Building your brand—there’s an app for that


In the near future you’ll be able to build your brand with an app. No, check that. In the near future your brand will be an app. It will re-define itself as a personal brand application on a smartphone or similar device, where it can deliver unique brand value to customers 24/7. Apple’s current iPhone ad campaign, “There’s an app for that,” provides a glimpse of this brand future.

In other words, there’s a new brand game in town. Can your brand set the agenda here?

The era of personal brand applications (PBA’s)

As I’ve noted previously, we’re now entering the era of personal brand applications (PBA’s). Personal brand applications are software applications on portable digital devices that enable customers to do more, and to be more, through the brand. They represent the intersection of high technology and brands in the palms and pockets of people, everywhere, and the chance for brands to be closer than ever to customers.

Why personal brand applications are important

Personal brand applications are important because they forge a new 1:1 brand/customer relationship. Through this relationship they have the potential to create new classes of customers from the ground up, in new market spaces. In this process they can undermine traditional brands built on ad campaigns, images, messaging and mass media saturation. Most importantly, personal brand applications free brands (and the brand team) to use the full fruits of their imagination—and to use the brand to lead.

PBA’s can accelerate brand trust

As applications, PBA’s are immediate and direct. They deliver results customers can use, now, and they build core brand trust in the process. While traditional brand campaigns may work wonders in building awareness and shaping perceptions, they’re not engines of brand trust. Personal brand applications are. They can accelerate and energize brand trust, compressing what used to take years into shorter time frames.

Technology advances make PBA’s possible

Since I first wrote about the concept of personal brand applications two years ago, we’ve witnessed amazing advances in wireless technology, digital handsets, user interfaces, online services, and software systems and platforms that tie everything together. With Apple’s iPhone, App Store and iPhone developers leading the way, we’re now are seeing a first flush of innovative smartphone apps that foreshadow the personal brand applications to come.

PBA’s: the ultimate brand relationship

In many ways a personal brand application is the ultimate brand relationship, where the brand operates as both a trusty sidekick and a trusted advisor, as close as a second skin. PBA’s do more than “connect” the brand with customers. They transform the brand into a proactive customer platform of choices, directions and actions, helping the customer at a personal level to accomplish objectives and deal with life’s challenges. The brand becomes a central means (and platform) for customer growth and development.

Personal, portable and persistent

Because they operate on hand-held devices that are wireless, Internet enabled and “always on,” PBA’s are personal, portable and persistent–the critical three P’s for brands going forward. In many ways they’re the ultimate brand presence. Think of them as perpetual touchpoints where the brand plays an active role in the culture, context and creativity of an individual’s life, day in and day out.

The brand as an application

Old-school brands are often fashioned as symbols, stories and messages calculated to influence customer emotions and perceptions. That was fine for an era of mass media print and broadcast, but the digital era calls for a more direct approach if brands hope to hang with customers. Today people are busy. They’re on the move. Their lives are “small pieces, loosely joined.” They need context clarity, and structure. Brands as “messages” aren’t that useful.

Today’s brand is a value stream of deliverables that customers can use, over and above the product. As software applications PBA’s are personal programs to build customer trust by helping customers connect the dots and get things done, using value streams from the brand. They are the brand as context architect and enabler. They listen. They guide. They advance. They inspire. They empower. And they do so at the touch of a fingertip.

How will your brand application engage your customers?

How will your personal brand application engage and empower your customers? The agenda is up to you.  The potential scope of brand applications includes anything and everything that engages the customer, from the sacred to the profane and back again: spiritual, aesthetic, practical, adventurous, envelope-pushing or chilling out. You pick a context where your brand can 1) enable customers to be more proactive, and 2) provide exclusive value to create the customers that will drive your business forward.

You know your customers and their horizons. You also know your creative and contextual strengths. As their chosen brand, you are your customer’s confidant, mentor and alter (brand) ego. You have the big vision. You know what’s vital. Your PBA is your chance to lead customers on a shared (strategic) brand journey.

Content of a PBA

Every PBA is expected to be personal, relevant, focused, easy (fun) to use, customizable and continually refreshed. A PBA can do many things. Generic content areas would include (within a PBA’s unique mission):

  1. Provide needed context, and vision
  2. Provide relevant (riveting) truths
  3. Simplify difficult choices
  4. Help customers break barriers
  5. Share profound/witty/hilarious insights
  6. Connect and advance like individuals
  7. Guide customers through major challenges/passages
  8. Help customers to get things done (in high-value situations)
  9. Create proactive customers (that can advance the brand)
  10. Engage the imagination; stimulate innovation (to be fed back to the brand)

As appropriate, a PBA can also entertain. A suite of PBA’s may include some killer games.

