Building personal brand applications


As I discussed in a previous post, companies are increasingly turning to digital brand platforms, programs and applications to augment brand interactions and brand experience, and to deliver new forms of customer value. In this post I want to focus on a new type of digital brand application which I call (in my best generic English) personal brand applications.

What are personal brand applications?

Personal brand applications are software applications that deliver unique brand value to customers in ways that are personal, portable and persistent. Their intent is to form a brand partnership with the customer, with a depth of interaction far beyond conventional channels of brand communication. They become the customer’s virtual sidekick, mentor, confidant and guide. They watch the customer’s back. They go where the customer goes, and they are “always on.”

As a complement to other brand programs, personal brand applications are a new way for brands to connect with customers 24/7. They are 1:1, direct and immediate. They have the potential to forge deep brand connections that can transcend the influence of advertising, packaging, “branding” and similar old-school brand modalities.

A form of next-generation brand

Personal brand applications can be considered a form of next-generation brand, incorporating a magnitude of difference in personalization, engagement and interaction. Currently, a leading brand might include a brand outreach website, numerous email feedback loops, a customer forum, widgets, and maybe even weblogs. These are certainly steps in the right direction, but they barely scratch the surface of what personal brand applications can accomplish, both for the company and the customer. (Think of the difference between the rotary dial phone and today’s mobile phone. That’s the kind of difference we’re talking about.)

A live link between brand and customer

The goal of a personal brand application is to establish a persistent live link between a brand and its customers. This is the brand as a second skin. Its mission is to help advance the customer in a direction the customer has chosen, in a way that also (strategically) builds the brand.

A personal brand application is a working relationship of equals. It’s a partnership in context and substance, an application of brand value that takes what the company stands for and delivers it as the brand’s wisdom, wit, insights and vision to the customer. It does this through the digital devices that enable the customer’s lifestyle, thus making it easily accessible and a constant companion. Through it, the brand can become a personal transformation engine for the customer, taking precedence over heavily mediated brand affiliations.

Of course, all this assumes that the brand incarnates the kind of values that a customer can bank on.

How do personal brand applications work?

A personal brand application would work something like this: The brand offers customers a rich online palette of personal directions and goals, consistent with the brand context and mission. The customer maps out his/her intended personal path and objective. Maybe it’s to enjoy the product fully, or to get promoted, or to lose weight, or to find a mate, or to achieve spiritual bliss, or to become more confident, or to become the next Steve Ballmer or Steve Jobs—or whatever. The palette of choices represents the brand vision, and those avenues where the brand is prepared to lead the customer. Focus is key. Less is more.

Where does the content come from?

A brand’s ability to be “virtual sidekick, mentor, confidant and guide” will stem from the vision, values and actions that make that brand (and company) special. (Mediocre brands, or those built as facades, cannot compete in the personal brand application space.) Based on a customer’s choices, the brand uses its own content, plus contextually aggregated feeds (e.g., Yahoo Pipes) to architect and deliver what the customer might need in his/her journey. This may include related information from brand communities and brand value networks.

What kinds of content are involved?

That depends on where you plan to lead your customers. At the utility level, it’s the insider know-how that makes your product better in the hands of the customer. If you’re Toyota, it may be a Camry’s way of having a conversation with the new owner. If you’re the Economist, maybe it’s a career track to the corner office, globally conceived. More generally, it might be something like Lifehacker, albeit focused through your brand. Beyond that, your inspiration might span the range from the Magic 8-Ball, to the situational ethics of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, deciding to be feared or loved, or to French kissing tips. Hey, it’s a creative world. If you’re a creative brand, this is your cup of tea. You’re taking your customer to a higher level and having fun along the way. This is your chance to shine and to be, as Seth Godin would say, “remarkable.”

How does the application reach the customer?

What’s the delivery device? A smartphone might be a good choice. An iPhone might be ideal. Laptops can work. Fluid access to the Internet (broadband, Wi-Fi, 3G, or EDGE) is essential. Software-wise, it might be done with super-widgets, but I would expect a new digital form factor to evolve, with new levels of interaction. The desired process is not one of simply feeding stuff to the customer. It’s engagement and interaction that we’re after, the kind that grows the customer, grows the brand, and grows the business.

How does the brand benefit?

What does a company gain by offering a personal brand application? Here are some potential benefits to the brand:

  1. Deepens brand/customer interactions
  2. Creates new avenues for brand affiliation
  3. Positions the brand in emerging markets
  4. Can outflank competing brands on their turf
  5. Enables a smaller brand to leapfrog larger brands with deeper forms of meaning
  6. Can block brand disruption from below
  7. Prepares customers for new products in the pipeline
  8. Through the brand, moves customers beyond the reach of competitors
  9. Through customer interactions, enables the brand to learn and grow dynamically.

How does a company begin?

Start small. Focus on a content space that you can dominate. Prototype an offering in a selected segment. Listen to customers. Learn what works best. Iterate. Grow.