Branding In 3-D

It used to be that marketing communications was mostly two-dimensional: deliver the right message at the right time. When message and time aligned properly, consumer behavior was altered, and purchases were made. But in our increasingly mobile world, the opportunity is growing to create three-dimensional brands: right message, right time AND right place. In fact, place will become the next battleground in branding, and brands that can figure out how to leverage place will achieve huge competitive advantages over those that cannot.

The mobile world is undergoing a massive technological transformation that will ultimately change all our lives, creating enormous opportunities for brands to tap into new ways to engage consumers on the go. As I write this article, mobile operators are spending billions to create a wholly untethered mobile broadband world. Device manufacturers are converging more and more technological functions into smaller and smaller devices. And billions of dollars of VC money is pouring into mobile technology start-ups. Like the development of the Internet, many of these investments will turn out to be busts. But somewhere in there lies the next Google, YouTube or MySpace. There will be new life-changing businesses aimed at meeting the needs of people on the go.

These mobile technologies will ultimately provide opportunities for marketers to take advantage of place. There is an adage that most purchase decisions are made at point-of-sale. Whether this adage is entirely true—or what the actual percentage is—does not really matter. The fact is that marketers who figure out how to deliver incremental messages as close to point-of-sale as possible will likely gain an edge over their competition. And that’s where all this rapidly expanding mobile technology comes in. Go back a scant five years and most cell phones did little more than voice calling. Today you can barely find a device that doesn’t have voice, SMS, still and video cameras, music players, access to third-generation content and more. Each year, device functionality seems to proliferate at an exponential pace: GPS, Wi-Fi, wireless gaming, etc. Through these devices, we have the opportunity to leverage place by reaching consumers on the go. Imagine accessing a product demo while standing in the electronics department of Costco. Or diagnosing your skin type and receiving product recommendations while shopping the skin-care section of Walgreens. Or even purchasing something you see in the window of Banana Republic after the store has closed.

What’s lacking is the business model that will enable marketers to work side by side with mobile operators and device manufacturers to reap the maximum benefit of place. In order for the three dimensions to work, one needs message, time and place to align. There must be an easy way to deliver content “on demand” to a mobile device at the moment and place where a consumer wants to receive that content. The on-demand model that works best today is the Internet. Nearly everyone knows how to type a URL into a Web browser and receive content on demand. Or use a search engine to find links to relevant information (including paid links, by the way). We need to find the corollaries to browsing and searching on our mobile devices. If we make it easy for consumers to receive what they want, when they want it and where they want it, then everyone will benefit: marketers, device manufacturers and mobile operators. These consumers will also benefit by having access to more information and the ability to make better choices. But if the interface is too complicated for consumers to use, or if mobile operators put walled gardens in place that block out marketing content on demand, then none of us will ever benefit from this third marketing dimension of place. It’s that simple.

As marketers, we can begin preparing for the future by making our content “portable.” Too much marketing content is custom formatted (e.g., 30-second spots or print ads) or hard coded (e.g., HTML Web sites) to be truly portable across time and place. Very little of that content was developed by considering the role of place and what our message would be to the consumer standing in the aisle of the drugstore or outside the car dealership, or deciding which movie ticket to buy at the multiplex. By adding the third dimension of place, it becomes apparent that we will likely need content that’s different from what we’ve created in the past.

Fortunately, digital technology ensures that content can be made portable as long as we plan for it. The future of marketing and branding will lie in content databases that marketers create to respond to the needs of message, time and place. These databases will enable the delivery of content on demand to the right person, at the right time and at the right place. If our past was mostly about narrative storytelling presented in an interruptive model, our future is about delivering relevant information on demand. To begin preparing for this future, start with your brand’s Web site. Move as quickly as possible toward open standards like XML that enable content to be deployed across a wide variety of user interfaces. Begin to stockpile libraries of content in multiple formats—text, image, video, audio, etc.—and tag them according to their likely consumer usage. And for everything you create, think about how it can be moved across destinations and devices.

New technologies create as many opportunities as blind alleys. Mobile marketing is no different. It will take time, money and effort to get it right. As marketers, it is important to help shape the future of three-dimensional branding by discussing your needs with agencies, device manufacturers and mobile operators. Only by working as an industry are agencies likely to build the right solutions that meet the needs of consumers. As long as the industry stays focused on their needs, everyone will win.