Rethinking advertising: placing utility at the heart of brand strategy

Strategy Consulting 1 January 2010

Brand utility is gaining more and more ground in brand strategy, gradually replacing pure advertising. Brands want to go further by providing a service that is truly useful to users.

Brand utility, branded content, native advertising… The multiplication of new terms relating to brand communication reflects a will on the part of advertisers and marketers to adopt innovative approaches in order to build a unique brand image and to create lasting attachment to the brand among customers. These concepts are part of an approach that aims to break with the traditional conception of advertising. While advertising is sometimes seen as a disturbing noise coming up in the middle of interesting content, it now aspires to be worthy of interest in itself by being either entertaining or useful, and above all engaging. Branded content is the association of a brand with quality content that goes beyond the strict framework of its value proposition. Advertainment is a subclass of branded content that uses entertaining content to promote the brand. Native advertising is a format in which the advertising message meets a number of content guidelines (editorial policy of the media) as well as form constraints (same visual aspect as the editorial content). Advertorials, which have been around for a long time, are one example of it. Finally, brand utility consists in developing a service or a group of services aimed at users for promotional purposes. It is a combination of the advertising approach and what is no longer mere content but an actual service with practical utility for the user, often available for free for an indeterminate period of time.

Developing your brand utility: a competitive factor

Brand utility is an innovative factor that is particularly essential in a context of crisis and intense competition in that it drives marketers to rethink the value proposition in depth in order to develop a useful service that is consistent with the brand’s values. Firstly, a differentiating value proposition is developed, resulting in efficient “natural” communication based on use and sharing. Secondly, marketers adopt a functional, useful and practical approach instead of trying to entertain people, to make them laugh or to inspire a lifestyle. The Nike+ app, which allows runners to know, improve and share their athletic performance, is a good illustration of this. Nike provides a service in order to establish a lasting connection with runners within a well-defined context that makes sense for the brand.

Think “function” before “message”

Developing one’s brand utility consists in observing what users do in order to try and be useful to them in a specific context related to the brand. It means asking them “What can I do for you?”. Much like a butcher giving advice about recipes and thus winning the loyalty of customers who come to buy meat as well as meal ideas, Kraft foods offers a cooking school app. Rather than creating a new product or need, the idea is to think in terms of existing uses and to design an intangible service that makes daily life easier.

The impact of digital technology, mobile technology and social media

Brand utility initiatives are not limited to the digital world. Thus, during music festivals, Nokia provides soundproof booths to allow users to make a call in a quiet environment. However, digital technology allows brands to industrialise the process by reducing the cost of reproduction. Indeed, the cost of a new member subscribing to Nike+ or of an additional download of Kraft Foods’ app is almost non-existent. In addition, digital technology also makes it possible to measure user engagement accurately – frequency of use, consumption patterns… information that then enable brands to calculate the ROI of initiatives and to know their customers better. The digital ecosystem also allows brands to benefit from virality effects and to federate communities around a service. Finally, mobile technology represents a unique opportunity to remain in daily contact with users 24/7 in any situation. For instance, Mastercard has developed an app to locate the nearest ATM throughout the world, thus freeing its customers from the constraints of borders and office hours. The more daily the activity facilitated by the brand, the more frequent the contacts, and the more potentially significant their incremental impact.

Lasting brand development

Developing one’s brand utility amounts to providing a service by making an activity simpler, faster or more fun. Everything that has value has a price – one way to measure the true utility of a service is to ask oneself whether users would be willing to pay for it. Yet brand utility initiatives are very often free, first of all because it fosters the broad distribution of the service by minimising barriers to adoption, and second because brand utility is part of a global communication strategy and the costs incurred can be seen as advertising costs. By creating shared environments allowing for regular interaction between a brand and its users, brand utility allows brands not only to acquire new customers, but also and especially to retain existing customers. On the borderline between advertising and CRM, it enables brands to establish a long-term relationship with users by maintaining a positive and contextualised presence in their minds.

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