Designing a sharply positioned platform

All digital platforms have similar products or similar content. How is the consumer to distinguish between this glut of providers?

Amrita Chowdhury

[Photograph by Colin Behrens under Creative Commons]

Call it the herd syndrome. Everyone aspires to be a digital platform today.

Maybe that’s just enough for the maverick to think its passé, but not everyone thinks so yet.

Certainly the riches accumulated by early adopters of the platform strategy—where you allow others to interact on your website and co-create value—continue to inspire. Perhaps, it is just the hangover of the lax investment regimes, where venture capitalists were pumping fast cash on the e-street, which may autocorrect as money supply tightens.

Nonetheless, at this moment, the dream to transform into a platform endures, and now even bricks-and-mortar players are joining the fray, acquiring e-commerce arms and betting on omni-channel strategies. From Mahindra Group acquiring BabyOye.com to Future Group acquiring FabFurnish.com, Tata group’s Tata Unistore launching its e-commerce website TataCliQ.com and e-commerce players tying up with franchisee retail outlets, companies are creating their own platforms. ‘Omni’ is the newest buzzword. Firms are looking to drive awareness and purchase across channels and leverage online engagement with offline experience to generate sales. It even has a new word to describe the strategy—‘phygital’ aims to converge the real and digital worlds of the consumer.

The platform strategy has immense intrinsic merits. By moving beyond product or service, to create a space where consumers and third-party providers can come together to create a marketplace or a play store or co-create products and experiences, creates a virtual tipping point. Winner takes all.

Rather, took all!

But how will it work when every company, every telecom provider, every e-commerce player, every app creator wants to transform itself into a platform touting variety and value?

Single-brand, multi-product companies go online with their own websites, but are also present on every third-party marketplace platforms for additional sales. In categories such as consumer electronics, due to online underpricing, platforms contribute as much as 70% of the sales of the company.

Multi-brand, single-category platforms such as Lenskart.com, Hopscotch.com or Jaypore.com are betting on a deeper-range platform for buyers within a category. But competition is heating up within every category. Even relatively newer categories like pet products have multiple players such as DogSpot.in, Petacom.in, Dogkart.in and more.

Then, there is the space of multi-brand, multi-category platforms. Think not just marketplaces like Snapdeal.com or Flipkart.com, which—barring some exclusive products—carry similar inventories. Think telecom provider portals that curate news, entertainment, cricket, astrology and more. Think news portals that curate a mix of syndicated articles and ten-point reflections on recent happenings, along with entertainment, cricket, relationships and more. Think city apps that list experiences, hangouts and happenings, but also city news, fashion and relationships.

They all have similar products or similar content.

How is the consumer to distinguish between this glut of providers?

Firms are not thinking branding yet. For them, it simply implies advertising. It is curious to note that just the e-commerce players have pumped in approximately Rs 1,000 crore of advertisement money across media channels in 2014, according to the FICCI-KPMG Indian media and entertainment industry report, 2015. That was Rs 1,000 crore of investor money and the amount only rose higher last year. To create a differentiation between undifferentiated providers, with the fickle consumer switching from platform to platform for the best deals, the best sale festivals, the best everyday low pricing.

Many firms famously despised branding. Variety is the key, they said. Deal is what’s required, they insisted.

But how long?

The murmurs have started.

But differentiation is not yet another sale day, however cleverly named. Differentiation needs to run deeper.

It needs to inhabit the very essence of a brand and exhibit itself in the way the company speaks about itself, creates its visual interfaces, manages its user experience, and seeks to meet a specific, distinguishable unmet need for the users. It is a coherent thought that starts from the vision and philosophy of a firm and determines what it offers and how.

Few firms introspect long enough to arrive at this given that currency is key and the pace is punishing. 

D-school is the new B-school, and long before Flipkart’s Binny Bansal swore by the metric of Net Promoter Score (NPS), design thinking proponents had been promulgating the benefits of NPS over Gross Merchandise Value (GMV).

At its core, NPS is about inducing loyalty, which begins from creating desire—for the consumer to return to the platform again and again, and not experiment and trial competitors for each purchase instance.

Desire is nothing new; brand marketers have been elaborating its virtues for years. It needs to be seen through a new lens in this post-digital post-platform age.

Find “micro-spaces” not “micro-moments”

We have been enamoured of micro-moments for the past few years. Driven by Big Data and advanced analytics intelligence, platforms aim to pounce upon every instance, every micro-moment when a consumer is looking for a product, service, content or experience. This is classic push strategy, taken to its tech-enabled extreme.

In contrast, if firms find a micro-space, a uniquely defined space where their product or service sits, chances are the initial band of loyalists will allow them to understand what makes their brand tick. Amplifying that uniquely held space will make the tribe grow, and enfold people who may want to experience the brand whether heavily, occasionally or sporadically. This pull strategy takes discipline, but delivers desire.

It will not be for everyone, but then again, when every product and service aims at everyone, everything stands for no one.

Be “angular” not “well rounded”

There was a time when well-rounded candidates were rare, experienced Ivy League admissions officers will tell you. There were few athlete-scholars or scholar-musicians or scholar-leaders. They stood out and Ivy Leagues lapped them up. Then came the age of hyper parenting and hyper activity. Large numbers of candidates combined academic achievements with a plethora of activities from sports to art and music to leadership. The halls and corridors of Ivy Leagues were filled with many students who were essentially all the same. Rachel Toor, former admissions officer at Duke University, demystified the new approach in her book Admissions Confidential, which has since then been echoed by others. The tide has turned a bit, seeking angularity. Passion and purpose is being demanded of teens with high aspiration. In other words, distinctiveness!

