Archive for the 'Brand Engagement' Category

This young woman is a brand of America

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Jessica Beinecke is a brand of America. She’s 24 and from Ohio and she speaks fluent Mandarin, and her captivating “OMG Meiyu” English slang education videos have become an online hit in China. Jessica’s wide eyes and buoyant delivery open a portal to American culture, to the America that’s down-to-earth, self-directed, can-do, engaging, funny, inventive and equal. Slang expressions have a way of bringing that out.

Brands deliver new forms of culture

I call Jessica “a brand of America” because in their own small way her 70+ videos do what every brand should do. They deliver new forms of culture that free people from the constraints of the old. Yes, brands are more culture than commerce. (That’s why they don’t grow on spreadsheets.) The brand is transformative charm, wit, wisdom, insight, inspiration, innovation, sheer creativity and often sheer gumption that blasts the senses with new ways of being and doing.

A brand of possibilities

What comes across in Jennifer’s videos is much more than a clued-in urban vocabulary for Chinese students of English. It’s an engaging context of culture that offers new ways to see the world. It’s a  brand of expression, and as such, a brand of possibilities.

Across all cultures

Cultures can be ruts, too, and videos like these can work across all cultures to liven things up. US students need to open their eyes to other cultures, and the simple style of Jessica’s work may inspire others overseas to target the US with similar videos. Certainly couldn’t hurt.


Your brand is what you put into your product, not add-on “branding”

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

If there’s one general rule for brands it would seem to be this: Your brand is what you put into your product, not something you add on to your product when it’s ready to ship. If you create a product and then try to dial up some “branding” to make it appear special and unique, and “emotional,” you’ve already lost the brand strategy war. You’ve reduced your brand to a media exercise. Instead of being a direct drive to create value and create customers, your brand as “branding” is busy creating “impressions,” “likes” and other media metrics. While that may be good business for publishers and ad agencies, you and your customers deserve more.

The brand as a method to create value

Strategically, we want our brands to advance our customers beyond the reach of competitors. Being strategic, we design this process so our customers will also be able to add value back to the brand, through their initiative, insight and innovation. Our goal is to partner with customers to make competitors irrelevant in the new context we’re jointly creating. (Two against one being strategically superior to one on one.)

This means that your brand is much more than a communication tacked on to the product with bells and whistles. It’s a method to create value, a creative discipline far closer to innovation than to the fluff stuff of advertising or PR. Specifically, it’s a method of engagement that advances customers where competitors can’t follow. For example, Apple makes some wonderful products in the iPod touch, iPhone and iPad, but Apple’s real brand power lies in the systematic and seamless experience that it delivers to customers: an integrated operating system, iTunes, apps, App Store, Apple Store and perhaps soon the iCloud, all of which combine to take Apple customers to a new level of being and doing. Once Apple has advanced customers to this level, why would they settle for anything less?

Reference posts

Here are a few reference posts that expand on the ideas above:


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

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

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.



A company’s Facebook page is its flagship store

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

If your company has a Facebook page, be advised that your Facebook page is your No. 1 flagship store. It is your brand completely laid open to the world, with at least 300 million Facebook members invited to share your space with their personal appreciations, advice, comments and perspectives. It isn’t a physical space, of course, like a usual retail flagship. It’s a flagship of your brand character, brand values and brand behavior, in an ongoing dialogue with all your Facebook “fans.”

On Facebook, a brand transacts its future

No money changes hands on a brand’s Facebook page, but what does transact is a brand-driven social and moral exchange that’s every bit as important. In effect, on Facebook every brand transacts its future. Brands are judged on Facebook across social, moral and political dimensions that may well determine a brand’s future. What is the brand’s agenda? Where is it leading the world? How is it a force for good? What are its positions on vital issues A, B and C? Does the brand listen? Does it speak with a human voice, or is it a PR bullhorn? Prepare your Facebook flagship to answer these questions. They will be asked.

