Take Adidas’s new fitness app, for example, which aims to help women improve their general health and well-being – simultaneously selling the brand lifestyle rather than its products.
This is what is known as utility marketing, or an example of brand utility. But, hold up. Isn’t that just another way to describe good content marketing, you ask?
Sure, there is undoubtedly a crossover, but where most brand or digital marketing activity tends to focus on entertaining or interrupting consumers – brand utility is all about helping them.
Let’s delve into the topic a little more, using some effective examples to explain the benefits.
Becoming part of consumers’ lives
Instead of selling a product or a brand story, utility marketing turns the tables and taps into a specific consumer need. In a nutshell: it puts the consumer first.
It also tends to be on-going, providing a service that can benefit consumers over time. The benefits are pretty obvious. Sporadic engagement tends to generate short-term results – e.g. from a one-off social post or an experiential campaign – but utility marketing helps brands become part of consumers’ lives.
Apps are a great way to do this, purely because if they catch on, usage turns into a habit rather than a conscious brand interaction. A lot of sports brands use apps as part of their marketing strategies, capitalising on the fact that sport is often a way of life – and that consumers might form long-term loyalty to a specific brand on this basis.
The Nike+ Run Club app is an ideal example. It taps into the workout habits of users by tracking runs and setting fitness goals. This means that – regardless of whether or not the user is actually a loyal Nike consumer – the functional aspects of the app are likely to keep them coming back and perhaps even turn them into a customer over time.
It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. Stick to a plan. | https://t.co/DV7TAxaNmP
— Nike+ Run Club (@NikeRunning) February 15, 2017
Another sport-related case is Adidas Runbase, which transfers utility from a digital sense into real life. It is based on the idea that runners in Tokyo like to exercise before or after work but do not have a place to shower or leave their belongings. So, in order to fulfil this need, Adidas created a bespoke space near the subway for runners to shower and rent lockers.
Of course, the facility just so happens to include a space that sells branded apparel, but by offering an incredibly convenient service first and foremost, visitors are less likely to feel like it is a solely commercial enterprise.
Using AI to aid utility
Another form of utility marketing comes in the form chatbots or AI within messaging. There’s been a boom in the past year or so, but arguably the most successful examples have been those that focus on basic utility rather than personality or entertainment.
The reason this is the case is that chatbots allow consumers to connect and engage with brands at their own convenience – using them to fulfil a specific service in the very moment they require it.
In other words, consumers do not care whether or not they’re talking to a bot or not, as long as their needs are being met.
Travel is one industry where chatbots offer huge potential, with many big brands using them to streamline customer service and provide direct communication with consumers. Both Skyscanner and Kayak’s chatbots allow users to search for flights simply by typing in a destination and selecting dates.
KLM’s chatbot takes this utility one step further, sending all travel details like boarding passes to consumers via Facebook Messenger. It also uses this channel to update travellers about possible delays and lets users directly ask questions, such as how much baggage allowance they have or if they can change seats.
While KLM’s example undoubtedly serves a functional purpose (in terms of offering information) the reason it is so effective is that it has a knock-on effect, making the actual experience of travelling less stressful and much more streamlined. This kind of utility is invaluable to consumers, as it solves problems in the moment and even prevents them ahead of time.
Chatbots and apps aside, there have been many other examples of brands using utility as a marketing tool. Here are just a few more that have caught my eye.
Listerine’s ‘Feel Every Smile’ app
Effective brand utility doesn’t necessarily mean a service has to be relevant to everyone – neither does it mean brands have to forgo creating a meaningful or emotional connection with consumers.
In 2015, Listerine created an app to help blind or visually-impaired people know when others are smiling at them. Using facial recognition technology in conjunction with smartphone cameras, the app works by vibrating to indicate a smile.
The related video is a nice example of content marketing in its own right – using emotive and moving storytelling to promote the brand – however, it also shows the extent to which the smile detector app brings real value to those who use it.
IBM’s smarter cities
This example takes utility marketing offline. In 2013, IBM designed an offline ad campaign with a purpose, re-designing traditional billboards to have a secondary function.
By adding curves at the top or bottom of billboards, the ads served as seats or shelter from rain. Similarly, by using them to form ramps for stairs, they became much more functional for people carrying suitcases or using bikes and skateboards. A simple but highly effective strategy.
A lot of travel brands use their social media presence to offer helpful information to tourists. However, @HiltonSuggests is a nice example of a brand going above and beyond to do so, with Hilton creating a standalone Twitter account to answer queries about where to go and what to do in destinations around the world.
The answers aren’t generic, either. Staff respond with follow-up questions to ensure that the answers are tailored to where they’re staying and their personal tastes and interests.
The reason it works so well is that the Hilton brand is somewhat irrelevant to the service it provides. And yet, if someone has a positive experience on the back of a recommendation, it’s likely to create a meaningful connection long-term. It could be classed as basic community management, but again, there is definite crossover.
Recommendation? Family friendly (= good location, easy access with MTR, …) Hotels in Hong Kong? / cc @SwissInHKG
— Klak (@KDKlak) July 15, 2017
Does it always work?
Like any strategy, utility marketing doesn’t always work – especially if the campaign appears disingenuous or a bit gimmicky. This tends to happen when brands base it around a specific product or launch, or when the problem they’re trying to solve isn’t actually much of an issue for consumers.
One brand that is possibly guilty of this is Audi, with its ‘Start-Stop’ app.
The app works by detecting which of your phone’s applications have been open the longest without being used, before alerting you to turn them off. It’s miildly useful, perhaps, but in reality, it is just a way for the brand to promote its Audi ‘Start-Stop’ engine (which turns itself off when your car comes to a stand-still).
Other campaigns – such as Lucozade Energy recently giving tube riders a free journey along with a drink – could be viewed in the same way, coming off as a vehicle for product promotion rather than real customer value. Despite offering a one-off utility, Lucozade’s campaign was really just a clever PR stunt.
In contrast – as the likes of Adidas and Listerine demonstrate – it’s when consumers are able to (and cannot resist) using the service time and again that utility marketing is truly effective.