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The big tech brands are racing to expand into new categories and integrate their ecosystems more deeply into customers’ lives – but trust and innovation are also vitally important. How will they succeed?
In the past decade, the big technology brands have shifted their focus from product to ecosystem. Enterprises now choose between deeply integrated cloud platforms, with tools and systems that touch all parts of the organization. Individuals now choose which set of tech products and services offer the most utility as an ecosystem, and which ecosystem they feel comfortable inviting into their personal and professional lives.
In the past, privacy was something companies had to demonstrate for individual products and services – a prerequisite to compete in-category. Today, consumer trust and confidence are central to the viability and success of the ecosystem and the business, making privacy and security foundational components of a brand. As consumers increasingly expect personalized and seamless user experiences, successful tech brands will need to inspire necessary trust while demonstrating the relevance and utility of their products, and concern for the user. For consumers to invite a company into their personal and professional lives, they have to trust the brand to be respectful of their data and digital wellbeing. For a corporation to dominate across a vast range of categories and geographies – intact and unimpeded – the brand must also inspire the trust and confidence of governments and a sense of impenetrable security.
Brands must position their entire product portfolio around a vision and message that supports this trust, and amplify this with bold investment and innovation in privacy products and services. Cross-category expansion benefits the top tech companies. Expansion into new sectors makes it difficult for any audience, including legislators, to clearly define a true competitive set, and therefore establish a monopoly. Moving into cryptocurrency, for example, allows Facebook to make the argument that they face strong competition from multiple business angles. On the other hand, the ambiguity of large tech companies creates an easy target for politicians to attack, capitalizing on a zeitgeist of distrust. Brands seek modern measures to inspire public trust. Blockchain, with no centralized data owner, could become a means to create greater privacy and security – but that is so far unrealized. Facebook leverages blockchain in the aforementioned Libra project to counter their recent bevy of privacy issues. Conversely, Apple’s neatly sealed world is perhaps the most credible on security, and so does not require or utilize blockchain to support a privacy perception. New privacy laws will alter the tech landscape. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) gives users the right to delete their data and guarantees that individuals retain certain control over their personal information. These regulations run counter to blockchain, which ensures no one entity has ownership and that data cannot be deleted. As more laws like the CCPA come along, tech brands will need to elevate security to a brand level, rather than relying on blockchain to earn trust.
Business models that rely on user data must make strides to protect it from misuse. But if consumers get enough utility from the products the burden of proof around benevolence, privacy, and security decreases. Apple locks in consumers with hardware and subscriptions, supporting more authentic brand promises around privacy. While perhaps the most credible on security, Apple’s ‘walled garden’ forces users to forego a degree of compatibility and utility with products outside the ecosystem. Google has transacted in user data from the start. So many of its key ecosystem touchpoints, excluding B2B (cloud), connect users to the brand for free. Migrating toward a subscription model would be a massive, high-risk, off-brand undertaking. As a result, Google relies on a brand of benign utility, elevating helpfulness to a prominent role. Although negative PR has put this identity to the test over the past two years, Google’s continued growth in categories new and old proves their approach to be effective. Google, Apple, and Facebook have prioritized digital wellbeing and social impact.
Category leaders are designing products and features to help users limit their digital engagement, working to evolve the role that technology plays in consumers’ lives. Mark Zuckerberg has announced a shift of focus, from “connecting the world” to “bringing the world closer together,” and ensuring users feel that time on Facebook is time well spent. Brands are recognizing a responsibility to wield their influence in ethical ways. Across global markets, consumers weigh the value of privacy against utility differently. What Western perspectives consider a balance of trust and convenience does not reflect the thinking of Eastern markets. Exchanges of information that could be considered invasions of privacy in the West are tolerated, even welcomed, in other parts of the world. With deep consideration for cultural context, brands must frame the use of data and the role of technology in our lives as benign and respectful, or prove the utility of their services as worthwhile.