistently good content nurtured a loyal audince that included 2300+ Twitter followers – most very prominent journalists, academics and political influencers. Successful? Absolutely. Important? Yes. Delivering value in a way that can show a long-term view, reveal interesting patterns and reflect how daily decisions are shaping the impact on society? Not so much.

In the beginning, it takes a huge effort, an operational mindset and discipline for a brand to build a content machine. It’s natural for brands to gravitate to the most enthusiastic audience — those responding, following, retweeting, subscribing and buying. In this early stage, the brand value is often shaped by the first audience — the one who happens to be paying attention at that time. Ultimately, that audience may or may not be the best audience. Or the only one. Soon internal conversations start with “We need a site refresh.” What really needs to be discussed is “We might not be on the right path.”

Redesign Is REALLY a Brand Value Course Correction

It used to be that brand stories were based on a single value proposition developed for a customer who fits a specific profile. As the brand stories develop, engagement measurements help to dictate the fastest path to a trusted relationship. For content-rich sites (especially sites with content that’s educational, not thinly disguised sales material) there is a unique alternative — the opportunity to build multiple relationships with various types of users. A content-rich site has two potential approaches to course correction:

  1. retract the content and focus on a very specific users/customers who would be the most profitable or
  • splinter the content and allow many users/customers to define what is the most valuable to them.

For OnLabor, several years of content had grown beyond the single audience as evidenced by the Twitter followers. It had value for many audiences — each one of which could define the value slightly differently. The excellent, consistent content, the depth of the thinking and the broad range of topics created an opportunity for followers to forge a trust relationship with the specific content, topics or authors that were most relevant to them.

Brand Value Defines the Brand Experience

Too often, the redesign process begins with metric-based goals rather than a value alignment exercise. Yes, you need goals. Marketing goals are based on your brand value. If you aren’t telling the right brand story, a new homepage or navigation will not fix it. The redesign process must first begin with an assessment of the brand value with the audience(s). Do you stick with who you have, address the accidental audiences, expand to new audiences or narrow in on a specific segment? What value do you bring and who loves your brand? Which users are you designing for?

Brands pressured for time and still smarting from the major investment in a new site try to avoid a full redesign and messaging exercise by framing it as a slight “refresh” or “facelift.” This mindset ignores the more important opportunity — to realign the value and brand story. Continuous alignment ensures brands are relevant.

The redesign process starts with 3 simple questions:

  1. Is the audience we have today the one we want?
  2. Will there be any changes to the content (the service) we provide?
  3. How should the brand experience change to reflect the value? Homepage

For a better brand experience meant a more sophisticated look and feel and navigation/categorization that reflected areas of expertise that would allow each audience to quickly find and engage with content relevant to them. We also made a decision to keep the content publishing operations the same so that all contributors would be able to continue without retraining. (Note: Another audience often overlooked is the contributors themselves.)

The new has a lot less interference. It stayed true to its brand value and made it easier for followers to engage with the rich content. More importantly, it went through the tough exercise of evaluating and re-categorizing content to show how deeply they cover issues related to labor. In terms of effort, the redesign was likely more work than the original launch because it required deep, strategic thinking on how the brand experience and brand value were interrelated. The brand is set to continue to grow, confident it’s on the right course.

For an evaluation of your brand value and brand experience, feel free to email Kim Donlan, founder and chief strategist, RedSwan5.

And the winner is…

And the winner is… 550 462 Kim Donlan


The 2017 Interactive Media Awards recently announced (much to our pleasure) that we are the winner of two outstanding achievement awards — one in the science/technology category and the other for a lifestyle site.


Dream Big Award Winning

Dream Big – Science and Technology
The science/technology category is for our work on the educational site to support the IMAX film Dream Big. Dream Big is focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and is meant to motivate kids of diverse backgrounds to become the innovators the world needs. The film has an ongoing educational, museum and community effort to expose young people to engineering.

