Make Yourself Useful

by James Lanyon

If there’s one thing that catches my attention in this content riddled world we live in it’s the statement “brand is dead.” It’s one of those pithy one-liners that common sense mandates you either agree with or disagree with. Words like “dead” have that sort of polarizing impact. It’s like saying “taxes” or “voting” or “religion.”

I recently encountered this subject over lunch with a good friend who’s spent his career building brands both in traditional and digital channels. He was in the midst of interviewing for a senior position with a global digital agency and as his CV wound its way up the ladder of decision makers, the position was summarily killed by a higher-up who pronounced with no ambiguity, “Why would we staff this role? Brand is dead.” It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys. You’re either way into the mental art of persuading through strategic alignment of words and images or you are all in on platforms, channels, martech, dashboards and programmatic efficiencies.

As with any subcurrent of contemporary culture, it’s nearly impossible to find ground zero in the discussion—locating that first person who said that thing that kept getting repeated over and over. But you can find banners and landmark moments. My personal favorite is James Surowiecki’s New Yorker article, “Twilight of the Brands.” Full disclosure: I LOVE his work and still have a copy of his book The Wisdom of Crowds. But I disagree with his premise, which can can be summarized in a handful of bullets:

• When consumers had to rely on advertisements and their past experience with a company, brands served as proxies for quality.

• Today, consumers can read reams of research about whatever they want to buy.

• The rise of social media has accelerated the trend to an astonishing degree.

• For consumers, this is ideal: They’re making better choices, and heightened competition has raised quality and held down prices.

Granted, Surowiewki’s article was written in 2014…but I still hear similar, if not verbatim recitation. And inasmuch as this POV isn’t right, it’s also not wrong. Advertising for advertising’s sake is an increasingly fruitless endeavor. It does point out how inextricably linked the concepts of brand and advertising have become.

The cat and mouse game of “can I market you into submission?” has grown old and consumers have shown this over and over, ranging from the rise of adblockers to mass exodus from traditional cable TV in favor of curated, ad-free or ad-light content streams. One need only look at the mass panic that ensued when Netflix CEO Reed Hastings suggested Netflix might have ads. A June 2016 Allflicks survey showed that 90 percent of Netflix customers said they would be willing to pay more to avoid ads on the service. The same survey showed that 74 percent of subscribers would cancel their account if ads started appearing on the platform. Yikes! What happened to the days when people talked about ads they loved? And what can brand managers do about it?

To take a side in the “brand is dead” versus “brand is still king” debate misses the point entirely. Brand relationships have been accelerated into an evolution driven by a heightened desire of customers and consumers for brands to be more present and valuable in their daily life beyond basic provision of product and service. Consumers (and to a large extent small and medium-sized businesses who tend to act and buy like consumers) are yearning for your brand to be “useful.” Useful is the new standard by which your brand will be judged.Understanding, decoding and leveraging the idea of a “useful” brand is T3’s core mission.

The first step in transitioning into a Useful Brand is embracing the idea that brands must first do, then say. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos put it best when he said, “In the old world, you devoted 30% of your time to building a great service and 70% of your time to shouting about it. In the new world, that inverts…” This aptly summarizes the new reality that brands must deal with. And for every established brand that doesn’t have the luxury of being rebuilt from the ground up the clear mandate is to develop a path to usefulness that will embed that brand in the customer’s life purposefully, with demonstrated knowledge of a customer’s daily reality.

Great! So let’s build something and be useful! How do we start? There are a handful of things you can do right now to get you started:

1. Take a look at how usable your product, services and interactions really are. Useful experiences are muted or diminished by poor interactions. While you don’t have to wait to build customer utility, you do have to get your house in order.

2. Understand it’s about relationship AND performance. So many brands tend to gravitate towards one or the other.

3. Get past the monetization and ROI discussion. It’s natural to look for immediate dividends but brand utility is about crafting a stronger relationship with your customer, so you will likely need to do things that are at the service of the customer, not things to trick the customer into opening their wallet.

4. Practice your internal pitch. This is key. Being useful requires an evangelist within the organization to avoid becoming a buzzword or some social currency at the cafeteria. This job description does not appear in most organizations, so it’s yours. Take it and run with it.

5. Understand it’s a quantifiable thing. We know because we’ve been investing in it. And because we know being useful means giving a certain amount of goodwill away to the universe, we created a Useful Brand Index with an entire diagnostic system you can use to get the ball rolling (of course, if you do want to know more we’re always up for a talk). Check it out here.

Download the report to get rankings of 300 brands in 14 categories across multiple measures of usefulness. 

James Lanyon

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