The Brunch Test

A framework for building products that balance familiarity with freshness.

Oct 4, 2023

Oct 4, 2023

The word “brunch” first appeared in print circa 1895 in Hunter’s Weekly magazine. The author, Guy Beringer, proposed brunch as a lighter fare alternative to the usual post-church Sunday lunch. What is this if not the best review ever:

“Brunch is a hospitable meal; breakfast is not. Eggs and bacon are adapted to solitude; they are consoling, but not exhilarating. They do not stimulate conversation. Brunch, on the other hand, is cheerful, sociable, and inciting … It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs.”

But what does brunch have to do with building products, you might ask. For one, brunch is a great consumer product (and a very social one). Yes, it’s a derivative of breakfast and lunch, but it’s much more than either one alone or put together.

Hence the analogy: the best new products don’t just offer us breakfast + lunch, they offer us brunch. This is core to what I call The Brunch Test — a simple framework for building products that balance familiarity with freshness.

The 4 Pillars of The Brunch Test

What makes brunch stand out from breakfast and lunch? This is a relative question — the ‘brunch test’ is in a sense a relative test.

Does the new product feel sufficiently different from predecessors, from the recognizable building blocks, or primitives? [1] From modern day substitutes, the thing your target user already knows and uses? Or does it just feel like a mashup of the familar (and worse than each alone)?

Brunch distinguishes itself in a few ways, lending to the 4 pillars of The Brunch Test:

#1 — It has a distinct use case

First, brunch is a ritual social event, and rituals aren’t just utilitarian; they have meaning beyond the act itself. It’s not just a meal, it’s a deliberate, emotion-filled occasion for weekends, holidays, and the like. It has more specific, unique use cases too — bougie brunch, recovery brunch, post-wedding brunch. Sometimes the distinct use case comes from serving a distinct user (e.g. a post-wedding brunch serves a different user than say a post-church brunch). [2]

#2 — It has unique features

Like any good ritual, brunch has a unique set of customs. A great brunch menu doesn’t just feature breakfast and lunch items; it’s curated with foods that are a bit more intricate, extravagant, blending sweets and savories — eggs benedict, french toast, chicken & waffles. Then there are the signature drinks — mimosas, bellinis, espresso martinis. Brunch falls in that sweet spot of the day where you can wake up without an alarm clock, say from 10 to 2.

#3 — It has its own brand

Brunch has a brand, a specific way people perceive it and tell it apart from other meals, events, or the like. The brunch identity could be described as light-hearted, fun, friendly, comforting, special, maybe a touch extravagant. Love it or hate it — brunch isn’t forgettable. People are opinionated about brunch. Call it controversial. And that’s a great thing.

#4 — It’s one product

When you’re out to brunch, servers don’t bring you a breakfast menu and a lunch menu. They give you the special brunch menu. It’s illustrative of the fact that products inspired by multiple things still need to have a singular core product and value prop. And just bundling multiple existing things into one obviously-compound-thing doesn’t pass the brunch test! Over time you can add things, but starting with a singular product is key.

Building Products Like Brunch

Take new social products — they're all inspired by previous generations of apps and built on top of existing ‘primitives.’ I test a lot of social products and inevitably many feel familiar, but the great ones don’t just slap together two or three familiar things.

Features A and B might have worked individually, but that doesn’t mean putting A + B together will work. You need to create C — something inspired by A and B, but ultimately new. Borrow some classic elements, toss in your own novel ideas, then mold it all into something new.

Products that pass The Brunch Test

The food and restaurant industry is full of examples. Given how saturated it is, every "product" feels familiar, and the burden of proof for being "fresh" is very high. The strategy I've seen work best is having a signature dish, meal, or occassion — start by being great at one thing. “I know a great lunch spot.” “This place has THE best donut.” One example I love — Sunday in Brooklyn is a brunch spot that's always booked on weekend mornings and afternoons (note: choosing the right name is incredibly helpful).

A consumer software product that's done this well is Partiful. There are lots of tools for creating event invites, but when you're throwing a party, use partiful. The use case is semi-casual, group, social. The design and easy sharing and notifs via text message are distinct features. It's a singular product — an invite tool — not bundled into a multi-purpose app social app. The standout brand pulls it all together.

Products that fail The Brunch Test

A while ago I tried a new viral social app called Moments. [3] The app let you take photos of at parties and create a shared album. The catch is the photos aren’t visible until you share a ‘hangover’ selfie to the group the next morning. The app was stacked with mechanics reminiscent of then newly released apps like Dispo, BeReal, and Poparazzi — a shared group photo album, a give-to-get mechanism, and a delayed-release mechanism. Too many constraints complicate the UX and the use case.

Another example: Airchat. It’s feature rich — async and sync, text, audio, visual, stories format, feed, profiles — but possibly too rich. What is the core action that a new user should take? What is the main use case? What time, place, setting is this app for? I haven't quite figured out the answers yet (though I appreciate a lot about the implementation). With quasi super-apps like this, I find myself thinking of how you could chip away at the big block of marble to reveal a simpler core.

Note, I rarely like to critique products in their early iterations but examples help explain the framework. These apps are still evolving and, as is always the case with consumer products, a seemingly small change can make a huge positive difference.

How to Use The Brunch Test

As with any intellectualization of making things, proceed with caution. Ship first, analyze later. So don't use the Brunch Test in the idea generation stage, use it in the process of building and iterating — ideally after you've at least made a scrappy first version of something. And here are three more things to consider:

  • The Brunch Test is best for consumer products. If your product is intentionally derivative or in a saturated consumer category and you're trying to unlock new experiences, use this analogy. B2B products focus more on utility and don't need to be as distinct on subjective attributes like brand. [4]

  • To fail The Brunch Test, you only need to fail one part. To pass it, you need pass all four. Perception is reality here too — the consumer at least needs to be convinced, consciously or subsconsciously, that you meet all four.

  • Passing The Brunch Test is necessary but not sufficient. To make a product successful you still have to acquire users, deliver a delightful experience, and find product-market fit. That said, if you don’t pass The Brunch Test, I think it'll be near impossible to find PMF. And if you have managed to find PMF, you’ve probably already passed The Brunch Test.

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[1] A 'primitive' generally means a feature that's been built out and popularized already in an older product. In the world of social apps, for example, we talk about the "like,” "feed," and "stories" features as primitives.

[2] Be honest about what is a meaningful use case. You can find an obscure, one-off situation that could use a new product, but if it's not frequent or prevalent enough, it won't reach critical mass in terms of growth or retention.

[3] The app has evolved since I initially tried it months ago. The mechanics are simpler, focused on sharing photos with friends and family instead of party albums. You can see the evolution via the Version History notes on the Apple App Store listing.

[4] The need to be a singular product is also weaker in B2B; a "compound startup" building a complete solution could be more compelling in getting a customer to switch from an existing solution.