Multi-threaded brands—and why we need them

Multi-threaded brands will soon be poised to succeed traditional monolithic brands, those top-down, top-heavy icons designed to radiate a company’s “essence.” Multi-threaded brands can out-perform monolithic brands because they multiply the ways that brands can connect with customers, and they greatly multiply the forms of value that a brand can deliver.

What is a multi-threaded brand?

A multi-threaded brand is a brand that’s been “microchunked”* into multiple value streams, which are then customized and delivered to strategic customer segments, with the aim of creating value networks and communities. It is a brand that’s been decentralized, distributed and democratized, becoming the context of a “value net” or a “creation net.” ** Its purpose is to grow customers from the inside out, not to hang over their heads.

Multi-threaded brands are more “social,” and less “corporate.”

Monolithic brands are an endangered species

Monolithic brands are indeed an endangered species. As fixed identities atop their own pedestals, they’ve come to represent brand inertia: static and disconnected symbols battling for relevance against the backdrop of a fast-moving world. Because they’re cast in stone, they often lock their companies in stone—while customers accelerate onward and upward.

For brand builders, now is the time to begin implementing multi-threaded brands. They’re made from digitally enabled, agile brand programs as fast on their feet as the customers they serve.

Companies are already taking initial steps in this direction. Two basic examples here and here. However, these just scratch the surface of what multi-threaded brands can do. (“Customer feedback” and downloads are at the lowest rung on the ladder; multi-threaded brands really get cooking when they feed forward and are fueled by customer participation.)

Why “multi-threaded”?

“Multi-threaded” is a computer term that refers to the ability of a CPU chip to simultaneously handle multiple threads of execution, thereby doing many tasks at once.

A multi-threaded brand rises above inert brand symbols and slogans by possessing many concurrent threads of execution that can deliver multiple streams of value to customers. This is value that customers can use to advance themselves, over and above the product proper. It’s brand value they can personally build on. It isn’t three mints on a pillow instead of two, a feel-good token or a happy-face.

Brand applications: You can consider each brand thread to be a discrete “brand application,” much like a software application. It does something for—and with—the customer, delivering value that grows the customer and extends your brand context. Customers can take this application and run with it, moving you forward in the process. Smart companies will fashion their brand applications into distinctive brand suites.

Digital platforms: Multi-threaded brands typically operate via digital tools and platforms that feature rich user applications and a high degree of customer interaction. Network effects are one result. After 15 years of digital innovation, these tools and platforms are now globally available, and accessible.

Purpose: The purpose of a multi-threaded brand is neither to glorify a company, nor to advertise its wares. It’s purpose is to fuse brand imagination with customer initiative, to enable your customers to do more, and to be more, through you, thereby deepening and extending the brand experience—and your potential markets.

Circuits of brand imagination and innovation

You can think of a multi-threaded brand as circuits of brand imagination and innovation that flow out from you to customers, circulate freely between them, learn from them, deliver and acquire value, and then flow back to you, leaving both you and your customers richer.

Brand multi-threading takes your brand out of the showcase and into the field, where it’s free to work and play with customers. Out in the sun your brand soaks up customer diversity and energy, and returns to you refreshed and revived. It’s the perfect tonic to prevent pale, inbred brand thinking.

Benefits of brand multi-threading

By adding multi-threading to your brand programs you can greatly expand your brand’s ability to deliver customer value. Your company may produce products A, B and C, but your brand threads can carry your brand context into areas X, Y and Z that are strategically important. (Brand presence can trump a product presence, if properly executed.)

Brand threads operate within a common context, but they do not require a linear, one-dimensional connection with existing products.

With brand multi-threading you can:

  1. Create new customers outside the traditional realm of your product proper
  2. Strategically prepare customers for new products
  3. Cost-effectively extend your brand into new markets
  4. Test new brand concepts using prototypes and pilot projects
  5. Establish brand leadership in fertile edge markets
  6. Target, customize and personalize your offerings on customer-driven brand platforms
  7. Source new forms of brand value (from customers)
  8. Enable customers to help keep your brand fresh
  9. Reduce market risk.

Does a multi-threaded brand weaken my brand identity?

Not in the slightest. It actually makes your identity stronger by transforming it from top-heavy pose and posture into value streams that customers can embrace as part of their lives. A multi-threaded brand approach elevates your brand from signage to synapse—and that’s where you want your brand to be.

The easiest way to stream brand relevance is to stream utility. (And utility comes in many forms.)

What digital platforms/tools should I use?

As a rule, use the platforms or tools that your customers use. Your goal is to make your brand a second skin for customers. Use digital platforms and tools that are popular, useful, unobtrusive, easy, flexible, and totally under customer control. New tools are being invented weekly (if not daily) in the cauldrons of social software, mashups, wireless and RIA (rich Internet applications). Your brand team will be up to their eyeballs in these technologies.

Personal brand applications

With the advent of smartphones and digital tablets, personal brand applications have become the leading multi-threaded brand platforms. They hold the promise of being personal, portable and persistent. A close second are social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Traditional digital platforms and tools include, mashup apps (e.g., maps and data), RSS, groups, forums, wiki’s, photo and video sharing, and even public wi-fi (with your brand as your customer’s bandwidth).

Profile of a multi-threaded brand

A multi-threaded brand acts on its identity; it doesn’t project it through campaigns. It acts on its identity (who it is and where it’s going) by engaging customers as allies in its journey. Its many brand threads lead in the same direction, but can take many forms and travel many routes. Multi-threaded brands are decisively Darwinian. And they are elegantly granular.

