From Brand Platform to Brand as a Platform

Today, disruption is everywhere. It’s created a powerful cultural tension. As Thomas Friedman brilliantly pointed out in Web People vs. Wall People, the US presidential election is teaching us that digital transformation is dividing us. In it, he describes two segments of society, one looking backwards, the other looking forward. When describing those looking forward he observed: “Web People understand that in times of rapid change, open systems are always more flexible, resilient and propulsive; they offer the chance to feel and respond first to change.”

Just like people, brands fall into similar categories, either looking backwards for inspiration or looking forward. Wall Brands or Web Brands.

Wall Brands can exist for a while still. They can find ways to exploit their current business models and brand platforms with tried and trued tools, partners and media. It’s a mental model that’s worked for a long time. Yet, the bureaucracy needed to create these systems becomes old, tired, stifling, and expensive.

Instead, Web Brands see the world differently. They don’t see permanent brand platforms but, instead they see their brands as a platform. Instead of a brand being an entity that serves customers, a brand becomes a facilitator connecting different members of an ecosystem.

First, what is a platform?

By definition, platform has two meanings. First, it is a declaration and documentation of a point of view, for example a political party’s platform. Second, it’s a physical base structure that can hold people, things and be built upon. This second meaning of platform has evolved in the digital era to be technology-based, with the most successful companies creating a digital space that can hold people and be built upon.

Historically, brands have thought about themselves as the first definition, a declaration of who they are and what they stand for, a one to many conversation that worked well in the world of broadcast media. However, in the age of digital transformation, brands need to shift their thinking and become a foundation for the ecosystem that surrounds them, allowing for connection and growth through the brand. No longer will it be enough for a brand’s two-way conversation to exist only via responding on social media. Brands must invite their consumers in, creating a physical or digital space that can drive connections among all — a many to many conversation — a platform.

Platforms are at the core of successful digital transformation. They enable more fluid connections and relationships within existing ecosystems, i.e. marketplaces or networks. The best platforms ease friction, and result in driving growth within these ecosystems by elevating the value of each party.

GE’s Evolution

While there are lots of examples of platforms in the startup world, Uber and AirBnB, wreaking havoc in an industry, how does a traditional brand make the transition to a platform? One great example is General Electric. GE’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, recently laid down an ambitious vision, to be one of the top ten software companies in the world by 2020. Audacious. To make things even more daunting Immelt told the world there is no plan B. “It’s either this or bust.”

As GE is digitally transforming itself it is focused on creating platforms. With the spawn of new sensors in every machine that GE and its competitors make, the obvious question becomes: who will emerge as the company that could create the software that allows these sensors to connect with each other, and become the backbone of the Internet of Things? To accomplish this GE has focused its efforts on creating an open platform, Predix, that allows itself, other companies and developers to contribute to the software development. Predix will connect its customers with creators of software that drives the Internet of Things.

In another project, GE’s Beth Comstock connected with Local Motors (a company we work with) to use their co-creation platform, Forth, and their Micro-Factory philosophy to apply a platform approach to innovation for their appliance division. The effort, named 1st Build, has been a game changer. It’s increased the product development cycle speed 24x, by combining a collection of open tools from crowdsourcing ideas, co-creating design, and crowdfunding sales. While this new open approach has been a success it has also caused internal tension. In a sign of progress, GE’s mindset is changing to embrace this tension and incorporate the in-house staff with the open platform. Beth Comstock recently said, “Leadership is about navigating tension. Tension is actually good.”

GE is well on its way moving from a brand platform to a brand as a platform. What can you do to move your brand into the future? Here are three ideas to get started:

  1. Change the mental model — Like humans, every company has it’s own mental model. It’s an alchemy of experience, personalities and the culture in which they live. Beth Comstock’s comment, “Tension is good,” is a great example of a leader challenging a current mental model. It’s startling to hear. But, sometimes, small words cause big shifts. Likewise, it’s important to create a mandate. As Jeffrey Immelt said, there is no plan B. What’s standing in the way of changing your brand’s mental models?
  2. Change the incentive structure — The story of another great industrial company, Kodak, and it’s demise is not one about lost opportunity but one about calcified incentive structures. Everyone inside Kodak was incentivised to efficiently put chemicals on plastic. It was in their DNA. Every machine in every factory, every accounting system and bonus plus every activity was about this. To move from the brand platform world to the brand as a platform world incentive structures must be reinvented. To make their digital transformation successful GE will also have to rethink their incentive structures. What is your “chemicals on plastic” incentivization system that’s holding you back? How can you incentivize your teams to move from the linear pipeline approach of creating your brand platform to the more organic system needed to create your brand as a platform?
  3. Moving from stories to narratives — The last few years people have talked a lot about brands needing to become storytellers. The act of storytelling only reinforces old brand platform habits as stories are one to many. Instead, when building your brand as a platform think about narratives. Narratives are big stories that facilitate a space for everyone to participate in. There are several prevailing cultural narratives always at play, the Silicon Valley narrative, the Climate Change narrative, etc. Likewise, both Jeffery Immelt and Beth Comstock have done a good job in transitioning the GE brand story to a narrative that invites others within the industry to help steer how manufacturing fits into the digital era. How do you move your brand story to a brand narrative that allows for co-creation built on a platform?