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It is an exciting time for consumer technology companies. Every day products, services and solutions are introduced to consumers from what seems to be a fire hose of technological innovation. In this context, it’s never been more important to develop strong brands.
Brands serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, they produce economic benefits for producers by helping their products stand out in crowded markets and reducing marketing expenditure by developing a recognizable asset. On the other hand, brands create significant benefits for consumers by reducing information costs–they help consumers know what to expect. This last part is often forgotten by tech brand managers, so I’ll repeat it again. Strong brands help consumers know what to expect.
Over the past few weeks, I have been on the road speaking at events and meeting with potential clients. Inevitably, people tell me about their own brands. When I ask them how they’re doing, most tell me they have a strong brand. When I ask how they know, they tell me they have very high awareness. When I ask about other measures, such as familiarity, credibility, favorability or attachment, I’m usually greeted by a blank stare.
Awareness matters, but it is a low-level measure of brand equity. I might recognize your brand or even recall it when you ask me to name brands in your category, but if I don’t know what makes you different or special, I don’t know what to expect from you. If I don’t know what to expect from you, I probably don’t trust you more than other brands. And, if I don’t trust you, it’s unlikely to consider myself attached to your brand–that I find it to be an important part of my life. These three dimensions–familiarity, credibility, and attachment–are the hallmarks of truly strong brands.
Rather than waste more money trying to raise awareness, allow me to offer five unsolicited branding tips specifically targeted at consumer technology brands.
1. Features and functionality are important, but design might matter more.
We live in the design generation. Blame it on Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive. There was a time when a beige box that took up half our desk worked just fine as long as we got the speeds and feeds we needed, but today consumers expect function and form. This is especially true with the 71 million Americans known as Millennials. They value user stories–how the features and functions of a technology connect to use occasions, and those use occasions are rarely utilitarian. This is also a generation that has demonstrated a strong interest in and demand for design.
When Google announced that it was discontinuing Google Reader, many avid blog readers panicked. But the disappearance of Reader paved the way for innovative brands like Feedly. While Feedly improved upon many of the features and functions of Google Reader, it has won accolades and brand equity because of its beautiful design interface. It does more than keep us up-to-date. It creates an environment that makes staying up-to-date enjoyable.
2. Design leads to better user experiences, and experience creates the most value for brands
The reason design matters is because products that are well-designed usually deliver better user experiences. The tech world has been raving about Nest not because it looks cool (it does) but because it simplifies an experience that is usually frustrating. Nest is an award-winning consumer technology brand that makes it easier for you to control the climate in your home and it also helps you reduce your energy costs, and that’s why it has very loyal brand fans. The experience is so powerful that Nest has won the trust to develop new products in adjacent categories like smoke detectors. That permission did not stem from awareness. It stemmed from the credibility of a heroic user experience powered by brilliant design.
3. Never underestimate the power of analogy to build your brand
Human beings are analogous creatures. The fastest way for us to understand a new phenomenon is to relate it to concepts and experiences we already understand. When Apple launched the first iPod they didn’t call it an MP3 player. They called it a jukebox in your pocket. The analogy made the technological function clear but it also clarified the benefit.
Unfortunately, a lot of tech brands think they can build their brands through rigorous explanations. Instead, bring the technology back to the consumer and help them discover how it fits in their life. Google is doing this brilliantly in their new Nexus 5 advertisements.
4. You can build a brand through imitation but only if you pay it forward
Mindless imitation is the biggest barrier to branding for many tech companies. When I say mindless imitation, I mean a strategy that relies purely on knocking off someone else’s innovation. That strategy only works if you can compete on price. But, as we all know, prices decline rapidly in technology. That’s why low-cost provider strategies rarely result in brands of distinction. That’s not to say imitation doesn’t work. It can. But if you want to build a brand by imitating someone else you have to advance the underlying brand experience. Two decades ago, when Microsoft introduced Windows, it was a clear imitation of the Macintosh operating system. But Microsoft arguably improved upon the idea, adding features like multitasking that users demanded but Apple was slow to introduce. This helped Microsoft establish a brand that stood for more than price (in fact, Windows was pretty expensive).
5. Set expectations only as high as your experience can deliver
Want to destroy a brand? Spend big on a glitzy advertising campaign that leans on the latest consumer trends and trumpets an idealistic lifestyle bearing no resemblance to the realities of your brand. When your users buy into the hype, they’re going to be disappointed. This is especially true if you ignore some of the most important details in your brand experience–when a consumer tries to get support, for example, and can’t find answers. Brands are built by setting expectations that can be met or exceeded in the brand experience. Follow this golden rule and you are sure to build a brand that will create significant advantages.
In the go-go rush of introducing new technologies to market before competitors, awareness is an important component. It’s the first step to generate strong demand. But as a measure of value, awareness is to branding as silicon is to technology. You need it, but it isn’t the ingredient that truly differentiates.