Make Your Product Work for Your Brand

Why What You're Selling Has Become Your Primary Advertising Channel

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Steve Beck
Steve Beck
The key question facing marketers today isn't "Is my media mix model working?" or "Do I have an iPad app?" It's one that has been around since long before the internet but is growing in importance: "How useful is this product to my customers?" Unfortunately, most marketers don't know that's the question because they are trying to answer another question that has also been around since long before the internet and is now less important than ever: "How do I get my customers to think my product is useful to them?"

Digital technologies have fundamentally changed the way consumers interact with each other and, by the way, with brands. The role of engaging brand stories has not gone away. However, to truly establish loyalty and advocacy -- the holy grail of marketing in the digital age -- our marketing and brand strategies need to go beyond telling great stories. We have to make marketing focus on how products or services are actually used, not on how we hope they are used. We have to make them more useful by wrapping them in applications that increase their usefulness to the consumer.

The product or service has always been the most important part of a marketing effort. No communication strategy can make a long-term success out of a sub-standard product. Despite that, the product and the marketing have long been seen as separate things. This doesn't work anymore because the communications cornucopia makes it increasingly difficult to get customers' attention. Today the product itself has become the primary advertising channel -- it convinces people based on its utility to them.

Previously marketing has been largely a communication-centric strategy. It focused on different ways of telling consumers, "Here's what you get out of working with us." In its time, that practice worked because customers had far fewer communications channels, so it was possible to capture a significant chunk of the customers' attention. This is why companies still approach brand strategy from the perspective of, "What are we going to say?" They were able to ignore issues such as, "What will we build?" and "How will customers interact with us?" Today, those last two questions trump the first. Because of this, the traditional communication-centric strategy must now be replaced with one that is application-centric.

One example of this is the Wii. Before Nintendo launched the gaming system in 2007, anyone could have told you that the last thing the world needed was another gaming system. Sony and Microsoft dominated the market, and Nintendo, a once-great pioneer, was going the way of Atari and Sega. The Wii, however, wasn't another button-pushing gaming system. Those systems are complex things that primarily appeal to younger, tech-savvy males. The Wii is about ease of use. To play tennis on the Wii, all you have to do is mimic playing tennis. To play a Wii driving game, all you have to do is take the controller, pop it into a holder that looks like a steering wheel and steer. But the ease of use goes a lot farther than that. It starts when you take the Wii out of the box. Attaching it to a TV is about as difficult as attaching a DVD player. Want to start a game? Slide in a CD/DVD-type disk, then up pops a menu. Click on the game you want to play and you're playing. Nintendo has expanded the Wii as a platform by partnering with Netflix. Want to watch a movie? Just click on the Netflix icon, pick from the titles and click.

UPS built its application strategy around what people value most about the company: reliable delivery. UPS, of course, is not the only company providing this value. So UPS set itself apart by becoming the company that helps companies with all the parts of their own delivery systems -- like logistics, supply chain and transportation. All this began in 2003, when the company took the package out of its logo and stopped using its full name -- United Parcel Service -- in advertising and marketing. This took the emphasis off of package delivery and put it on what customers valued about the brand. UPS didn't tell people anything they didn't already know about the company. The company just helped people understand more about the expertise needed to provide all this reliable delivery.

As these examples show, an application-centric approach involves thinking about the service experience as a critical component of the marketing of the brand. What is unique about how our offering is used by our audience? What value do they get from using it? This approach redefines what a brand means. It is no longer what we say it is; but rather it is defined by the utility it creates. That brand value must then be driven across all the ways and places the customer interacts with our product -- digital, traditional, call center, packaging, assembly instructions or whatever it may be.

The digital expression of a brand promise is a difficult but essential leap. It requires providing a value that clearly and immediately communicates what the consumer values about the brand. Some very disparate companies -- Gibson guitars, Kraft Foods and Charmin -- have had great success with iPhone apps that provide very practical services that correlate perfectly with the brands themselves. For example, Gibson's app includes a guitar tuner, metronome and a chord chart -- all things incredibly useful for any guitarist. Kraft's iFood Assistant provides recipes, a feature which lets you create a shopping list and automatically includes the ingredients for recipes you've chosen. It also tells you which aisle the items will be in and where to find the locations of nearby grocery stores. Charmin's app lets users find nearby restrooms, which consumers obviously find helpful.

This strategy is the antithesis of the "compared to Brand X" or "now 10% better" approaches. It relies on showing and telling. This means finding out what current customers already value in the product or service, making sure every other contact point lives up to that, and then showing that value to potential customers.

To do this, marketers need to break down some informational silos. Currently, there is a huge disconnect between the behavioral information we capture and the companies' attitudinal data based on how they are perceived and the offerings that they build and market. The brand research is attitudinal. That has to be connected with the behavioral research used for campaigns and the CRM/satisfaction research that happens post-purchase. Once they have brought these disparate elements together, companies can build a strategy, test it with targeted audiences, refine it based on the testing and then expand it to a larger audience.

This is very different from communication-centric strategies built around telling. Those strategies assume the audience is passive, that they only consume messages. Marketers were able to succeed despite that assumption because people weren't able to broadcast their opinions very far. Today, of course, people's displeasure can be magnified like never before.

Much of that displeasure has been generated by experiences that contradict what your communications claim it is. Who do you think people will believe if you say you're No. 1 in customer service but the internet is filled with complaints about just that?

The best way to counter that is to not "claim" to do anything. Instead, say what it is you actually do. This means moving beyond the world of positioning a brand to take advantage of an attitudinal need. It's not McDonald's saying their food is healthy, it is McDonald's putting healthier food on the menu. In the past, the whole world of positioning was really simple. You targeted an audience, articulated a promise and then communicated the heck out of it. You created advertising. Today everything is an advertisement -- starting with what it is you are selling.

Steve Beck is senior VP-strategy, Organic. He previously served as co-CEO-chief strategy officer of FutureBrand.
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