What's Your Brand's App?

In the App, Find Clarity of Brand Essence and a Long-Overdue Brand Migration to Service

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
"What's your brand's app?"

Such was the salient, spot-on question the CMO of a major consumer company posed to several hundred marketers at a marketing summit I recently keynoted. Right question -- and perfect timing.

Now, before you get too app-happy here, he wasn't "literally" talking about the likes of Bump, Bubblewrap, Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja. He was being quite figurative, and for good reason.

Indeed, the question of "what's your brand's app?" opens up a bigger and more foundational question we all need to address as brand owners: Importantly, what's the fundamental value and benefit our brand brings to the table, even beyond the physical realm? What's the brand's reason for being? What core service logically and naturally extends from the core brand proposition? What is our desired brand experience?

These are deep questions, but most of us, I daresay, can barely helicopter above the words iPad or Droid or Foursquare and Gowalla in our frenetic "grab share of conversation" social-media pursuits. All we know is that we need them apps. After all, apps are pouring like rain -- nay, Niagara Falls -- and we need to be there -- right?

Perhaps. There are two primary brand entry points to apps. First there's the "branded app sponsorships." These are relatively straightforward and "plug and play" -- essentially paid media with your brand associating with another entities app. Nothing earth-shattering here.

Then there's the more proprietary, arguably more disruptive "branded" app such as the North Face "Ski Report." Here the app's effectively a hybrid of media, utility, service and brand-sell. Getting this right can transform an entire brand franchise.

A couple of days ago, I downloaded the latest Nike + GPS app for my iPhone. Few would doubt for even a second Nike's ability to answer the "What's your brand's app?" question. Nike's always been about creating meaningful experiences for runners, and this is reflected in all aspects of the app. It tracks and maps my run, motivates me along the way with timely updates, and ultimately tabulates key results. Honestly, it's hard not to feel like Nike's working a more ambitious deal and loyalty covenant with me in the background.

Similarly, Kraft recently launched a new iPad app around cooking recipes named "Big Fork, Little Fork" -- this as a follow-up to their highly successful $.99 iFood Assistant. This too is spot-on with Kraft's core mission: "Make today delicious." Similarly, Tide is all about best-in-class laundry solutions, so no one should be surprised that the brand's core app, the StainBrain, helps consumers clean stains. Coleman has a nifty (and popular) app that cranks out campfire stories.

REI offers their version of the "Snow Report." Timberland offers an "Expeditions" app. Charmin through "Sit or Squat" helps us find public restrooms when you just gotta go. Pizza Hut makes pizza ordering "add water and stir." IBM relays its tech and data prowess -- and fills in key gaps in TV coverage -- with a wonderfully reliable -- arguably addictive -- U.S. Open tennis app.

Again, these are all logical, value-added extensions of the brand. They complement and complete the brand story. They halo a broader set of benefits to a more demanding and discriminating consumer audience.

Real competitive advantage will accrue to those who get this right. In a world where consumer products are flirting dangerously close to "parity" with private-label, thanks to the web's all-transparent looking glass, the "value-add" and "service layer" matters. If you are a CPG player, the app might just be the secret sauce of the retailer co-promotion or a strategic partner alliance.

Am I just stating the obvious? Perhaps, but as the digital and social opportunities risk morphing into that all-too-familiar blend of noise and clutter, the simple foundations and "boring basics" really matter.

So while the brand "app" may at times feel like yet another one-off, it may in fact represent the most important cornerstone of digital strategy. In the app, we can find both clarity of brand essence and a long-overdue brand migration to service and problem-solving mode.

"Apps, and the billions of connected devices they power, represent an entirely new, interactive, dynamic, commerce-enabled consumer touchpoint and channel," Drew Ianni, founder-chairman of this month's AppNation conference, explained to me. "Inevitably, they will represent the 'uber touchpoint' for brands." Drew, who's expecting nearly 700 marketers at San Francisco's Moscone Center, knows a few things about where the brand-building puck is headed. For four years, he chaired AdTech, the industry's largest digital conference.

Assuming we agree with the "uber touchpoint," piece, how do we truly get our "app" strategy in the right place? Here are few suggestions.

1. Brand-equity or franchise statements. If you have a recent brand pyramid or "building-brand franchise" plan, think hard about where service apps might complement the brand. Many of these documents make a concerted effort to dimension "brand experience," and that's a great starting point for figuring out your app entry points and opportunities.

2. Direct questions and feedback. Pay lots of attention to what consumers ask on your website, or solicit via your FAQs or contact us. They all serve as a "cheat sheet" for figuring out the stickiest, most value-added app. Are there opportunities to better explain how to use the product? To customize usage? To take advantage of the product in key situations?

3. External conversation. A broader "assess the landscape" analysis -- especially at the category level -- can help you quickly refine unmet needs that branded apps can solve or address. Such an analysis can also establish critical context on the where, why and how factors.

4. Sales synergy. Stay really close to shopper behavior. Inevitably, smart shoppers want more advice, perspective, how-to. And mobile and GPS keep resetting the bar. Viewed through this window, you app strategy may be obvious.

5. Trust your inner consumer. We're all becoming voracious app users, so don't get too abstract or obtuse in connecting obvious dots. In our personal lives, we're looking for convenience, simplicity, time-savings and various forms of value.

Choice making is never easy when we're drinking from the digital and social fire hydrant of opportunity. I say keep it all really simple and start with the basics.

What's your brand's app? Get that nailed and build from there.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of NM Incite, a joint venture of Nielsen & McKinsey, and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus and co-founder of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association. His column explores the convergence of marketing and service. Follow him on Twitter at @pblackshaw.
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