Brands and Digital Apps
Today brands are facing structural problems. In the analog world, their task was to make the customer king. The brands got their added value from customers’ longing for security, orientation, inspiration, and personal growth. They were indispensable for customers because they fulfilled customers’ secret wishes to resolve their inner conflicts or, as a kind of etiquette manual, showed customers how to use and present products in everyday life.

Brand Success in the Face of Digital App-Solutism

By Stephan Grünewald, rheingold Institut

In today’s digital world, the customer is already king. His main instrument of power and dominance is the smartphone. It has become the king’s universal companion in life. And it serves as a magic scepter with which he can open up worlds, cultivate relationships, navigate through daily life, and make himself happy. In depth interviews, respondents even go so far as to say their smartphone is their “main interest in life” and they express fears that if their device breaks down they will enter a kind of vegetative state. The current metamorphoses of the smartphone as an Apple Watch, Google Glass, or an item of clothing will heighten their feeling of being intertwined with digital self-expansion. The confident feeling that the smartphone gives one power and enhances the self is reflected by the term “I”Phone. The king has a divine index finger he can use to open up realms of knowledge, wipe away potential partners, and conquer new fields of business.

The aspirations of digital app-solutism are primarily conveyed by apps. Apps guarantee the user easy access in all life situations, smooth and flexible usage, and brilliant aesthetics. At first glance, it seems as though brands no longer play a role in digital app-solutism. Many consumers deny or play down their relevance to their day-to-day lives. What do we need brands for when we have everything under control? The brand has been pronounced dead, for in the future only the price and technological progress will determine whether a brand will be bought and accepted.

But brands are still needed today. Far behind his sovereign façade the “king” often feels helpless and disoriented. In today’s extremely complex, unpredictable world, his frame of mind switches continually between a feeling of omnipotence and one of powerlessness. Subliminally, the user still has childish needs for total care, accompaniment, and protection. The strategic task of the brand today lies in making the user a customer, and a child, again. Brands can successfully bind customers if they pursue a twofold strategy. In the foreground, they have to cater to the sovereign self-image of the kings. In the background, they have to speak to unconscious childish longings. Brands can be relevant today if they manage to occupy the six “binding continents” that rheingold has identified across all markets. Brands can be positioned as protective powers or growth promoters. As companions, they can ensure that consumers’ lives run smoothly or, as a mood transformer, they can help consumers switch from the resinification of everyday life into a different mood. Finally, as personality markers they can help consumers build a presentable identity or, as a style aid, can help them develop cleaning or care styles.

But today, brands have to cleverly camouflage their binding offers. Apps play an important role in creating simple access to royal sovereignty. Via the app, the brand becomes an unprepossessing yet serviceable spirit in one’s pocket. Consumers can call it up at any time to get information about a product: features, manufacturing conditions, evaluations, usage possibilities, or the best price can be registered at a glance. Users do not accept errors in the handling or styling of the app and these faults have a negative effect on the brand. For users, apps are an indispensable concession of brands because they make consumers feel like they have everything under control. However, the app has to be coherently integrated in the brand’s secret success formula. Otherwise it will undermine its credibility. When, for example, BMW offers its customers a parking space search app, then it undermines the autonomy of the driver. And it counteracts the dynamic message: “driving pleasure” becomes “help for standing still.” But an app from BMW that enables drivers to start or illuminate their care from a distance is accepted and celebrated. Here drivers experience the ultimate enhancement of their autonomy. For with his magic scepter the king can start engines and can say “let there be light.”

© 2015 rheingold