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Mobile Apps from Car Brands Blur Lines Between Branded Utilities and Product Features

New mobile applications from automakers GM, Mercedes, Ford and BMW advance the concept of branded utility in profound ways.  Recent apps from these brands blur the lines between branded utilities and pure product features.  And there are important implications in the auto industry and beyond.

What are branded utilities?
Brands help us do things.  And those that are most helpful in our lives are the ones with which we forge the closest relationships.  This idea, coupled with digital and social media technologies, sparked the notion of branded utility.

There are varying definitions of branded utility, and some marketers have rightfully noted the difference between brand utility and branded utility (which probably merits a separate blog post of its own).  But for the purposes of this post, I’ll be exploring branded utilities in the form of branded applications that provide additional value or benefit to customers.

How are the automakers’ branded utilities different?
There are many case studies of brands using technology to provide a utility that offers useful information, entertainment or other benefits to consumers.  Traditionally, branded utilities have played off of a core aspect of the brand to deliver value in the online world.  For example, Wisk detergent’s Wisk-It Facebook app helps consumers “clean up” their online image by scrubbing away bad photos of them from their social media networks.

However, car companies are advancing branded utilities that actually improve the interaction with the product itself.  Beyond serving marketing functions, such examples hint at a future where branded utilities provide a digital overlay to the actual consumption experience.

Consider GM’s smartphone app for its long-anticipated Volt plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.  The app enables GM’s OnStar features, such as remote unlock, directly through owners’ mobile devices without interacting with GM’s OnStar operator.  In addition, Volt owners will be able to use their smartphones to remotely start the ignition, monitor battery power and set charge reminders.  It will even help them schedule charges during off-peak usage hours to reduce their electricity bills.  According to Jalopnik.com, the app “helps turn the Chevy Volt into the most technologically-advanced vehicle ever built.”

Mercedes has a similar smartphone app for its OnStar equivalent, mbrace.  The app is a free added value for mbrace subscribers.  And Ford has an app up its sleeve that will allow users to integrate their mobile phones to its Sync platform, enabling drivers to use the car’s controls to access Pandora radio or even Twitter.

In addition, BMW recently launched its M Power iPhone app.  The app uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to measure 0-60 times and G-forces for the “Fast and the Furious” crowd.  And if that doesn’t scare you enough, many more distractions for drivers are on the way.

Why do these new branded utilities matter?
These applications from automakers point to the tremendous functional benefits branded utilities can add to the consumer experience.  Automakers recognize that branded utilities provide a digital overlay that can supplement and enhance consumer interaction with the product and brand, and they’re using third-party platforms and technologies to augment the experience and serve as a real competitive advantage.  Rather than playing a pure marketing function, such as VW’s GTI racing game iPhone application, these branded utilities are so closely intertwined with product functionality that they essentially become added product features.

Implications beyond the auto sector
These new utilities have implications far beyond the auto industry.  Consumer packaged goods, for example, could use similar branded utilities to improve our interactions and relationships with product packaging.  For instance, a major food conglomerate could use QR codes and branded mobile applications to help shoppers align purchases with dietary needs simply by scanning packaging from the company’s family of products.  The app could help consumers monitor their daily food consumption, suggest recipes using that item, and even recommend other products from the company to better balance the user’s diet or caloric intake.  Such a feature would encourage intra-portfolio consumption of the master brand’s products by providing additional functional value for time-strapped, diet-conscious consumers.

Or imagine the concept of virtual packaging.  A beverage brand might use fiducial markers to create augmented reality packaging.  The technology could even allow consumers to create custom virtual logos or labels – essentially a digital overlay to the physical product packaging.

On the business-to-business side, companies could provide branded utilities to help distributors or retailers better manage their inventories.  QR codes coupled with an inventory management system would enable more precise inventory management.  An augmented reality app integrated with a customer inventory database could even help a company’s sales force instantly identify a brick-and-mortar retailer’s product inventory by viewing the store through a mobile phone’s video camera.

Evolving the notion of “branded utility”
The automakers’ applications and the hypothetical examples mentioned above indicate the need for a new or evolved definition of branded utility.  Currently, the concept is closely tied with the notion of marketing activities – typically using digital platforms – that provide actual value or utility to the target audience.  However, emerging technologies and the increasingly creative ways in which brands are employing them suggests the need for a broader view of branded utility – one that is more integral to the consumption experience itself.

As digital technologies become more pervasive and our digital and analog lives become more intertwined, branded utilities will help differentiate brands and extend the functionality of their products. These utilities will likely become the price of entry in many categories.  But in the meantime, they offer forward-thinking CMOs and brand managers across all sectors the op
portunity to create a tremendous competitive advantage.

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