Our awesome client, DiscoverE, a global leader in supporting engineering for K-12 by uniting, mobilizing and supporting volunteer communities, made this project possible for us. Our team also got to work directly with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and MacGillivray Freeman.


CBC Award Winning (1)


Cambridge Boat Club – Lifestyle
And yes, there’s more. We also were tapped for our work with Cambridge Boat Club, a 100-year-old boathouse on the banks of the Charles River in Boston. (The original site might have been 100 years old.) The beauty is in what you can’t see – an operational database that connects finance, events, membership and rowing data into a single location. We also introduced online payments — which improved the invoicing process and saved the club both time and money.

Ultimately, our work is always judged by the site users and not award committees. For both these projects, our team and clients collaborated to create a brand experience that makes people’s lives better. For a young digital agency, however, the awards help on two fronts. The judges’ feedback, which put us just a few points away from “best in class,” provides a great educational opportunity to embrace what we know is working and push a little harder in other areas.

We would like to thank the academy…(applause)

Why You Might Not Be Getting Anywhere — and How to Fix It

Why You Might Not Be Getting Anywhere — and How to Fix It 650 650 Kim Donlan

The book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, by Jake Knapp, talks about the importance of testing ideas with a prototype mindset. (Thanks to IoT product design manager Erin Pearson for the book recommendation) Jake says that to get a genuine response, your prototype should “show them something realistic.” Prototypes are often referred to as MVPs (minimum viable products) — and one might be the best “first” thing to prove your idea has what it takes to succeed.

New product teams and marketing departments are starting to see MVPs as the fastest way to prove an idea fills a niche and to test customer preferences without impacting the brand or wasting valuable resources. And this works because consumers want products that meet their personal needs, and they are all too happy to tell you how to build them.

An MVP is a wonderful shortcut. It’s a direct path to consumer opinion and can grow your leads list, help secure funding, close deals or launch your product well before any code is written. Yet it won’t work unless it feels realistic, stays on brand and answers the question you set out to prove.

Here are the 5 signs you don’t have an MVP (yet).

#1 You’re Testing a Small Problem

MVPs are the path to game-changing differentiation. You are testing potential — an idea, a new market, a following, funding and support of the super-influencers. The inclination is to break down the process of a new idea into small steps that change behavior and begin to test the incremental change. That approach takes too long and will cause you to lose your way.

Struggling to pay their rent, Airbnb founders, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky built a mini website to find out if attendees of a big design conference would pay money to sleep on an air mattress. They would also serve breakfast. Three people said yes.  

Approach an MVP by asking and testing the right question. Focus on defining the ONE BIG SIMPLE CHANGE that you believe people want.

#2 Customers Aren’t Involved

Dropbox famously built an inexpensive “explainer video” to verify if people would want a file sharing tool. The video featured functionality that was still in beta and generated 75,000 subscribers.

MVPs need to be seen by potential customers to be of any value to you. An authentic customer response to what they perceive as a real (or soon to be) product or service is a shortcut to understanding what customers are willing to give for it: an email, an endorsement, a share or money.

#3 It’s Not an Experience

According to a recent survey by Walker, customer experience will be more important than price and product by 2020. In fact, 86% of buyers will pay more for a better customer experience.

It stands to reason that an MVP needs to be part of a great experience that can stand on its own or make sense within the context of a larger experience. Customers need to quickly get to a simple idea unencumbered by bad design. They can then embrace (or reject) the idea.

#4 It Lacks Personality (aka It’s Lame)

Nothing will stop a MVP in its tracks faster than placeholder text. In an environment where you are trying to establish the validity of a new idea, words matter. It imperative your MVP make a good impression and an emotional connection. This is even more important given the fact that most of the product isn’t available. No matter who the MVP is built for — customers, funders, partners or an internal audience — great copy can completely change the outcome.

Here are eye-opening examples of landing pages, videos, presentations and  mini websites that can provide inspiration as you develop the messaging for your MVP.

