Brand strategy: Create your entire brand as a customer-focused application

In this and follow-up posts I’ll propose that the best way to develop brands is to design, structure and deploy them as customer-focused applications. Yes, you should create your entire brand as an application. “An application of what?” you might ask? In a nutshell, your brand is an application of your vision and values. You apply it in a brilliantly crafted program of wisdom, culture, street smarts and tools to advance your customers to richer realms of living, far beyond the reach of competitors. Your brand becomes an application for your customers to succeed, and to take you with them. Their success is your success.

Brands are customer-focused applications for getting things done

It’s always been apparent to me that brands are really customer-focused applications–for helping customers get things done–far more than they’re calculated  sets of  symbols, slogans and stories to influence how customers think or feel. (I began writing about personal brand applications way back in 2007.) As I see it, we develop brands to help customers achieve outcomes that they can’t achieve through products and services alone. Thus, a “brand”  is much more than an identity, a stylized sales stimulant, a promise or a reputation. It’s a deliverable that acts as a supra-product method of creating value, limited only by the brand imagination of the company.

Notably, the brand is a form of innovation rather than a belief system or persuasion package. Critically, it’s an interactive application, too, one that enables the brand to team with customers in the value creation process. As I’ll discuss  below, brand  applications are essential building blocks for brand  platforms, and for building strategic brand experiences.

What (exactly) is a brand application?

A brand application is a method (a series of steps, guidelines, interfaces, interactions, innovations and revelations) to advance customers to richer realms of living. It may accompany products and services, or it may be a framework for them. The brand is the operative vision and value stream. It lays out where the company is going, and the rewards for joining in. The brand journey marks the path.

The goal of the application approach is to make customers better off in a way that ultimately disrupts competitors. As part of the application approach we create customers (here and here) through value innovation in ways that competitors can’t match. Our customers win, and so do we.

For strategic purposes the entire brand can be developed as a unified, customer-focused application (as I propose). Within the brand itself, however, there will be many discrete brand applications. These function like brand programs. Customer service is a brand application. A warranty is a brand application. Note, though, that customer service at Zappos is the whole brand as an application.

Brands gain strategic power as applications

Brands gain strategic power when they’re developed as applications. In traditional brand approaches brands are typically a form of communications. They emerge as calculated messages and meanings to promote sales and customer loyalty. In contrast, the brand-as-application is a comprehensive, collaborative, multi-threaded and multifaceted means of helping customers change their world in reality, not “in the mind.” As an application, the brand emerges as a strategic means of action, a change agent and deliverable on par with products and services. As applications brands stand to be far more productive than a brand “essence” showcased as a glorious–yet static–identity.

Your entire brand is an application—inside and outside the company

One of the strengths of the brand application approach is that your brand becomes a coherent and consistent method of value creation inside and outside the company. You are one company, one application, one brand. The brand becomes your operating mode rather than a media construct. As an application it fuses strategic vision, employee creativity, quality, productivity, and desired customer outcomes. Brand applications lay the foundation for a company “Way” of unique vision and values. Conversely, when the brand becomes “image” instead of application, we wind up with sad examples like BP.

A big difference in brand approach

When we develop brands as applications we take a dramatically different approach than used for conventional brands. Here are the main differences:

  1. Brands are agents of transformation, a means to change the world. They’re not sets of “meanings” to program customer behavior.
  2. The brand goal is to innovate so we can advance customers into richer realms of living where our brand gains market advantage.
  3. Our brand is part of our innovation strategy. It’s a method for creating value through customers.  Brand strategy becomes innovation strategy.
  4. The brand team joins the innovation team. They pump brand intelligence into new products and services ab ovo.
  5. Customers become strategic innovation partners, not just “buyers.” They are valued for their insights, intelligence and initiative far more than for their “loyalty.”
  6. There is less need for brand symbols, slogans and stories, and no need for brand magic and miracles. Applications create new realities–an infinitely better result.
  7. There is little need to “position” the brand. The application goal is to position customers to win–in new market spaces where customers and company can prosper. The application is self-positioning.
  8. The era of the brand icon is over. Icons don’t innovate. Applications do.
  9. There is less need for ad agencies. There is more need for app agencies.
  10. The brand ceiling leaps skyward. It becomes: Company Potential  X Customer Potential. New brand avenues abound.

Innovative brands already use the application approach

The good news is that many of today’s innovative brands (young and old) already grasp what brands can accomplish as applications. In many respects their brands largely function as end-to-end applications as they focus on delivering market-leading customer experiences. They build their brands outward from their vision, values and core operating principles. Their brands begin as internal applications (operating policies and programs) to produce distinctive  products and  services. Extending brand applications to customers is a natural  follow-through of what makes the company tick. In the larger scheme of things, the brands of Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, FedEx, Costco, Nordstrom and Zappos function as applications. They advance their customers beyond the reach of competitors. They are more focused, more coherent, more disciplined  and more distinctive because of it. And customers can tell the  difference.

How do we implement a brand application approach?