Over time, a brand’s Facebook page can reveal a brand’s blind spots, program shortfalls and inefficiencies. Brand ready to listen—and to act—can translate this experience into strategic opportunities.

There are no pedestals on Facebook

There are no pedestals on Facebook. Brands are tenants on a page, co-equals with everyone else. On Facebook the brand is brought down to earth, shorn of its corporate cloak,  poked and prodded, queried, challenged, and perhaps told to shape up here and there—just like any new member of the crew. This process is called brand engagement. It’s a two-way street. Brands can’t script it. They learn from it. And what they learn can be invaluable.

It’s your flagship, but many of the flags aren’t yours

What’s unique about your flagship presence on Facebook is that many of the flags won’t be yours. They’ll belong to your “fans,”  in the shape of the eye-catching profile images that grace their comments. In very rare cases your Facebook page may be visited by individuals or pressure groups with their own causes, as the recent Nestle brand crisis so vividly demonstrated. Flying their own flags, these “fans” may try to turn your own identity against you, possibly using variations of your symbols and trademarks for their own campaigns.

Strong brands can take steps to preclude such eventualities, and can handle unexpected events  if they do occur. On the other hand, a weak or backward-facing brand may be overwhelmed by aggressive fan behavior on what it considers its proprietary Facebook turf. Worse, it may find itself in a nightmare of its own making if it reacts by dictating rules of behavior to the “fans” who share its page.

Flagship brand, Facebook culture

In the brick and mortar world a company will use its retail flagships to help build a unique brand culture, every square inch designed to amplify the brand experience.  On Facebook, a brand’s flagship presence must be built within the neutral Facebook frame, and within the Facebook culture. This is a culture that sees itself as open, egalitarian, informal, tolerant, supportive and respectful. That’s the culture your brand must embrace. Brands that come across as patronizing, arrogant, corporatist or legalistic invite a serious culture clash, which the brand can’t win.

A brand’s Facebook page is social property, not private property.

A brand’s Facebook page is social property, not private property. It can’t be structured as a walled garden where the brand promotes itself from behind the parapets. The purpose of the brand is not to privatize but to socialize, by leading its customers (and Facebook “fans”) to better ways of being and doing (that can also build the business). Brands are their outcomes. The more social the outcome, the stronger the brand. You fly your flags with verve and grace and wit and style and compassion. If your flags fly true, your Facebook fans will follow.


Google’s automated brand can’t connect

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010


In deep space it might have been a good idea: since your business exists on computers and is accessed by computers, put your brand on computers, too. Automate it. Keep messy customers on the other side of the screen. Create an online Help Page. Fill it with FAQ’s. Cue up some Forums. Add video. List some email links but tell customers not to expect personal replies. Better yet, delegate customer service to your partners. And best of all, don’t include a phone number. Why invite time-wasting customer calls? Listening is not your business.

Then sit back and let the automated brand work its magic. No fuss. No muss. No puny humans fouling the flow.

In reality it was a bad idea

In reality—on Earth— it was a bad idea. On January 5, 2010 Google boldly announced the Nexus One “superphone,” a highly advanced iPhone competitor. The launch event was a smash, but things then went downhill. Google’s automated brand couldn’t connect with customers. Its few online circuits were promptly overloaded. So many customer questions disappeared into the ether that the New York Times asked, Hey Google, Anybody Home?

Customers called, and the brand wasn’t there.

Customers had questions—lots of them

Customers had questions—lots of them—especially about buying the Nexus One for $529 unlocked. Google made that offer a big part of the launch, raising a lot of “big first” questions, especially since the Nexus One is sold only from the Nexus One website. And—reading the fine print—it did seem that if customers bought the phone at a discounted price with a carrier (T-Mobile) contract, they might face early termination fees greater than the full price of the unlocked phone itself. Whoa! How does that work?