Where to start in developing a PBA

Your personal brand application is a main driver of your customer creation strategy. It’s fundamental to how you design your customers. You can begin to scope out the context, functionality and deliverables of your PBA by addressing these questions:

  1. In the broadest context, where are our customers going?
  2. What is holding our customers back?
  3. How can our PBA advance customers beyond the reach of competitors?
  4. What deep intelligence do we possess that might be transformed into a stunningly unique PBA that could re-shape our markets—or create new market spaces?

Kim and Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy has strategic tools that can be used to map out potential directions available to a PBA.

Use PBA’s to expand your brand context

In brands, context is king, and a personal brand application is a hand-held context engine, ready to extend your brand context (and reach) across current and new customers. A PBA enables a brand to engage customers in new and/or deeper levels of context, beyond the product proper, and beyond conventional media and market boundaries.

Nike and Apple were proto-pioneers in PBA’s with their iPod-based Nike+. The same concept, raised to the power of an app on a smartphone, would resemble a PBA. A narrow PBA from Nike could be about running, or fitness. A more ambitious PBA might raise the Nike context to local outdoor activities in general, elevating Nike to a higher context platform. More broadly, a  Nike PBA might develop a Nike context of sustainable environmental choices, if Nike desired a leading brand presence in that space.

A personal brand application can carry the brand into new domains–consistent with its vision. And brand domains are markets in the making.

The insight, wisdom, sense and sensibility of the brand creates the  context of its PBA, opening new areas of brand engagement in the process.

The difference between a smartphone app and a PBA

The difference between a regular smartphone app and a personal brand application is this: the regular app is designed to perform a specific function; the PBA is designed to re-define brand value and create a strategic class of customers. It does this by advancing customers to a new context, as in the hypothetical Nike example above.

A fashion retailer’s online site that”s accessible via a smartphone browser is not a PBA if all it does is present product information and enable online sales. Brands run deeper. What that retailer might do is aim to become an exclusive fashion guide beyond its own store, with a more global PBA. Such a (hypothetical) PBA would be several generations beyond this current iPhone fashion app.

Exclusive or free?

Many personal brand applications may be free downloads, or even web apps, but there’s a strong business argument to make PBA’s so compellingly useful that they command a premium price. The most treasured PBA’s will be exclusive apps of elite circles of achievement.

PBA platform and structure

A PBA can be a native app, written for the OS of the handset, or a web app, even a widget on steroids. Mobile OS platforms rich enough to support gaming and intuitive user interfaces include iPhone, Nokia, BlackBerry, Google’s Android, Palm Pre and Microsoft. Current iPhone apps show the stunning advances possible with multi-touch technology.

You may decide that your brand is best served by a mashup, or by a suite of online apps and mashups that represent your brand value stream. There’s nothing wrong with being a ringmaster of mobile brand value.

Are PBA’s social apps?

First and foremost, PBA’s are customer apps, but they are potentially more powerful with social software capabilities. PBA’s may need to work with Twitter, Yahoo Meme or Google Wave, to name only some of the potential PBA partners/resources in social software. The goal is not to lose customers in the social app, but to advance them strategically through an optimal set of resources. (They’re advancing to new markets you have waiting downstream.)

PBA’s can elevate brands to cultural leadership

A primary benefit of PBA’s is that they elevate brands to active roles of positive cultural leadership, far above brands as stylized sales stimulants or ginned up myths and messages. At the level of culture, brands have no boundaries. In this regard, PBA’s become the beacon lights of a company’s core values, insights and imagination mapped to the cultural canvas, above and beyond its products. Expect strong PBA’s from innovative companies (or organizations) with value-based brands and sustainable social vision.

PBA’s can elevate small creative companies into new realms of prominence by enabling them to “steal the customer culture” from established brand icons.

Personal brand applications: the road ahead

The advent of personal brand applications makes this is a great time for brand builders. PBA’s are poised to inaugurate an era of brand creativity focused on delivering unique customer value in new and engaging contexts, where the brands can make an active contribution to personal growth and culture. In this process, PBA’s will have the power to make brands the avant garde of business innovation.

NOTE: For some conceptual examples of PBA content, see this post.

Photo: Apple iPhone

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