Qualities of a multi-threaded brand

Within a multi-threaded brand, a particular brand thread (application) will:

  1. Deliver a unique form of value customers can use
  2. Reach customers via a common digital platform
  3. Create a new dimension of brand context
  4. Create a new dimension of customer context
  5. Enable customer participation, sharing and collaboration
  6. Grow the customer
  7. Deepen customer connections (to the company and to other customers)
  8. Enable a value net or creation net
  9. Learn from customers
  10. Strategically advance customers beyond the reach of competitors

Five steps toward building multi-threaded brands

As an overview, here are five steps you can take in building (or re-building) your brand to take advantage of multi-threading.

Step 1: Break free from antiquated brand thinking

Your first step is to free your brand from the archaic notion that a brand is primarily a display device all about you, an image booster, or a stylized sales stimulant. Customers are not mass-media puppets. What counts about a brand is the vision a brand shares with customers, and the (real) value that the brand delivers. This is the critical value that a product can’t deliver on its own, and that competitors can’t match. Brand threads (applications) are avenues of innovation, not instruments of control.

Step 2: Discover where your customers are headed—and use your brand to lead them there

Begin with the question: What is holding our customers back? The answers should point your brand in the right direction. Your goal is to use your brand to create the customers that will drive your business forward. This means creating customers smart enough and proactive enough to see through the inadequacies of your competitors. That should be easy, right? It’s creating customers as allies, rather than reducing them to passive “consumers.”

Step 3: Make your threads deeds, not words

Brands are deeds, not words. They lead by example, not by campaigns. Use brand multi-threading to launch dozens of charming, clever, spirited, intriguing. challenging, eye-opening, useful and collaborative brand applications that will differentiate your customers from those of your competitors. Make every thread raise the brand bar, in one or more dimensions. Your customers will benefit, and will reward you for it.

Step 4: Start small

A key advantage of brand multi-threading is that you can start small, in pilot programs and prototypes, in market segments that you already know. You are moving your brand from a foundation of hierarchy to a foundation of customers. Digital platforms and tools enable many small steps that, in time, can amount to large leaps.

Step 5: Iterate

A multi-threaded brand is a live brand, beating to a customer pulse, and living on customer time. Customers will keep advancing the brand context, and so should you, through continuous experimentation and iteration. Through your brand threads you are unleashing your brand, letting a thousand brands bloom. Every brand thread is an avenue of brand innovation for you, and for your customers.

The alternative is to lock things back in stone, and we all know how that turned out.

*Credit to Umair Haque for this term and the powerful strategies behind it. His site is essential to anyone building brands.

**See John Hagel, especially this paper.

Photo: Small Things Aviation — Used with permission

4 Responses to “Multi-threaded brands—and why we need them”

  1. Brands Create Customers » Blog Archive » Brands: kaizen for customers Says:

    […] Brands Create Customers Brian Phipps on next-generation brands: new brand models, platforms, applications « Multi-threaded brands—and why you need them […]

  2. Brands Create Customers » Blog Archive » Interaction design: the new key to brands Says:

    […] They will soon have company. The emerging rock stars of brands may well be interaction designers. As brands move to digital platforms to help create customers, interaction designers will play a key role in determining which brands thrive, and which fall by the wayside. This will be especially true as more companies migrate to multi-threaded brands. […]

  3. greg Says:

    multi-threaded brands sounds like and, from the examples provided, looks like endorsed product brands and sub brands to me…are you simply repackaging dog food? what am i missing? what’s new here?

  4. Brian Phipps Says:


    Thanks for the comment. You’re right about those examples I gave. They were pretty lame. Fact is, this is a case where brand theory is ahead of brand practice. That’s why I said in the post that as examples they barely scratched the surface of what multi-threaded brands can do. I don’t think we’ll see good real world examples until 2008. Most companies are still so locked into traditional brand modes they won’t explore multi-threaded brands until they feel their own brands being disrupted from below by joint ventures of competitors + customers. Those joint ventures will be the first flush of multi-threaded brands.

    To answer your question, “What’s new here?”: Basically, a new concept of brand for the digital age, based on applications that deliver value, rather than on systems of brand identity. It’s where the brand has evolved from a media mode (identity + attributes + campaigns + messaging) into a direct value enabler for customers, i.e., a “means.” In other words, brands as personal applications, largely digital. It’s brands that come from programmers more than they come from art directors. A brand “thread” is a way for a brand to advance customers via a stream of direct value. The customer can do more and be more thanks to the functionality of the thread.

    Multi-threaded brands are very different from sub-brands. Where a sub-brand *is* something, i.e., a slice of brand essence, a brand thread *does* something—it’s an action with a deliverable.

    In 5 years, when we all have cheap, powerful iPhones, large swaths of brand context and brand value will flow through such devices. They will be in there as brand threads—as apps, not ads. Brand threads give companies with small brand budgets a chance to disrupt larger competitors by directly accessing customers from below.

    The lengthy “how to” portion of the post explains what goes into a thread. Threads can move a brand into new contexts in a lightweight, agile fashion by delivering value directly. They sidestep conventional media campaigns. They use a new customer model, too: the customer as a partner and participant in the brand (as an app user) instead of being a passive audience to a brand spectacle or show.

    Widgets and mashups are prototypical brand threads. As a hypothetical example, Nike could provide a widget that helps all runners schedule and track their mileage, workout regimes, etc. Runners could “live” inside this widget. Nike could treat this widget as a sub-brand, but that’s not the point. The point is what the widget enables the runner to do. As a brand thread, Nike would use the widget to get deeper into the runner’s personal context.

    The bottom line is that in the digital age a company’s brand becomes a method for discovering and delivering value to customers. That’s where multi-threaded brands come in.