Brand Utility: When Advertising and Products Converge

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What if we lived in an alternate universe? In that hypothetical alternate universe, Adobe owns Instagram. Well, sort of. There, it’s not called “Instagram,” but something like “Adobe ScrapBook” or “Adobe Glow,” and its UI looks a little different—slate grey instead of blue, more toolbars—but otherwise, it’s the same app. Users take, edit, and share photos on the fly. It’s free to download and sign up for, and integrates with most social media platforms. Millions of people use it every day; millions more don’t understand what it is. Some love it, while others find it incredibly annoying. It’s Instagram, except it’s not called that, and Adobe owns it.

It’s not hard to imagine Instagram as an Adobe-branded service. After all, the app is essentially a collection of Photoshop filter add-ons with a social media sharing component. By offering its users the basic tools to edit photos, as well as the capability to share them, Adobe could potentially expand and deepen the user base for its paid products. The free app would be a tool, but a deliberately simplified one: Once users reached the limits of its capabilities, they would convert to Photoshop and Creative Suite customers.

Instagram—er, Adobe Glow—would be the perfect example of brand utility: Marketing made useful. Brand utility is the idea that brands can accomplish more through a tool or a resource than through a message-based marketing approach. In other words, brands focus less on saying something to customers, and more on doing something for customers. Think of it as the JFK model. In the theoretical Adobe-verse, many of us would be using a branded utility every day.

Our universe, of course, is much more complicated. In our reality, Facebook owns Instagram, Adobe offers a non-social photo editing app called Photoshop Express, and a lot of people aren’t seeing the benefit of brand utility. Instagram struggles to monetize its service, alienating millions of customers in the process, while Adobe’s free utility experiments don’t seem to offer much tangible value to the brand.

Adobe and Instagram aren’t the only ones struggling here. Many brands haven’t mastered the balance between giving everything and nothing away.

How do you make your marketing as valuable as your products?

One thought: Recognize that marketing can — and should — be useful. The Guinness Book of World Records and the Michelin Guide are two of the oldest and most successful modern examples of brand utility. Neither seems to share much in common with its parent brand, but each provides something of value to customers.

So many modern brands are loath to create brand utility simply because they don’t recognize the value in marketing. Marketing—when it works—tells a story, connects people, and produces a meaningful experience on its own, kind of like what Instagram does. Customers may not pay for it in dollars, but in time and emotional engagement. Media experiences like movie trailers, music videos, and mobile games are classic marketing techniques, and meaningful events in their own right.

Whether brand utilities like the Guinness Book or Michelin Guide are products or marketing techniques is ultimately a moot point: They’re both. Mostly, they’re useful or, at the very least, entertaining. And there’s simply no reason anything a brand puts out—whether it’s a product, app, utility, or marketing effort—shouldn’t be.

Post Date
June 3, 2013
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