Searching for a brand relationship

Before shelling out hundreds of dollars for a path-breaking new smartphone many customers searched for a brand relationship from Google itself. Spending big bucks for an untested smartphone is a big risk that can only be mitigated by a highly positive brand relationship. Customers wanted a direct connection to the real Google behind the screen—to that human Google that had forever seemed so elusive. They especially wanted to feel confident that Google would support the Nexus One  in years to come, since its record of supporting its brand of phones was—at this time—precisely zero.

They searched for a brand relationship and wound up with a web page.

Customers notice if you don’t connect the brand dots

Customers connect the brand dots. They notice when you don’t. A path-breaking product from a new vendor has a lot of dots to connect if it wants to build the trust that builds markets. Apple has 284 Apple stores. In Google’s case, customers may have wondered how they could trust Google when it didn’t see fit to include a phone number for customer service on its site—when Google was proclaiming itself a major player in the phone business. Perhaps customers thought: You’re selling expensive super cool phones, but you don’t have a phone number to call. Hello?

Nexus One customer service complaints

Launching a forward-focused, highly innovative product on the shoulders of an automated brand is guaranteed to let customers down. Many customers apparently bailed on the Google brand when they couldn’t get answers from Google’s Nexus One Help Page. Immediately following the Nexus One launch, reports of customer dissatisfaction were all over the Web. A sampling:

  1. Google Nexus One leaves customers sour Wired
  2. Nexus One a test of Google’s customer service CNET
  3. Google faces deluge of Nexus One complaints PC World
  4. Google, Nexus One and the customer service risk ZD Net
  5. Google’s Nexus One issues threaten its push to shake up mobile Wall St. Journal

The brand is not an algorithm

It’s tempting to think that we can reduce a brand to a simple, repeatable formula, and then activate it in finitum. Unfortunately, a brand is not an algorithm. It can’t be automated. It’s a living customer connection, vital, emotional, and changeable, drawing a large part of its life from customers.

Brands, in fact, are the opposite of algorithms. They’re interactive structures of discovery, far more culture than commerce. They’re made to innovate, to explore and to create new forms of value with customers as partners. At their edges they reinvent themselves daily. That’s how they can create new classes of customers that drive the business forward, into new market spaces. A fixed brand agenda to contain customers or to lock them in place is a prescription for failure.

There is no “beta” in brands

While Google is famed for it’s innumerable “beta” releases of free software, where it could formally shift risk to customers, those days are over. While there may be lots of “beta” in product development, there is no “beta” in brands. The grown-up Google is judged by its brand.

A slow start for Nexus One sales?

Wired and the Wall Street Journal have reported hat sales of Nexus One are off to a slow start. If true, part of the reason may be Google’s failure to advance its brand with personally engaging customer service. Without such personal engagement, customer questions, doubts and fears can easily become a decision that says, “Too risky. No thanks.” A weak or reluctant Google brand will mean that the Nexus One may never achieve its potential sales volume and market share.

Google as a brand of trust

In an abbreviated sense, we can identify three phases in the evolution of Google’s brand:

1. A work in progress —  The “beta” years, now history.

2. It just works — The current phase of high-performance automation

3. Google works for you — The next phase of brand trust

This next phase will be Google’s greatest challenge to date. It entails a Google brand built on relationships, not algorithms. It means Google must excel as a brand of trust, connecting with customers beyond the machine interface.

Nexus One as a brand wake-up call

Google’s customer service shortfalls with Nexus One are in fact a wake-up call for the Google brand. While Google has done a masterful job advancing customers with highly-integrated information services, it has reached a point where trust in Google is now every bit as vital as Google’s software brilliance. Google can’t automate the next step.

Photo credit: Iitmuse — Flickr

Personal brand applications: conceptual examples

Monday, June 1st, 2009


As a follow-up to my recent post on personal brand applications (PBA’s) on smartphones, here are some rough conceptual examples showing how various industries and organizations might use PBA’s.

As I noted in my post, “The most treasured PBA’s will be exclusive apps of elite circles of achievement.” Real personal brand applications would have much more depth and dimension than I sketch out here.

