Right. That's the two problems. Maybe not huge, but worth thinking about. Let's look at opportunities.
Before we start let me say that I'm fully signed up for the idea of brand utility. It is far, far better for brands to spend money on useful services for their customers rather than annoying them with pointless and insulting ads. Absolutely. 100%. In fact I'm probably one of those guilty of going overboard in favour of brand utility because we're ashamed of how useful and pointless most 'brand communications' are. I'm also conscious that it might be a little soon to start a brand utility backlash given very, very few brands have actually done anything with the idea yet. Most of them haven't even started thinking about it.
So let's assume that we're a few years on from now, when every smart brand has built all kinds of useful services into their marketing, incorporating helpful advice and utility for their customers served up by discrete and elegant widgets. Good. Hurrah. Well done. Only problem. Isn't this is a little bit boring? 'Brand utility '- the clue's in the name. It's a utility, it's not very exciting. And, again, I don't want to offend the rational massive, but I think we might need (and want) to do a little more than that.
And Wattson, Dopplr and Plundr point at what I mean.
You'll have probably heard about the Wattson before. It monitors you're electricity usage and lets you know, in real time, in an accessible ambient way how much you're using. And, when they get the companion software and community working properly, it'll let you compare yourself with other people and homes. This seems, to me, to be more than just utility, this seems to be taking information that was perfectly accessible to you before - you could have worked it all out from your electricity bill - and presenting it to you in a way that makes it more meaningful. Not just more useful. Does that make sense? Or is that pushing things too far?
Or maybe Dopplr's a better example. It's built out of very mundane information - just your travel plans. And it does a very simple thing - share that with people. So you could use it as a great example of brand utility. I have done. I've cited it quite often as the perfect thing that an airline mileage company should have done, the perfect example of a missed opportunity for a brand utility. But the more I think about it the more I don't think that's true. Because Dopplr isn't really about travel plans; it's about friendship and serendipity. (I don't think it's coincidence that it was built by a group of friends.) There's a difference there, it's about more than information. It's about something bigger. And I suspect that if an airline had built it it'd wouldn't have been made with the kind of attention and love that gives you something as elegant as dopplr. And that's not just an aesthetic after thought, that's part of how the meaning arrives.
And that seems like a big opportunity for the widgetygoodness business. If there's a way to go beyond the exchange of information and create some additional meaning for people, that'd be good. If you're using my data to make a widget I want you to do more than just help me buy stuff, I want you to generate something meaningful for me.
Or, failing that, what about making stuff that takes my information and lets me play with it.
Plundr is a game built by area/code. (Only works in the States unfortunately.) When you connect to a wifi network it works out where you are and either tells you you're on a particular pirate island, or let's you name and claim your own island. And then, if there's anyone else playing plundr on that network you can fight their pirate ship with your pirate ship. Or, you can fight some automated ships or trade between networks. It's incredibly simple but it's silly and captivating and fun. It's basically plazes plus fun. Plazes is great. Useful. Kind of interesting. I use it. I'm just not quite sure why. Plundr takes my behaviour and makes play out of it. That seems like something we can learn from.
Area/code have also made Sharkrunners. It's a game built to promote yet another Shark Week on Discovery. You play the part of a marine biologist, chasing about looking for sharks, learning about them as you go. So far, so slightly predictable. But the bit that makes it almost magic is that you're chasing real sharks, it's based on actual live shark data from GPS-enabled sharks. That gives it a whole other dimension. It seems more meaningful because it's more real. And you're not just showing me information, you're letting me play with it.
Imagine if Tesco thought about the clubcard the same way. Imagine if it was a game you could play. Or if you could sign up for an Oyster game which rewarded the person who'd travelled the most on the network each day, or had made the fastest trip between stations. Or something. You know. You can imagine. Think of all the data we all generate all day. Not just online, in the real world. When you take that data and try and sell me stuff it freaks me out, maybe it wouldn't be so bad if you let me play with it. Imagine a Passively Multiplayer game built out of loyalty and membership card data.
As Dan points out in his InterestingSouth talk, we can generate both meaning and fun out of real world data. And we should. There's nothing wrong, and there's something joyful about entertainment built on a service.