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As far into the future as it’s possible to see, branding is all about apps.
So if that’s true – and more anon – then what is a brand? A brand is a value proposition. It is what people expect to get when they buy a product or a service. It is not the payoff per se but the promise of a certain benefit, whether tangible or intangible, material or experiential, pocketbook-friendly or premium-priced, immediate or forthcoming, fleeting or enduring – and a benefit that people expect to be worth the price.
A brand and branding are not the same. Branding is the strategy marketers use to build a brand. Branding sets expectations about the value proposition that is a brand. Apps can be brands, but most brands are not apps, and never will be. Not so for branding, however.
The strategic trajectory of branding since WW2 begins with information as the overarching focus during a period of mushrooming consumption when space-age innovations were flooding the marketplace with fantastical new things for consumers to master. Not that branding of this period wholly subordinated amusement to facts and figures, but entertainment surged to prominence in branding once prosperity soared, unleashing leisurely indulgences. Entertainment reached its acme in the form of experiential marketing, although at the same time, mounting clutter gave rise to early stirrings of marketing resistance. Engagement became the new emphasis in branding as brand marketers sought to bring smarter, savvier, choosier shoppers into the fold through individualized customization and consumer control. But with the rise of social technologies, brands have lost priority with consumers. What people want are social relationships not brand relationships – people-to-people interactions not brands-to-consumers engagement. This is where apps come into play.
An app is a software tool that does something useful. Apps have been around as long as computing, but with the advent of touch-screen smartphones, icon-triggered apps have exploded on the scene as enhanced, innovative ways for conveniently and quickly performing a myriad of tasks. For brand marketers, an app is a tool that doubles as a communications vehicle.
The time has long since passed when consumers would patiently, even if reluctantly, give their time and attention to marketing. Nowadays, many consumers actively resist engaging with marketers and those that do, do so with many more distractions and competing priorities. For consumers, the best thing about new technologies is not the ability to connect with brands, but the ability to connect with other people, thus leaving less time and interest than ever, if any at all, for branding.
To stay relevant to consumers, a brand must not only be worth the price, its branding must be worth the time. In a mature marketplace of advertising clutter and savvy consumers, marketers must do more than just say something interesting; they must deliver a message that does something useful. To put it bluntly, be an app or be gone.
As a way of approaching branding, apps are powerful. Apps are flexible, able to deliver broadcast content to many consumers or customized content to individuals. Apps can be entertainment like games or information like searchable databases. Apps can be on-demand or can send out real-time updates. Apps can be used to curate, create or aggregate. Apps are utterly engaging when used, as well as highly informative when needed and very entertaining when desired. In other words, apps offer marketers a diversity of ways to do something useful for consumers, and in that manner, favorably position a brand. In a word, the emerging imperative of branding is utility.
Brand marketers have begun using apps to position a brand’s value proposition to consumers. For example, AT&T, Reebok and Intel now offer playlist apps through Spotify that curate songs in keeping with a brand’s category identify, such as cell phone coverage, exercise or tech savvy. Montblanc and Cartier have apps to communicate new product updates along with other news and graphics, thus offering a more timely, multifunctional handheld digital catalog that might one day provide customized notifications to fit individual preferences or to mirror past buying patterns.
Branding as an app is more than the same old marketing repackaged as the latest fad. The very essence of branding is transformed. Managing branding as an app means that marketers must deliver value twice, both with the brand and with the branding. Traditionally, branding is the promise of brand value, not a source of value. But with consumers demanding something useful from branding in exchange for their time and attention, branding itself must be valuable above and beyond its brand message. Branding must have its own value, separate from the brand it is promoting.
Thus, for example, Reebok must deliver a good playlist as well as good shoes, and the good playlist must come first. If the playlist is bad, then the shoes, no matter how good, won’t get a chance with consumers. The delivery of value now starts with branding. Branding has become indispensable as gateway value without which brand value never comes into play.
The requirement of value in branding means that multiple currencies now drive transactional exchanges in the consumer marketplace. Money is the critical currency, of course, but, increasingly, consumers won’t spend money unless other currencies are spent first.
Marketers worry a lot these days about all that they give away for free, but such worries presume that the only currency that matters is money. What marketers make available at no financial cost to consumers is actually bought and sold in a different currency. If a brand can’t persuade consumers to spend social currency sharing it or talking about it, or if a brand can’t get consumers to spend time with it as, say, an app, then money is less likely to change hands.
The other thing to bear in mind about the evolutionary arc of branding is that from information to entertainment to engagement to utility, nothing has been given up. The progression of branding is cumulative. What has come later has added to not displaced what came before. Consequently, branding is more complicated than ever.
Usefulness cuts through complexity. Hence, the opportunity going forward is for branding not the brand alone to be the value underpinning competitive advantage. Information or entertainment or engagement can carve out competitive advantage as long as it has utility. Brand leaders in the future won’t necessarily be the best performing brands but the brands with the most useful branding. Simply put, the future is one of branding as app.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: J. Walker Smith, Executive Chairman, The Futures Company
Sponsored by: The Brand Positioning Workshop
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