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:
- Brands are agents of transformation, a means to change the world. They’re not sets of “meanings” to program customer behavior.
- The brand goal is to innovate so we can advance customers into richer realms of living where our brand gains market advantage.
- Our brand is part of our innovation strategy. It’s a method for creating value through customers. Brand strategy becomes innovation strategy.
- The brand team joins the innovation team. They pump brand intelligence into new products and services ab ovo.
- Customers become strategic innovation partners, not just “buyers.” They are valued for their insights, intelligence and initiative far more than for their “loyalty.”
- 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.
- 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.
- The era of the brand icon is over. Icons don’t innovate. Applications do.
- There is less need for ad agencies. There is more need for app agencies.
- 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.