A conceptual PBA for business publications

A personal brand application from the Economist or Financial Times might help subscribers deftly navigate the global village covered in detail by these publications. If I”m off to a conference in Singapore the PBA might give me an insider’s brief on local airport logistics, where to stay and maybe the best hawker centers for a dash of local food. Tell me the top 10 do’s and don’ts. Remind me how hot it gets and where to go on Clarke Quay (see above). Toss in a Metro map, main local phone numbers, and so on. You know what’s relevant for me because I read your pub. Your PBA is your sharable (neo-Keynesian) savoir faire. It should (in this concept) qualitatively enhance my visit to the Lion City–or any great city.

Would the brand charge for this? Absolutely. This is real value. Make it part of the sub.

A conceptual PBA for an office furniture brand

Office furniture brands already understand that they’re no longer in the traditional “office furniture business.” They’re really in the workspace business, with the many additional opportunities that market affords. They may even be in the innovation business, and in the collaboration business—if their products can contribute in those value-added areas. Hence the strategy set forth in this podcast about Steelcase. The PBA of an office furniture brand might focus on helping customers innovate and collaborate, so the brand becomes a trusted innovation and productivity partner inside and outside the office.

This is what I mean when I call the brand a “value stream beyond the product proper.”



A grocery extends its brand—to farming

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

In order to provide better products to its customers, a San Francisco grocery has gone into farming. This new capability totally changes the context of its brand, and its customer relationships. For the products it grows and sells, it is a genuine “farmer’s market.”

Extending the brand chain to the farm

Bi-Rite Market has been a local leader in providing organic produce and artisan products. Having its own farm extends its brand chain into what was once “supplier” territory. It adds unique brand depth and brand trust. Currently, Bi-Rite is able to grow about 5% of the produce it sells. Because Bi-Rite can “grow its own,” when you shop there you are closer to the food you eat. You have one foot on the farm–and that’s a powerful connection.

Deepening the brand engagement

By bringing the farm into the retail experience, Bi-Rite dramatically deepens its brand engagement with customers. Customers now have first-hand access to the grower, enabling them to learn exactly how and where their food was planted, cultivated and harvested. What had been a “retail” engagement is now a fully-shared “food” engagement, from seed to checkout.

Changing the brand game

Bi-Rite states its mission as, “Creating community through food.”  Through its own farms, Bi-Rite is moving to change the brand game in food retail by changing the context of food retail itself. They’re integrating grower and grocer—and customer.

Admittedly, Bi-Rite is a small grocery in one city, but their end-to-end brand is one that large food chains (except perhaps Whole Foods) would find it very hard to match.


How to define “brand engagement”

Friday, March 27th, 2009


In this post I’ll provide a strategic definition for “brand engagement” that addresses a major weakness in current brand engagement approaches. My goal is to re-orient and re-structure brand engagements into strategic engagements–where they can deliver maximum customer value and competitive advantage.

As part of this discussion we’ll move the brand playing field from inside the customer’s cluttered mind to the fresh air of the outside world. That’s a more strategic place where brand-driven value creation and innovation spell the difference between winners and losers.

The brand team becomes a strategic player

As an important corollary, I’ll describe how this new strategy makes the brand team a pivotal player in product innovation and new market development. In fact, brand builders assume front line roles in driving business strategy.

A new definition and metaphor for “brand engagement”

At the heart of this new approach is a new definition (and metaphor) for “brand engagement.” We all know how one gear engages another to set things in motion (see above). I’ll use the gear metaphor to help explain how brands engage customers. We’ll see that the primary purpose of brand engagement is to move the customer and the company forward. With this model of engagement we can 1) advance customers beyond the reach of competitors, and 2) create new market opportunities where the company and its customers can co-create new value. These add up to a big win-win.

Where the current approach falls short

The current approach to brand engagements falls short because it isn’t designed for strategic advantage. It’s typically a shallow persuasion approach that begins and ends with trying to sell perceptions of the brand. Parts of it seem inspired by propaganda techniques. It’s aimed to influence customer attitudes and feelings, in hopes of “winning” customer minds and generating brand “loyalty.” As a brand engagement, its world view is that very narrow space between the customer’s ears.

