FAQ: Creating your brand as a customer-focused application

In a previous post, Brand strategy: create your entire brand as a customer-focused application, I set forth the advantages of developing your brand as an application to move customers forward. In this FAQ I’ll answer some basic questions about this approach.

How does the application approach for brands differ from traditional brand approaches?

In the application approach the brand is a customer enabler. It incorporates dimensions of innovation that can move customers forward by making them better off. It does so as part of a joint venture with customers, an act of teaming rather than an act of selling. This is quite different from conventional brand approaches which treat brands as a structure of meaning to be communicated, or as a persuasion package to influence how customers feel and think.

Why is the application approach better?

The application approach incorporates a complete brand/customer strategy. The brand goal is to make customers better off through innovations that advance customers beyond the reach of competitors. Example: iPod and iTunes advanced customers beyond the CD, and beyond less integrated music players. They moved their customers to a new market space (category) where competitors couldn’t (easily) follow—and, where life was much, much better for customers.

The application approach also anchors the brand in company operations. We have one brand approach for company vision, values and operations that we leverage into the customer sphere. The brand is the backbone from the lowest employee to the highest customer.

What role do ad agencies play in the application approach?

They become app agencies.

Why must the brand be geared to innovation?

Gearing your brand to innovation can confer strategic advantage. Your brand helps deliver value that advances customers into new realms (markets) where competitors can’t follow. You make customers exclusively better off. If your brand can’t innovate, you are condemned to ad campaigns to make your brand “work” —while your customers are going nowhere. Eventually, the only way they can move forward is to leave.

Aren’t all brands applications of some sort?

Yes they are. Most brand programs are applications. Customer service is a common brand application. Community programs can be applications, too. These will be piecemeal and inefficient applications, however, unless the entire brand is developed as a focused application to move customers forward. The good news is that your existing brand infrastructure may facilitate the transition.

What about brand relationships?

In the application approach, a brand creates customer relationships through its structured customer interactions. These relationships become sustainable when the brand delivers value that moves customers forward. They are more strategic compared to relationships formed using the brand identity model, where what the brand “is” (or what it represents) forms the basis of relationships. Thus, a brand trying to become an “icon” is at a disadvantage to a brand developed as an application (other things being equal.) The icon is fixed. The application moves forward on customer feet. It can explore new types of brand relationships because it’s made to be iterative, collaborative and open to prototyping.

What about brand experience?

The application approach offers the best platform for creating strategic brand experiences. You will have a single, unified brand application that runs the business and makes customers better off.

Can the application approach scale the brand to new levels and new markets?

Yes. That is one of its primary benefits. It is designed to scale. And it can pivot.

Does the application approach entail a different definition of brand?

Yes. It defines the brand as a method of creating value. The brand goal is to create new forms of customer value that advance customers into new market spaces that competitors can’t reach. As a method for creating value, the brand equation is Company Potential X Customer Potential. The brand works as a single, integrated and systematic method to optimize company performance and customer performance. (A philosophical tenet of the application approach is that a company is only as good as its customers.)

Does the application approach change the context of the brand team?

Yes. The brand team acts more like developers than communicators. Instead of “building” a brand as a structure of meaning to be communicated, we develop it dynamically as an enabling platform, through strategic acts of innovation, in concert with customers. The brand team works shoulder to shoulder with product teams through product development and delivery. Ideally, the brand team leads product development. Through the brand team product development becomes customer development.

How does the application approach treat brand identity?

This is a very interesting question. We can view the brand as an application of the brand identity, and/or we can view identity is an application of the brand. It can be both, in a dialectic. Personally, I would put identity on a 3 X 5 card and put brand applications on a global canvas. Nordstrom gives us a clue. So does Zappos. Identity is a form of leadership. It must point the way. It can’t be an idealized projection decoupled from reality, like BP’s ill-fated “Beyond Petroleum.”

Our company believes that brands are perceptions. Why should they be “applications?”

