Mobile Brand Seminar

After last week's open-ended rumination on mobile branding I invited readers to chime in about whether the content ecosystem on phones would generate its own endemic brands, or carry over the usage patterns and allegiances we had formed on the Web. A year ago I had asked that same question of a panel at OMMA East. To a person (a carrier, an ad network, and two content aggregators), they believed it would be especially hard for new brands to establish themselves on a deck with such limited size and navigability. Today that consensus is breaking down.

I mentioned the possibility of new brands emerging on mobile in connection with younger mobilistas with less established and more fleeting loyalties. So it was great to hear from a real-life college student, Mike V., who discussed at length (see the blog) how important at-hand convenience and service is to someone raised digital.

Sez Mike: "When it comes to brands, new or old doesn't matter. What I expect is exceptional and considerate service, USEFUL and OPTIONAL features, and a solution to the mess that is currently the conglomeration of my E-mail, text and voicemail inboxes. Of course, going with a tried and true brand (Google) is appealing, but how big is too big?



Omnipresence is less and less appealing. Companies, much like empires, that cover too much ground lose focus and the quality of services and products drops, along with their popular appeal. Perhaps the search services that do not make the top of the list have an advantage as new brands, and maybe they are on to something: a service that integrates Web life with mobile life (on my own terms, hopefully)."

Mike seems to suggest that functionality will trump familiarity any day, that users like him are open to new brands if they get the job done. A tangential point might be that Web brands run a greater risk of mucking it up on mobile with their own cross-marketing reflexes. If a Web brand comes to the mobile platform seeing it initially as an "extension" that keeps customers involved with the more lucrative Web properties, then the publisher does indeed lose mobile-centricity. I get announcements from print publications every other day now about their new WAP sites. Even after loading them up and exploring the features, I leave wondering what the hell they are doing on my phone. As I have said before, the stakes for brands are higher here than on the Web. If you aren't adding to my life, then you are adding to the clutter.

In that vein, Mike Patterson of WIP, Inc. says: "Mobile is a new medium and although it does have some of the same interactive characteristics of the Web, it is an entirely different paradigm. You have written about many of those differences here in your column. (Banner ads on mobile! Come now...) Search may work and find its place but as Michael V. points out, people want what they want, they want it now and... especially on a mobile phone... they don't want anything else!"

On a similar note, mobile expert John Gauntt from eMarketer writes, "I'm getting so nauseous with the stack of millenial-demo targeted tweaks on SMS, community, tagging schemes clogging my in-box that I just want to shout: ENOUGH! Show me something that makes me slap my forehead twice: 1st: God, I really need that. 2nd: Goddammit! Why didn't I think of that and get rich?... The trick has to be that the mobile experience is superior to all the others. I can count on fingers and toes the number of times I've used print Yellow Pages in the past decade. Google is every day. That's the benchmark for a native mobile brand."

I agree that regularity is critical on mobile, but the choice of brand can be quite random on a platform whose market is so fluid and uneven. I never watch CBS News, for instance, and probably default to CNN on TV. But CBS was the first news provider I encountered with news text alerts; months later, it is my reliable brand on phones for a few key headline alerts each day. On my iPod, I gather up NPR-branded newscasts. I never use Yahoo for general searches, but its OneSearch is my go-to box for global mobile queries. At the very least, even for older-fart demographics like mine, a new platform tends to loosen old loyalties and create opportunities for new and old brands.

But as the media fragment, and my own information-gathering habits splinter, the larger question becomes whether brands will matter as much at all. John Luma of Luma Media writes: "I think the technology will drive this, as usual. Meaning, as mobile, Internet, computer and game player become a single unit, which is around the corner, the individual brand will become meaningless."

Meaningless? Probably not. After all, brands are one of the things consumers always use in times and spaces where uncertainty and uneven reliability reign. Branded products became more important in the industrial age and in urban settings because we no longer had personal relationships with vendors and farmers, and we had no personal knowledge of the chain of production -- its reliability and safety. In other words, choosing a brand was a response to increased complexity in the marketplace. It is precisely because the content experience on mobile is so unpredictable and messy that users will seek a trusted source, I think. But the meaning of that brand, its identity and our loyalty to it, are bound to change on mobile.

It is also very clear that the stakes on mobile are very high, because consumers really do want to use their phones as data access devices, but the market is not giving them compelling enough reasons to be there. Bad answers and false starts only sour users to the platform.

In other words: On mobile, brands that are not part of the solution are part of the problem.

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