September 10, 2016
Are mobile service providers at risk of getting “Ubered”?
by Ian Wood
All brands want to be loved. Perhaps none more so than mobile service providers. Yet despite being part of a connectedness revolution that is transforming life, business and society, they do not benefit from the esteem and affection that other world-changing platform businesses command. This is not a great place to be when most categories of business are being challenged, disrupted or disintermediated by the equivalents of Uber, Didi Kuaidi and BlaBlaCar in their industries.
Whereas a decade ago companies were in the grip of ‘Google fear’, today the bogie men are the platform brands. So much so that the phrase ‘being Ubered’ has become a common short hand for suffering at the hands of disrupters.
Most commentary on these challengers puts the focus on the digital (the means) or the disruption (the consequence). But to see digital as the problem and the required response is to miss an important lesson. As users, many of us have become so used to the many benefits of Uber and its ilk that we have forgotten how astonishing the leap over the traditional provider really is.
Uber overtly or by degree, has rethought the role it wants to play. Unlike most brands, it does not put all its efforts into building a relationship directly with users. Instead, it focuses on understanding and delivering solutions for a set of wider functional and emotional needs in their lives. It has a life role, not a transport role. That is a different kind of relationship.
So how might this apply to mobile service providers?
The connectedness revolution, despite already changing lives, has hardly begun. Mobile infrastructure is transforming, with bandwidth increasing a thousand fold. Networks are becoming converged, predictive, self-mending, adaptive and very intelligent. Increased capacity will enable every person and every device to be connected via the Internet of Things, resulting in smart homes, self-driving cars, intelligent cities and a new kind of life for us all. New players crowd the market — over-the-top and app-based fintech being notable — and devices, despite a converging form factor, are still relatively exciting and immediate.
Against this background of frenetic excitement, mobile service providers are low interest, low differentiation and low touch brands. The question is: are they doomed to remain like oxygen — invisible and, except when absent, forgotten?
Let’s examine a recent entry to the mobile provider space — Jawwy from STC. Jawwy from STC recently launched into the Middle Eastern market, aimed specifically at Saudi youth. The brand was engineered to deliver on insights into the life needs of people in that culture. Comparing Jawwy from STC to a table of Uber-like needs and solutions, we can see how this new mobile service has transcended the provider thinking.
Jawwy from STC made a clear decision early in its development to be much more than a great telco. They committed to a wider role, providing the accessibility, flexibility and customisation to help people live their lives. And they resolved to create a proposition where the phrase ‘putting users at the heart of the brand’ moved from good intention to a physical reality. In short, STC decided to ‘Uber’ themselves before another company could.
Jawwy from STC is an example of a new way of thinking where a role as ‘provider’ is too passive and too narrow.
This thinking is also developing in other categories facing large disruptive forces or with weak brands. Sainsbury’s launched a programme to help householders make good use of their leftovers instead of trying to sell them more food; energy providers are trying to build a role in running your home, not just taking the pain points out of supplying energy; banks are beginning to think more proactively about people’s lives not just their money and insurance companies are exploring ways they can integrate into your life using app-based data. Some of these are platform-enabled initiatives, some are not, underlining that we should not conflate the digital revolution with the idea of becoming more engaged with users’ lives.
Now in mobile: as more of the mobile service intelligence sits on the device and interacts with apps, value can be added to help people with their lives; for example allowing parents to monitor and control their children’s use of social media — especially when they ought to be doing homework — or interacting with health apps to help with lifestyle issues.
In five years’ time, as technology drives ever more convergence of devices and categories, it is very possible that we will each have a small core of brands that have earned the right — through their commitment to understanding and helping us with our wider lives — to our affection, loyalty and advocacy; our companion brands. And what of those who have not earned this right? Loveless relationships have very little future.
Article originally published on Telecoms.com on September 1, 2016.