If your brand is a perception, then you’re in the perception business. Your employees are being paid to make perceptions, not valuable products and services. As a perception, your brand will become a creature of campaigns, just like millions of others. It won’t create value. It won’t innovate. Your customers will reward you with the perception of loyalty. Frankly, your brand deserves better (and your customers, too).

Look at it this way: consider your brand a joint effort between you and your customers to out-wit, out-deliver, out-perform your competitors. It’s the real deal, not a “perception.”

What’s wrong with building a brand as a belief system, or as a total structure of meaning?

Nothing, really, except that those belief systems and those structures of meaning tend to be monolithic and inert, and are usually designed to lock customers in place. They’re often attempts to bind customers to a brand that can’t innovate. To survive, they require progressively irrational customers, a risky bet. They’re often a sign that innovation in the industry has stopped, and that only mind games remain for incumbents. Hence, we see these approaches in mature industries whose products resemble commodities in brand wrappers. These industries are ripe for brand disruption.

What is brand disruption?

Brand disruption is what the application approach is all about. It is the process of making customers exclusively better off in a new brand context beyond the reach of incumbent brands. A disrupting brand runs off with the customers of incumbent brands. It throws open the gates of the corrals where incumbent customers have been trapped for “branding.” Customers escape to the better brand context provided by the disruptor. And this context is real. It’s the difference between being subject to a monarch in a kingdom and then arriving in a republic of democratic laws where one is free.

Whole Foods is a pretty good example of the application approach to brands. It disrupts KFC, among others, by being an application of healthy living.

Our brand strategy is to capture, contain and control customers so they keep buying our products. That’s Marketing 101. Why is the application approach better?

The application approach is better because it’s strategic. The problem with the “capture, contain and control” theory of brands is that it locks customers and the company in one place. When a brand corrals its customers it imprisons the company in the same corral. The brand traps itself. It becomes a stylized sales stimulant that’s essentially static. If it’s an icon, it’s an icon with feet of clay.

In the application approach we keep advancing customers so we can progressively raise the brand bar, leaving competitors—and their corrals—in the dust. (For more information, see:  Some brands go medieval on their customers.

Is the application approach better at collaboration?

Yes. In the application approach the brand collaborates with customers to create new customer opportunities, instead of attempting to hold customers in place with emotional levers. Customers thus become active players in re-creating their lives; they’re not passive “targets,” and they’re not an “audience.” Through this process, customers become a brand’s greatest competitive weapon–not for their static “loyalty” but for their ability to help create new value that creates new markets.

Our CEO says our brand is an application to boost sales and make money. What’s wrong with that?

Your CEO is reducing your brand to a stylized sales stimulant. He thinks of it as “soft” advertising. This is a weak approach because it decouples the brand from value creation (via innovation), it doesn’t leverage the brand internally, and it disregards the power of the brand as a tool for customer collaboration.

We have a branded app for the iPhone and for Android. That’s an application approach, right?

Not really. A typical “branded app” is a poor excuse for an app, and a worse excuse for a brand. It’s usually little more than website features fluffed up with a new interface and maybe a game or contest for “interest,” as if the brand itself is boring. That doesn’t cut it. What you need are personal brand applications.

We’re on Facebook and Twitter. Can social media be our application?

No. Facebook and Twitter are applications of Facebook and Twitter. Your brand is a tenant on their sites. Besides, brands typically use Facebook and Twitter as promotional platforms. A sales platform is not a brand platform.

What if we use Facebook and Twitter to help our customer service?

That makes sense. In that case you would be using Facebook and Twitter as partial platforms for your customer service applications. Responding to immediate feedback can improve customer service. However, Facebook and Twitter are no substitute for the larger application that is your brand.

It seems like software companies have a big advantage in the brand application approach.

Yes they do. To control your own brand destiny you can’t let their applications outflank you. You have to be every bit as application-focused as they are.



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