In broad brushstrokes, the generic procedure runs like this:

  1. Identify seeds of greatness in your company vision and values. (May take some work.)
  2. Ask, “What is holding our customers back?” (Remember: the mission of your brand is to advance your customers so they’re dramatically better off—in markets made possible by your innovative genius.)
  3. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Ask, “What would I want?” Trust your passion and beliefs. (See vision and values, above.)
  4. Map out the innovations needed to advance customers and raise them to the next level. (Hint: listening to music on an iPod is a higher level than listening to a CD.  Creating your own style is a higher level than searching retail racks.)
  5. Identify new market spaces where you and your customers can prosper. In these new market spaces your competitors should be irrelevant. That is, they can never advance their customers to the same (real) context.
  6. Identify the kinds of customers who will disrupt your competitors. These are the customers your brand must create. They are your competitive weapon.
  7. Develop a brand roadmap to the new market space. This is also a customer roadmap toward more proactive and enabled customers.

Advantages of the application approach

As I see it, these are the major advantages of the application approach.

It’s strategic. As an application your brand can advance customers into new market spaces where competitors can’t follow. Brand applications can confer a first mover advantage. Because of their focus, they can also confer domain dominance.

It’s collaborative. The brand-as-application works with customers as it helps move them forward. It learns from them as they learn from it. Brand teamwork replaces messaging, campaigns and passive brand loyalty as the operative connection. Customers are made part of the brand as the brand becomes part of them.

It’s active and dynamic. When structured as an application a brand stops being a static  “thing” and becomes a method to change the world. It breathes adventure, discovery and innovation, and runs on customer feet. It’s made for prototypes, iterations, and strategic touchpoints. Big picture:   Brands are tools that enable customers to inter-operate with the universe. The genius of brands is that they have no limits. The value of  brands is that through them, customers have no limits.

It engages customers directly. To engage a customer is to move the customer forward. There’s no better way to engage a customer than to put a tool in his or her hand, to share their fate, to have their back, and to serve as sidekick, mentor, confidant and guide.

It builds an integral brand backbone, organically. The brand becomes one application internally and externally. It is not a media layer folded back on the business from above, to “align” employees. The unified application gives the brand a singular integrity and backbone, organically. In essence, the brand is an application of what motivates the company to excel. The same application animates and drives employees, partners and customers to create exemplary products and services. The application approach is intrinsically authentic.

It’s infinitely scalable. Your entire brand can be an application, global in reach, and you can have an infinite number of discrete brand applications within it, down to the smallest personal brand application on a smartphone. Those apps can work wonders, too, because they’re personal, portable and persistent. As applications brands can make the most of digital innovations, the very future of brands themselves.

It’s an enabler that doesn’t depend on media campaigns. Brands have evolved from mark, to media, to means. In the application approach brands directly enable customers to be more and to do more. The brand and the customer are on the same page, writing it together. The brand is a framework for teaming, a means of teaming, and a means of execution. In the application approach the brand and the customer campaign together. There’s less need for conventional media campaigns.

It can create value. The original iPod was a nifty device but it made its mark as an application of music acquisition, management and enjoyment. Thanks to iTunes software, the device became a massive music enabler, giving millions of Apple customers personal control of their music, and permanently advancing them beyond the reach of the incumbent music industry, and the random makers of MP3 players.

It is platform enabled. A brand platform is a platform of opportunities for customers. When you structure your brand as an application you open it to complementary applications from customers and other brand partners. Mashups are one example. Mobile apps are another. Your Brand API’s will be vital.

It can disrupt other brands. As an application, a brand can change the game by changing the customer. In effect, the brand application creates customers beyond the reach of incumbent brands. The iPod/iTunes (and iPad) are cases in point.

Brand applications are a big change for brands

When we develop brands as applications we’re making a big change in the context of brands. We’re moving beyond the classic identity model of  brands where the brand was designed to be an idealized proxy for the company, a designated “essence” with programs to radiate calculated meanings to target market segments. In contrast, brand applications are transformative. They represent an action model for brands. They’re the brand as verb, not noun. Identity is important, but it’s what the brand does—to advance customers—that matters most.

We still ask a brand, “Who are you?” and “What do you stand for?” But the big question going forward is, “What have you done for me lately?” Only a brand application can answer that question.

Brand experience and brand applications

When we talk about brand experiences we’re talking about a structure and logic of customer experiences intended to create customers through the brand. In this sense, a brand that delivers structured brand experiences may in fact already be operating with a brand application approach. The only question I might raise is, “What’s the brand agenda?” Are the experiences simply designed to provide more “delight” than those of competitors A, B, and C, leading to a hard-to-win “brand delight race,” (e.g., three mints on a pillow instead of two) or are they strategic experiences designed to move customers into an entirely new space?

Brand applications and service design

The application approach to brands and service design appear to have much in common. I’ll get to this in a follow-up post.

Brand applications and social media

Can brands use social media as their applications? I will tackle this question in a follow-up post.

Brand applications—the brand as visionary enabler

To end this overview I’ll observe that as applications brands assume the role of visionary enabler. The brand must summon the courage to lead where roads are few. This is a daunting challenge. We’re far removed from the brand as pretty face or noble promise. This is the brand that envisions a far better place for customers, and innovates to help them get there against high odds. The brand must have the rare talent to discern high value at the edge of possible, but it must also see through customer eyes.


UPDATE: FAQ: Creating your brand as a customer-focused application.


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