In the '90s, companies were tripping over themselves to move their businesses into the dotcom world with little regard for whether it made economic sense. From a branding perspective, companies even changed their names to show that they had caught the internet wave. Remember the Dell.com brand change?
Is the same thing happening today in the mobile space?
From Fortune 500 companies to brand-new start-ups, every company seems to give a nod to mobility in their vision and add a "mobile" plank to their business plan. But, mobility smells different than the dotcom craze.
For starters, companies appear to be considering the economics and return on mobility before jumping in. (Perhaps with the notable exception of ESPN Mobile… er, Mobile ESPN… oh never mind, it has gone out of business.) And they are certainly being much more rational about making the link to mobility in their branding.
Companies are generally looking at the mobile space for one of two different kinds of opportunities:
- As a delivery platform for new marketing and advertising initiatives; or
- As a new touchpoint for customers to experience their product/brand.
Few U.S. companies have mastered the art of mobile marketing yet. One challenge, according to Forrester Research, is that the medium has not found its stride with user needs. When minutes count, the vast majority of consumers still find mobile advertising annoying. Until more advertisers figure out how to make mobile ads and marketing relevant to the individual user, and worth the time, mobile advertising will continue to be a niche… albeit a niche with tremendous potential.
To push or to pull?
Despite the challenges and risks, many companies are cautiously dipping their toes into mobile marketing. Two in particular, MasterCard and McDonalds, shed light on how the medium may be used to "push" value to consumers. McDonalds has been experimenting with offering late-night, mobile-based coupons from mobile websites. And MasterCard is trialing its MasterCard Nearby product that pushes offers to consumers based on their GPS locations and individual preferences. Watch this space.
On the other hand, a host of companies are beginning to use the mobile space as a new touchpoint or way to extend their brands. Fundamentally, these companies see mobile as another way to stay engaged with customers. As such, they are interested in maintaining a consistent brand experience across devices while the market matures.
Google, Microsoft and CNN are defining the best practices in taking a brand into the mobile space through clarity, simplicity and plain language. In short, they have adapted their offerings and brands appropriately for mobile: Instead of coining a new term for mobility, changing the corporate brand or tacking on a prefix or suffix, they work hard to ensure that their mobile offerings are clear and consistent with their overall brand, but "skinnied down" to improve usability.
Branding in a mobile world
From a branding perspective, the dotcom craze can teach us a number of things about forays into new media and devices. Sure, we still have entrepreneurial organizations that take too many risks. But on the whole, we are seeing much more sobriety in the ways that companies are approaching the mobile world.
Google has masterbranded its mobile offering with the simple, straightforward Google Mobile. In typical Google fashion, the company owns the complete mobile user experience, ensuring that it is consistent with any other Google interaction.
Microsoft, as you would expect, extended its ubiquitous Windows brand with "mobile" as a modifier. Windows Mobile, the brains behind every pocket PC, looks, feels and acts like his big-brother Windows, just with fewer bells and whistles.
Likewise, CNN offers up a subset of its content services to a PDA near you as CNN Mobile. Again, it looks, feels and acts like the CNN experience, with the limitations and boundaries you would expect.
Lessons to date
As we venture ahead, experience is showing us that the medium is only a part of the equation. A solid focus on business fundamentals -- including brand -- is always critical. Consider the ESPN example. Why didn't ESPN Mobile work? If there's a demographic that seems right for a mobile offering, it's the sports-mad 20-somethings that make up ESPN's core audience.
At its core, ESPN failed to see the disconnect between its brand and the business idea. ESPN Mobile was a phone offering and not a sports offering. ESPN Mobile was what's known in the industry as an MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator. It was simply reselling Sprint PCS service, reskinned with sports lifestyle and content. At the end of the day, the offering was intended to drive minutes, not sports passion. And that was the brand disconnect. ESPN is about sports, not minutes. Trying to make the ESPN brand about minutes doomed it from the beginning. ESPN needs to stick to its knitting-- sports (are you listening, ESPN Travel?).
And that's the lesson that the successful brands are teaching us. Google Mobile is still about democraticization. Windows Mobile is about the operating system. And CNN Mobile is about the story.
Maybe we have learned something after all-- at least from a brand perspective.
Karl Barnhart is principal, managing director of CoreBrand. Read full bio.