So you’ve been through the grind, tried every trick in the book, gone one up on the competition and even given customers what they never imagined.
All to make your brand the top brand in the category and the market. But is that it? Is being a top brand good enough anymore? Apparently not.
In these days of turbocharged technology and social networks, collective clout and peer pressure, it seemingly does not guarantee immortality in the brand pantheon. So what’s next?
Evolving to a ‘brand ecosystem’.
Where the brand doesn’t just create extensions out of a name, image or communication proposition, but actually builds serious new revenue streams with a host of integrated business propositions/touch-points, with all of them working cohesively off the same platform, based on the ‘purpose’ of the brand.
Now, to be honest, this is not a brand new concept or phenomenon. Some categories have embraced it organically, some by design. But initiating a systematic programme to work consciously towards building a brand ecosystem for existing brands has immense potential to create cohesive business systems for accelerated growth.
Here’s why creating a brand ecosystem is such a big deal. Among Interbrand’s Top 100 Global Brands of 2017, as much as 42 per cent of the total value was contributed by just 10 of the top brands, the likes of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Coca Cola, Amazon, Samsung, Toyota, Facebook, Mercedes Benz and IBM.
A majority of these brands also featured in BrandZ’s Top 100 most valuable brands, confirming the fact that they seem to be doing something not just right but also different. And that is to deliver seamless, intuitive and distinctive experiences across product and service touch-points.
In an increasingly digitised consumer republic, with the market shifting from a push to a pull economy and customer journeys becoming a maze than a funnel, there is an inherent conflicting conundrum. While this gives brands an unprecedented opportunity to build 24/7 customer-obsessed or infatuated business models, the landscape is brutally fragmented, especially when the brand is expected to own the entire customer experience life-cycle - from awareness, engagement and conversion to loyalty.Unfortunately,marketers own only a sliver of that customer experience cycle, because so much of it is now controlled by the ecosystems of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and even Microsoft.
Hence, brands that make people’s lives easier by connecting a number of different aspects into one ecosystem will thrive and have the most potential for accelerated future growth.
We believe,no brand is an exception to thinking this way today.
While brands earlier used to intercept, isolate and insulate their customers, today they need to attract(motivate people to seek the brand out), assist (helping people before, and even more after the purchase of the brand) and affiliate (instead of focusing on one-to-one marketing, bring in any and all participants that could be helpful to the prospective buyer, creating a broader ecosystem of participants that the consumer wants to interact with).
In a world where customers expect everything to work as seamlessly and easily as their favourite apps, we can no longer continue to think of brands in the traditional terms of just identities and campaigns.
A company cannot assert its brand in the marketplace through communication and advertising alone. Brands emerge from the collective and holistic experiences of its users. And the strongest brands will be those built through the most cohesive businesses or brand ecosystems.
By definition, an effective brand ecosystem is one which is an organic model, where the role of the brand is to deliver cohesive, compelling and authentic brand experiences around the purpose, extending beyond its core function with engaging content, conversations and commerce between the brand and its audience, or among audiences, across all forms of touch-points.
A deeper look at some top brands reveals that the ecosystem delivers disproportionate brand value. While brands like Apple or Google may have superior products and services, it is the brilliance of their functionally integrated model, where hardware, software and other touch-points are connected not just by beautiful design aesthetics or service par excellence, but by a level of inter-operability that justifies the premium and discourages defections to rival platforms. No wonder, these ecosystem-led brands garner greater product usage and long-term loyalty.
So how can a brand ecosystem be created? Here are four fundamentals.
Brand infrastructure, which deals with the brand platform idea, like the brand purpose or point of view.
Applications infrastructure, which deals with the current functionality and other inter-operable functionalities. Starting off with either the product brand, service brand, social/sustainable brand or community brand, it has to include the other three as well in order to be effective, with the brand purpose working equally well across all the four constituents.
Data infrastructure, which deals with how to gather and leverage data in the inter-operable ecosystem and how to make the data actionable for real-time interaction across all channels.
Experience infrastructure, which deals with the sensory, affective, intellectual and behavioural experiences offline and online, that are meaningful, thereby increasing the customer’s affinity and engendering loyalty beyond reason for the brand.
A path-breaking brand like Under Armour has done just that. With a defined brand purpose ‘To relentlessly overcome obstacles and become winners on the field,’ it widened its relationship with its audience beyond the product to include service, community and sustainable applications, thereby leveraging technology, data and connectivity.
Under Armour, the manufacturer of footwear, sports and causal apparel, bought over various fitness apps like endomondo, mapmyfitness, and myfitnesspal to eventually create the world’s first and largest social network for athletes and fitness enthusiasts tracking, analysing and sharing their fitness activity in real time. And then, it monetised its service arm/services to the 250 plus million strong community it built, thereby creating not just more value for its customers but also a new revenue stream for itself.
To drive its social/sustainable arm, it furthermore created an entire product line, Power in Pink, to raise awareness for breast cancer, making the initiative not just a one-off event but a regular contribution of $2 million annually to John Hopkins for cancer research, serving its social/sustainable agenda. The brand also developed programmes for introducing children in disadvantaged communities to sport and creating funding support for war veterans.
Thus Under Armour created a magnificent interoperable ecosystem around its purpose platform inspiring people with performance solutions they never knew they needed and can’t imagine living without.
And finally, a few pointers to emphasise why creating a Brand Ecosystem is the way forward for top brands.
Companies with a higher degree of functional integration and connected cohesive experiences can generate higher levels of growth and make the brand experience exponentially more relevant and holistic.
Every company today should consider itself a data and technology business regardless of the category.
All customers, for their part, should also demand a seamless, frictionless and responsive experience from brands.
Clearly, the future is all about embracing brand ecosystems for an accelerated growth. In fact, the concept has so much potential to be all-pervasive that, perhaps, it won’t be long before one may even be identified by the brand ecosystem they subscribe to.
(The author is chief strategy officer, MullenLowe Lintas Group.)