Firms would do well to learn from the world of admissions. After all, how is the consumer to acquire loyalty if all the platforms stand for variety and price? Firms that have commanded loyalty have always been true to a core that is protected at all costs. Price doesn’t determine desire. If ‘angularity’ is building a unique brand, then that distinctiveness is what creates desire.

Of course, angularity is never easy. It requires a lot of effort in peeling layers of possibility to arrive at a unique approach, and then having the dedication to stay the course, even when it is easier to sway and gather more initial followers and consumers by going broader.

Start “inside out” and not “outside in”

The rational way of starting with defining your strategy is scenario planning and to look at the interconnected world, and to find spaces to operate in. This is the world of ‘outside in’, advocated by business schools and strategy consultants for decades.

Michael Porter (a leading proponent of this approach of finding a ‘strategic fit’) was pertinent when fewer firms competed in each category and industries themselves were distinctive. In its revised version, it includes social impact. Today, of course, traditional industry boundaries have blurred. Authors of the newly released book Platform Revolution argue for a reimagined version of looking at the macro environment, and bringing producers and consumers closer through the platform.

But the intuitive—and probably smarter—way of defining a firm in this age of platform clutter may be ‘inside out’. Starting with the undiluted vision of the founders, to the micro-spaces that resonate with this core and with loyalist consumers, and then mapping out the world of the firm.

This ‘inside out’ philosophy is not unaware of the macro environment. But while being aware of the environment (and pivoting as need be), it remains true to a defined core. Every facet of the product or service is fashioned with care. This core, this essence of the brand, creates the guardrails for what areas the brand will venture into, what features and services it will provide, which third-party providers it will liaise with, the tonality with which it will communicate, the experience and visual language it will adopt, the specific emotions it will aim to evoke, the way it will march out into the external world and project itself different from vanilla competitors. The essence of the brand gives direction to the firm’s actions.

Think “design” not “process and features”

Platforms have become the online souks, the digital bazaars, with tiles and scrolling banners screaming deals and discounts. Even non-marketplace products or services focus on features. When linking with the offline world, either through fulfilment for pure-play online players or through the supply chain processes for those pursuing omni-strategies, firms think of process and features.

Design is about creating that seamless and easy experience for the consumer. But there is more. It is about creating a sensorial experience—yes, even in the online world. It is not just about visual design. The sounds that consumers hear, the sensorial touch or taste that can be mimicked through design, the specific emotions that are targeted—all create an immersive world for consumers. It’s time brands and platforms thought beyond functional user interface/user experience and ventured into emotional neo-reality.

Design, of course, extends beyond the digital domain. Using systems thinking principles, firms can redesign process flows, redesign product features, to not just solve for specific problems such as logistics hurdles, pilferage, retail display, and more, but create a complete 360 degrees sensorial consumer experience and talking point.

In the end, building great ventures—even when strapped onto a platform—is not just about merging the worlds of business and technology at rapid pace; it is also about the worlds of psychology and design and associations—the elements that create or map desire. Above all, it is about that elusive element of courage, about daring to be different. Truly and not just in a tagline.

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I Srinivas Murthy on Jun 14, 2016 6:14 a.m. said

Great insights, and very timely advice, Amrita. The industry has been plagued with regressive views on branding (being equated to tv ad ideas) compounded by a hyper-competitive phase. You make a very important point on the need to choose a space (vs the very popular 'micro-moments' logic). The industry will have to work with new partners to bring about this change!

About the author

Amrita Chowdhury
Amrita Chowdhury

Director

Gaia Smart Cities

Amrita Chowdhury is Director of Gaia Smart Cities, an urban technology firm providing wide area Internet of Things (IOT) and data automation solutions for enterprises and cities. 

Amrita is a business strategist, engineer and innovator, and brings high-energy leadership to the businesses and people she interfaces with. Her experience with strong brands—whether heritage or reinvented—allows her a unique understanding of growth, digital spaces and brands.

She was President of DY Works (Future Group), a brand strategy and brand design firm. She was the Country Head for Harlequin, where she expanded its overall India business and significantly grew its local content portfolio. She served as Associate Director, Education for Harvard Business School for India. Prior to moving back to India, Amrita provided board advisory and strategy consulting for ASX and FTSE 100 clients with Oppeus in Australia and strategy consulting for Fortune 100 clients with AT Kearney in the US. During her consulting career, Amrita worked across a variety of industries including engineering, mining, legal and professional services, insurance, technology, government, education, auto ancillaries, waste management, and more.

Amrita holds seven US patents for semi-conductor manufacturing for work done at Applied Materials in California. That initial work in innovation lets her view new products and services through the business lens. She has led high velocity, early growth stage businesses, looking at India entry and growth strategies.

She is an independent director on the board of Simmonds Marshall, a BSE firm, and on the board of Drishtant, a tech startup for the social sector.

She is passionate about content—spoken, written and visual. She has written two books of fiction: Faking It (Hachette), an art crime thriller, and Breach (Hachette), a cyber crime thriller, and is a contributing author to Chicken Soup for the IITian Soul (Westland). She writes on business, technology, marketing and lifestyle issues in mainstream media, magazines and electronic platforms. 

Amrita holds engineering degrees from IIT Kanpur and UC Berkeley, where she was a Jane Lewis Fellow, and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon - Tepper Business School.

She loves art, music, travel, literature and baking, and supports various causes related to healthcare and education.

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