I wrote a post a while back about the difficulty of applying traditional approaches to marketing to a new generation of multi-faceted and super-connected products. Whether you’re talking about physical devices like the iPad (a huge number of converged functions supported by a complex ecosystem of digital services) or virtual ones like Foursquare, the impulse to dramatize a single-minded value proposition in communications is increasingly complicated.
Infographic by Section Design demonstrates the iPad’s complexity
Two new posts from Paul Worthington of Wolff Olins and Henrik Werdelin take this thinking a step further, calling into question long-held assumptions governing the relationship between brand and product. Traditionally, the role of the brand has been to elevate the product. Your audience may not be interested in the toothpaste category and your brand of toothpaste may be undifferentiated in the marketplace; but the identification of a bigger, more engaging brand promise / purpose / mission to attach it to will elevate it and make it (and therefore the product) aspirational for that audience.
But increasingly, digital products are re-writing these rules. Werdelin points out that “few digital products are true commodities” meaning less need to differentiate on purely emotional terms. In fact the opposite is true “digital products are instead successful when they solve a problem and also look pretty and feel good–not the other way around. The importance of the packaging will of course change as more digital products get made and their utility becomes commoditized. But for now, the product creates the brand.” And if the product creates the brand, the marketing challenge is less about projecting that brand via advertising and more about finding ways to stimulate usage (participation) so that people can be enveloped in a multi-faceted user-experience.
As an example, Paul Worthington points to Google posing the question “is the Google brand elevated beyond the Google product, or does the Google product create the expectation and underlying narrative for the Google brand?” Despite Google’s many laudable efforts to build its brand over the last year or so (a lovely Superbowl spot, Teach Parents Tech, ‘Life in a day’ etc) which have sought to build warmth and humour into it, perceptions are still almost exclusively driven by people’s daily interactions with the search engine whose utility suggests solidity, trustworthiness and straightforwardness. In the case of Google, the product creates the brand and not the other way around.
BrandZ data suggests Google’s utilitarian, product-centric brand associations.
Contrast the way in which the Google brand is constructed with how Microsoft have gone about presenting Bing. Putting aside the fact that Bing appears just to be copying Google’s results, it has been built in a manner that seeks to differentiate it from Google by making the presentation of results (in theory) less overwhelming and more relevant. The descriptor “decision engine” has been coined in order to explain this value proposition and in this way (like Google), the brand is defined by the product.
And yet the advertising campaign has accompanied the launch of Bing appears to seek to do the opposite – to build a brand image around a higher-order consumer benefit (the avoidance of information-overload). Though true to the product, how credible is this benefit for consumers generally happy with Google? Does Google really leave us paralyzed and incapable of making decisions (it may have uncovered 30 gazillion results but how often do you go beyond the first page)? Whatever the case, Bing ran with it, employing advertising hyperbole to make their point more forcefully and in the process making an interesting but somewhat shaky insight seem faintly ridiculous.
Whilst I’m not suggesting that Microsoft were wrong to use advertising (they needed to build awareness quickly), I can’t help thinking that they could have been smarter with the role that they ascribed it. Though it would be nice for Google to have some competition, no one is crying out for an alternative. So rather than running advertising which seeks to engage people in the hope that they are encouraged to (maybe) consider Bing next time they’re searching online, why not be more direct? Why not create initiatives that directly drive usage and have people experience the ‘decision engine’ for themselves? And why not use advertising to publicize these rather than just tell people about the brand in a not very convincing way?
To their credit, this is exactly what Microsoft (with the help of Droga5 http://www.droga5.com/) did in partnership with Jay-Z around the launch of his autobiography ‘Decoded’ (great Fast Company write-up here). Armed with a compelling property, Droga5 created a worldwide scavenger hunt where, in advance of the book’s release, all of its 320 pages were posted in a variety of unexpected locations (ranging from a rooftop in New Orleans, a pool bottom in Miami, cheeseburger wrappers in New York City, a pool table in Jay’s 40/40 Club) with eager fans keen to get an early look encouraged to hunt them down. And Bing became the indispensable tool for doing so, with clues revealed and locations posted on its maps meaning that dedicated page-hunters were enjoying habit-forming interactions with it around 3 times every day during the life of the event.
As a planner, it is tempting to seek to craft acute comms propositions which shed light on the complexities of the brands we work on. To build complex analogies and elaborate metaphors which bring their benefits to the surface. However, with technology products whose experience in its totality is what’s compelling, we must accept that traditional comms will never be able to do them justice and find ways to enable people to experience these benefits rather than having to listen to us talk about them.