TL:DR — Until you address a niche with a great product experience, paying too much attention to branding is not necessary.
Early in 2018, Tim Ferris (author of The Four Hour Work Week) presented an episode of The Tim Ferris Show podcast on the topic of "The 3 Critical Rules of Branding". That episode can be heard here, episode #269 or read here. For the purpose of this episode, Tim uses the term "branding" to mean something like a defined brand position as well as the outward expressions of that, like logo, tone of voice and website design. In summary, Tim's take is that owning a category and defining a niche within it is all you need: forget about branding.
And he's kind of right up to a certain point.
Good product + bad brand = fail
Unfortunately, good products with poor marketing often fail in the face of well-marketed competition, even where the competitive product is inferior and even where the good product has diehard fans and clear niche. SME online bookkeeping/accounting tools spring to mind. In Australia at least, that category is owned by Xero which used very strong branding and a high marketing spend to smother the competition. A competitor, Saasu offers a similar product with more and better, meaningful functionality at slightly lower price points but with less fanfare. Xero now controls 66% market share while Saasu plans a pivot and has withdrawn from international markets. Xero's brand, expressed in it's logo, tone of voice and all interactions, is just too alluring, despite product shortcomings.
iPhone is somewhat similar. The qualities expressed in the Apple and iPhone brands pull customers in, independently of the product itself. That pull is very well followed through when the brand is experienced as the actual product, a strategy which further builds an aura around the brand. For many enterprises, including Apple, the product embodies the brand so working on the product is working on the brand, however they still need to succinctly express that meaning and transfer it to other items like logo, tone of voice and website.
Niche + product + brand = winning
Tim Ferris’ Branding Rules talk a lot about "niche" as the prime focus of launching a business. That needs a little refinement and expansion to be helpful and applicable. Niche is finding an unmet need, and is absolutely necessary. But niche is pretty much useless without offering something with corresponding appeal. In other words, niche relates to demand and you need to supply that demand with a suitable product. Understanding those two sides is a foundation which can flow on to apply to all areas of your business.
The order in which you build your niche, product and brand is important and may lead to criticisms like Tim's, if handled out of sequence.
Niche -- It's easy and fun to start with branding, but niche needs to come first because you need to uncover and know all about a demand you can address.
Product -- By developing product second, and with intense attention and energy, you stand a good chance of connecting with your niche demand.
Brand -- Third, but by no means least, create the outward expressions of the brand based on what you now know about your niche and product.
An on-going feedback loop giving equal important to niche, product and brand will then help your business sustain growth and direction.
Tim is great, but he’s wrong on branding
I’ll take a guess that Tim Ferris’ disregard for branding is caused by:
Experience with the wrong consultants
Over-emphasis on brand concepts, and
Implementing branding too early.
Other than that, the evidence I see points to branding being an essential component in selling all kinds of things.
Sure, I'm not Tim Ferris, but I've been involved with enough startups to know that you can’t afford to forget about branding: it’s a critical element of your business. Where Tim emphasises niche instead of brand, the model I prefer is niche as well as brand, as well as product. You need a niche (thank you Tim); you need a relevant product; and you need a credible brand; in that order.