#5 It’s Built on the Wrong Device

If you are launching a mobile application, the MVP must be shown on mobile. If you want to simulate a new feature on your site, it needs to work within the existing online experience. I know. This is crazy talk.

There are lots of prototype tools to select from and each has its pros and cons. Will it mean a little more work? Yes. But it is nothing compared to an investor looking at you and saying, “Will it work on mobile?”

MVPs are being used more and more by lean startups and large enterprises to get traction and validation. MVPs are live use cases of the existence of a real need. And they can be continuously improved in a rolling thunder strategy that builds a company that has customers before a bit of code is even written.

RedSwan5 has built MVPs that have led to million-dollar sales and funding while still in the concept stage. To learn more, contact Kim Donlan.

To Be Relevant, You Don’t Soothe a Consumer’s Pain. You Eliminate It.

To Be Relevant, You Don’t Soothe a Consumer’s Pain. You Eliminate It. 650 650 Kim Donlan

We recently helped one of our start-up clients prepare for Unpitch and discovered working with founders at the early stage has a lot of similarities to working with larger brands on building a great story and position. Unpitch is a terrific event that provides opportunities and connections for founders who are closer to the idea stage than the “spit and polish” newbies fresh out of accelerators. Startups attack problems with fresh ideas on how to solve them in much the same way that the very best, most trusted brands do.  

Founders and CMOs face the exact same dilemma — deciding how to compete.

  • Is the idea a shinier version of what already exists?
  • Will the idea disrupt an existing market?
  • Will it create a new category or sub-category?

The answers will determine whether you have a relevant brand strategy.  

Embracing brand relevance requires creating a product or service that changes the way consumers think. Relevance is where customers don’t need to compare your brand with others. There’s just you and your brand. A simple decision. You are relevant to their lives. You contribute to who they are.

The 3 lessons CMOs can learn from the start-ups are:


If you look deeply at your existing customer experience and landscape, you will find gaps and opportunities. They will be disguised as annoyances, frustrations, little moments that piss people off though it seems as if there is no other choice but to suck it up.

A good place to look is market and field research. What does a customer’s life really look like in those micro-moments? How is the customer’s behavior impacted mentally, emotionally, psychologically, physically, culturally, socially and intellectually? Often, you are looking for the accepted frustration of “what is.”

During a class I teach at Bentley, students were working with Misha & Puff, a maker of knitted children’s wear. During the survey and market research, students kept hearing “Paying lots of money for babies clothes is a waste because they grow out of them so quickly.” Students then looked at how children’s clothes used to be made and found they were often knitted because the fabrics could stretch and accommodate children as they grew. An expensive sweater could be used for a longer time and then passed down to another child. 

reframe the pain


To uncover the innovation in front of you, look for what is taking too long to do or is incredibly inconvenient. What system or process just doesn’t make sense any longer? Or, how can you use what you already have in a new way?

In a recent project for the IMAX film, Dream Big, we realized that a film screening during a field trip stood a small chance of inspiring students to consider engineering as a career. We needed to change how an IMAX film was marketed. The film became the centerpiece of a larger collective movement that provided teachers, parents, museums and volunteer engineers with events, resources and curriculum to incorporate engineering concepts into the classroom. Inspired students will be able to experiment with the engineering principles that have led to great achievements.


Carving out a large group of customers is what startups are doing every day as they pitch their ideas to investors. They point to lost opportunities and make a compelling case that shows they really, truly empathize with the people they are trying to help.

Identifying a new market, sub-category or segment is the only way to deliver a product that has any chance of being relevant. It is a bold takes bravery

For CMOs currently in the brand preference cycle, switching to brand relevance requires:

  • Seeking true innovation
  • Reframing the problem in a way that makes you relevant
  • Building it
  • Committing to the long view

Startup founders must defend their newness, their novel approach and their deep, personal understanding of what customers are facing every day. We can all learn a lot from them.