Can It All Be Useful?

I write often about the idea of the “useful” web campaign. How without a use to the user, a brand’s online campaign will never be a real success. “Use”, as I’ve been using it, is extremely broad. In the case of a web experience, I define it simply as a valuable connection users wish to make a regular part of their experience. Aside from that ineloquent definition the idea that I’ve been working out centers around the types of experiences make someone want to bring a brand “inside”? Into their personal space. 

Since we’re all targets of advertising it’s clear that we all have an understanding of what it means to bring a brand inside. We get excited about it, we talk about it with our friends, defend it, extort its value and make a defining element of who we are in the building blocks of our personalities. We all know someone else who is like this. Your friend who raves about how Mac is better than PC, he’s the Mac-guy. The Laker’s obsessed fan, even the friend who won’t buy any soap except Kiehl’s. These products all provide a physical use so powerful that your friends and neighbors have engaged the brand to help define who they are. Not purposefully but in an accidental, but real way. Me? Well, I’m the Mac-guy who reads the Economist, rides a Cervelo and wears John Varvatos.

Or is that just what I inspire to be? We’re nearing my point now. Anyone in branding knows that a successful brand is only so when it becomes aspirational. When people view it as badge. I take this a step further and define these, not as merit badges but as building blocks we all use to help others define us. That subconsciously or consciously, we all understand that we need simple, clear, easily disseminated definitions of who we are. That one brand doesn’t define us, but a series of brands, of building blocks, can be Lego’d together to create our Facebook. More importantly, that we do this freely, while demanding that brands are evil and consumerism is taking advantage of us (all except Apple, Google, The Economist, Cervelo, and Mr. Varvatos until he hosed over CBGBs). Don’t worry, it’s ok. Think of the alternative. How much more effort it would be to say,

“I like computers with clean interfaces but I’m not tech geeky enough to want to program things cause it would get in the way of my interest in international affairs, business, science and bike riding in suits I only bought cause they were the best ones at the Barney’s warehouse sale.”

Who the hell is that guy?

Suddenly brands have a use beyond the thing they are. Again, I’m dancing with well known verses from a 1990’s branding book. But it’s true and the “added value” you think your favorite brand has is quite different than the “added usefulness” that I’m talking about. By becoming a building block of who we define ourselves as, the brand gains a use, not a value. I’d be hardpressed to define how many dollars the value of Cervelo has gone up just cause I align myself with it ($5 Million at least.) But it has gained use beyond being a bike, in my little world, it’s now 1/5th of the abridged version of me, right now.

So want does Cervelo do with that added use? It could clearly be handed in for some value. If it’s being used to define a person, that person could add another use of appearing knowledgeable and valuable to others as an “expert” by talking about it. And what is talking about a brand but immediate transfer of value. You can monetize someone talking about your brand based on the number of people they’re talking to. The challenging part is figuring out how to get the most vocal of those users to talk to the largest number of potential customers. Here we have… well … here, you are fantastically lucky aren’t you Cervelo. The internet will solve all that won’t it? match the experts up with the customers and like oxygen and hydrogen + match you get something very valuable and useful … revenue. 

This brings me to my second point and the specific topic of this entry. This is not a challenging concept. Most all brands understand they need a website and most of them have built one. Most brands know they must tell people who they are and what they sell and why it’s the best or most ___. So if everyone is doing that. If every brand is finding the so called expert and the so called potential customers and lighting a match hoping for water, what they really end up with is … vapor. Turns out you need a lot of oxygen and a lot of hydrogen to make water and in between it gets a bit explosive.

And this is where use comes in. I propose that any brand can provide some kind of use online. Not only that but by doing so all brands will help each other by generating the need to deepen the personalized experiences on social networking. By the sheer competition of finding more and more useful nooks online. And that’s one more use isn’t it? I asked,”can it all be useful?”. I offer the response that, yes, it can be with two caveats. First, you find your relevant use, just like you wouldn’t go try to be a fighter pilot tomorrow, it has got to make sense for who you are. Second, you have to get out of the way of your use once you’ve found it. Don’t overly explain it because a truly useful thing requires discovery. Discovery creates terms and phrases that only a select group manifestly get. Think of Twitter, do you understand why it’s wildly popular? What ever you think the answer is, it’s actually discovery. The need for exploration and coming upon something you didn’t know was there. That’s why Twitter is popular and why its popularity won’t falter even as brands begin using it for their own expressions (hi GEatTED!)

Keep it simple, keep it useful, allow people to feel special in their discoveries. Share consumers as building blocks and they will respond with added usefulness. This usefulness is worth more than value, it’s worth revenue. So, can it all be useful? 

You’d better hope so. :P