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The age of IoT: Branding the invisible

Next year, the number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices is expected to surpass 20 bn worldwide. From drones, to vehicles, to smart home appliances – more and more products are connected to the internet. New functionalities and services extend beyond the physical product.

Especially for service brands this yields great opportunity. Since their “products” are not directly visible they will increasingly face the challenge of going unnoticed and unrecognized by the user.

As brand consultants we work on strategic and creative ways to answer this challenge now and in the future. What will be necessary to do an effective branding job in the age of IoT?

Making the invisible visible

There are two choices to start with: One is branding the device hardware itself. Another is to brand individual functionalities or added services the device offers. I am going to consider the latter in the following. Let’s take a connectivity provider, for example, that aims to brand the 5G connectivity they supply for third-party drones.

In this example, IoT branding is a case of ingredient branding. An integrated feature of the product is advertised. And as the drone and its connectivity are products by two different companies, it becomes a case of co-branding as well.

Are stickers the solution?

To be honest, this type of challenge is no novelty. It occurred in the pre-IoT world and has already been solved. Just think about “Intel inside”. A sticker on every computer made the otherwise non-visible chip noticed by consumers. While the method of putting stickers on products is questionable from an aesthetic point of view, it was certainly highly effective.

And yes, putting stickers on stuff still is one viable option for the age of IoT. But it cannot be the only solution for the 20+ bn IoT devices of the future. We need to come up with new, non-physical and far more flexible design solutions.

How do we get there? I would like to point out three steps that have proven helpful to us in the recent past.

Step 1: Decide on what you want to achieve exactly

In the world of IoT, we can apply branding to a number of different areas.

Areas Io T Branding large

1- Device: To stay with our example, the connectivity provider might place a part of its branding on the drone. Most obviously the logo. Or a light on the device lights up in its brand color as soon as 5G connection is established.

2- Interface: Another option is branding the user interface. That could be the graphic user interface on a smartphone app that is used to connect and control the device. In other cases, the interface might be directly on the IoT device itself.

3- Surrounding: In addition, you might want to brand the surrounding in which IoT devices operate. This is particularly interesting for brands providing infrastructure. Imagine letting users know that they are in a 5G enabled area, for example.

Step 2: Explore branding options

It’s time to get a clear sense of what kind of branding you want to create. Can you work with existing brand elements? Do new elements have to be developed? The answer always depends on your individual case.

Whatever solution you are striving for, keep in mind that the broad range of human senses are your playing field: Visual (e.g. color, light, displays), auditory (e.g. jingles, functional sounds, music) or haptic (e.g. materials or vibration). Evaluate the options that make most sense for what you are trying to achieve. Start exploring, start prototyping.

Step 3: Team up internally

The foundation for successful ingredient branding has nothing to do with branding itself. It is laid at the very beginning of every cooperation or partnership between companies: When they negotiate terms. As other departments (R&D, legal, purchasing etc.) lead those negotiations, they often determine aspects relevant to branding too. And all too often, they do not consider it that important.

To ensure that the use of brand elements plays a greater role in the negotiation process, you need to gain access to your company’s negotiators first. Team up internally and raise awareness. You will be most successful if you make it easy for them to picture concrete branding scenarios. Thus, keep it tangible and high-level.

A great way to kick this step off is to create a short strategy paper. Outline different applications and design possibilities with visualized examples or prototypes. The more striking they are, the better. Help your colleagues at the negotiating table to understand and consider brand as an integral part of the process. Ideally get yourself a seat at that table for the future.

As much as branding in the age of IoT will be about creating the most innovative or effective branding solutions, it will likewise be all about cooperation too.

_Andreas Fachner is Senior Brand Strategist at MetaDesign Düsseldorf
_Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Pexels
_Icons by Adrien Coquet, IconsGhost and Hea Poh Lin on Noun Project