Commodity engagements

Unfortunately, this approach undervalues brands; it aims too low. It ignores the first principle of brands, which is that brands are company potential X customer potential. Moreover, it ignores strategies for creating new customer value. Instead, it often reduces brand engagements to commodity interactions:  easy pleasantries, token gestures or common “rewards” which have nothing special (or strategic) about them. Competitors copy the same sets of engagements, and soon everyone is back to square one in the same engagement stew.

Reducing brands to this level is is a great loss to the companies behind the brands, and to their customers.

Structural problems with the current approach

The current “feelgood” approach to brand engagements contains serious structural problems as well. As I see it, these encompass four main areas:

  1. The current approach treats customers as a separate species from the company, as if they’re solely to be “targeted” and sold to. This separation warps the engagement process and precludes it from effective strategies for teaming and collaboration.
  2. It positions customers as an audience of followers. This positioning limits the depth of proactive customer engagement and restricts the value customers can add back to the brand. Bottom line: less brand value, and less brand innovation.
  3. It considers brand engagements as a means of persuasion, not as a means of delivering value, or of co-creating value with customers. Worst case, this approach tries to sell brand emotions as a substitute for delivering better products or services. That’s a self-delusion–and a recipe for disaster.
  4. It aims to glue customers in place, contained by the company and “loyal” to it. This approach traps the company in the same dead-end corral.

What counts is how customer emotions are developed

This critique of the conventional brand engagement approach is not an argument against the emotional qualities of brands. Far from it. Breakthrough emotions are fundamental to the brand experience. As brand builders, we want customers doing cartwheels in the streets. What counts, however, is how those emotions are produced. The conventional approach falls short when it tries to manufacture customer feelings rather than deliver the products and services that in themselves and in the brand context bring out those feelings in customers at far deeper (and strategic) levels.

The gear metaphor

Let’s return to our gear metaphor for brand engagement. Note that the “customer gear” and the “company gear” are in the same gearbox, in the same vehicle. Brands and customers share the same journey. The customer gear drives the wheels which take the business forward. (Yep, they pay the bills.) In a brand engagement we advance the customer to advance the business.

The bottom line is that the brand gear delivers customers to a better place than the spot where they started. If it can’t do this, there is no meaningful “engagement.”

The brand engagement choice

As I see it, we have a clear choice in brand engagement strategies. We can try to “capture” customers by capturing their minds ( in muted shades of Pavlov and Svengali), or we can team with customers to change their world for the better, and by changing their world improve our own. One choice locks customers in place; the other moves customers forward.

It’s a brand choice between using customers and advancing them.

A strategic definition of “brand engagement”

This definition is intended to produce strategic brand outcomes that lead to competitive advantage.

I define “brand engagement” as follows:

Brand engagement is the interactive process of moving the customer forward, to a stronger sense of self, and to a higher plane of being and doing, where customers can be more proactive and more productive.

And this is the strategic goal of brand engagement:

The goal of brand engagement is to create the customers who will drive the business forward. Brand engagements are platform engagements of value co-creation. As a platform the brand advances customers into new creative realms–and markets–where they can add unique value back to the brand, and where competitors can’t follow.

Implications for brands and the brand team

The above definition has important implications for brands and the brand team (all of them quite good):

  1. The process of brand engagement emerges as a strategic driver for the business because it’s predicated on customer growth and development. The brand team leads this effort.
  2. The brand team has crucial responsibilities for innovation and market creation. Their efforts build future revenue streams.
  3. Through the brand team, customers become vital allies in brand strategy and business strategy. The brand is an innovation agent. Customer growth becomes company growth.
  4. The brand team finds a new home in the Innovation Department. Brands become an extension of product development–instead of being a separate layer of “communications” bounced around between Corporate and Marketing.