Rethinking Brand Utility
The gospel of utility has been unavoidable in recent years. We’ve been told that in a world where consumers are increasingly tuning out traditional advertising, the best way to recapture their attention is by making ourselves useful. The deluge of apps, how-to videos, and online resources would suggest that we’ve received this message loud and clear. You want utility? We’ve got an app for that.
Yet despite the concerted efforts of brands everywhere, almost none of the top apps are made by brands who aren’t in the primary business of producing apps. Likewise, despite every cooking and baking brand throwing their hat in the ring, only one of the top ten recipe sites is from a brand. And despite the cult of content, none of the top 500 most viewed videos on YouTube are from brands whose primary business isn’t content.
Why is this?
The people and companies who succeed in these areas are the people and companies who do this full time. The best apps are produced by companies whose financial fate is tied largely, if not entirely, to the success of those apps. As a result they have teams of people dedicated to producing, launching, iterating, and maintaining those apps. It’s not surprising that they are better at making apps than a laundry detergent company whose primary business is making the best laundry detergent. In fact, just for fun let’s imagine the reverse. What if an app company tried to make laundry detergent? And not only did they try to make laundry detergent, they tried to do it as a side project while still placing the vast majority of their attention on making apps. They’d probably make a pretty shitty laundry detergent.
Most of the utility advocates start their thesis by pointing out the proliferation of content/apps/websites in the modern world, then go on to argue that brands need to respond by creating content/apps/websites that are just as good to compete. The fairly obvious flaw in this argument is that they are at once saying ‘there is SO MUCH amazing content out there’ then following this up with ‘so let’s all get into the content business’. In a head to head battle between Funny or Die (whose sole mandate is ‘let’s be as funny as possible’) and Miscellaneous Potato Chips Brand (whose mandate is let’s be as funny as possible AND sell lots of potato chips AND not offend anyone), my money is on Funny or Die.
Everyone is trying to get into a business other than the business they’re already in. The truth is, these brands already offer utility. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist. They clean our clothes, fill our stomachs, get us to work, keep us warm. Why do they also have to give me tips on how to dress better for holiday get-togethers. Frankly, that job is taken already and my wife would thank you to stay out of her way. Likewise, all good advertising is utilitarian. Good advertising offers utility in the sense that there is a value exchange for your time and attention. And just as advertising can come in many forms, the value if offers can also manifest itself in a variety of ways. It can make us aware of products that might make our lives easier, or might make us happier. It can entertain us and make us laugh. And perhaps most commonly, good advertising makes choosing between two nearly identical products easier. It reduces our cognitive load so that when buying toothpaste we don’t spend 20 minutes agonizing over the different choices — we grab one and move on.
Rather than focusing our efforts on delivering a service only tangentially related to our core offering, why not focus our effort on either 1) continuing to improve and evolve that offering or 2) communicating the benefits of that offering in a way that is distinct and memorable. I know advertising has become something of a derogatory term in recent years, and perhaps rightly so. But when done well it can transcend the din and become something that is both entertaining and useful — without having to masquerade as something else. Recent data showed that so far in 2015, the top 20 most viral ads have combined for over 40 million online shares — up 40% from last year. Clearly someone is finding these ads useful for something.
Okay, here’s where I hedge my bets…
All this isn’t to say that brands can’t and shouldn’t offer utility to their customers beyond the core emotional and functional benefits of the products themselves. Comparatively lightweight undertakings like customer service, e-commerce, store locators and the like are no-brainers. And yes, some brands have even seen success with much bigger utility undertakings. But let’s not forget, turning Red Bull into a media company took years and tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. These investments can’t be thought of as side projects or they will be swallowed up and spit out by the experts who are already taking on these projects full-time. Until then, there’s nothing wrong in focusing on your core offering and ensuring it delivers the best utility possible, then telling people about your product in a way that is memorable and motivating.