Don’t forget “brand utility” in a digital age

Fran Brosnan urges us to remember that the primary role of brands is providing solutions to everyday problems in the latest edition of Market Leader. Her column responsed to a recent article I wrote for the same publication, ‘Rebooting brand strategy for a digital age’, sharing findings from brandgym research including the importance of brand purpose. “I wonder whether the research missed out on something that is driving peoples’ interactions with brands: utility,” she wrote. Here’s why I violently agree with Fran’s point about brand utility.

1. Purpose can be product-centric

Fran rightly reminds us to to stay rooted in reality when working on brand purpose. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Soap powder’s main function is to clean clothes,” she suggests. Regular readers will know that firmly anchoring your brand on product performance is a subject close to my own heart. Way back in 2012 I posted about “the risk of ‘brand ego tripping’, when a brand climbs too high up the ‘ladder’ of benefits, leaving behind the product.” And more recently I posted here about how brand’s can have a clear purpose where a social mission plays only a supporting role, not a lead one.

Take Pampers as an example. The brand purpose is about ‘being dedicated to baby development’, but this is firmly rooted in a functional benefit of dryness protection. Yes, there the brand has a social program with Unicef that has been running for 10 years. But product performance is front and centre, as you would expect from P&G.

2. Product comes first, even for social brands

Even when a brand has a social mission at the heart of its purpose, product performance remains critical. I’m with Fran when she says, “I’m more likely to reward a brand with my loyalty because it does what it says on the tin than because it is championing the role of mothers in society.” In my pro-bono coaching of social entrepreneurs on the Expert Impact program, a common topic is leading with a strong functional benefit, and supporting this with a social benefit. Why? Because a few people might buy your brand once to support your cause. However, you are unlikely to build a big user base unless your product or service delivers.

Take the Harry Specter’s brand of chocolate as an example. I met one of the founders, Shaz Shah, in an Expert Impact session and liked the brand so much I’ve come a Non-Exec Director. The company makes hand-made chocolates that create employment for young people with autism. This is a worthy social cause. But Shaz and his wife Mona focus first and foremost on ensuring that the chocolates are bloody good, which they are, as shown by numerous Great Taste Awards. The brand also works on having the most attractive packaging possible and an easy-to-use website. By creating delicious chocolates Harry Specter’s sells more stuff, which in turn helps more young people with autism.

3. Brand utility in a digital age

Fran also rightly points out the role digital can play in providing brand utility. Entertaining content that “goes viral” often grabs the headlines in magazines and at conferences. But being useful is just as valid a route to take, if not more so. “Digital – via tools, apps, blogs, videos – is an excellent way to deliver this information,” as Fran says.

Back in 2013 I posted here on a book exactly along these lines: “YOUTILITY: Why Smart Marketing is
about Help not Hype.” The premise of the book should be music to Fran’s ears: that brands can “create a customer for life by through marketing that is truly, inherently useful“. Examples from the book I mentioned in the post included:

– The @HiltonSuggests program that tweets useful travel tips for anyone, Hilton guest or not

– Clorox’s free myStain app that gives away self-serve stain solution information

– Geek Squad’s free online self-help videos to solve IT problems

In conclusion, it’s a good idea to give your brand a sense of purpose that goes beyond the purely functional to play in role in making life better. However, this should be firmly rooted in product performance and can have a social mission in a supporting role, not a leading one.