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March 24, 2021 - Strategy

Platform thinking: 4 models for forward-thinking brands

Platform thinking is a mindset for forward-thinking brands. It’s all about ‘working together towards something better’: a better product, a better service, better entertainment ... According to this line of thought, teamwork yields better results than working solo and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Platforms provide brands with the opportunity to work (co-creation) with consumers, ambassadors, experts, other brands ... On what exactly? On whatever it is consumers truly want or need. And not the things we try to force upon them through advertising.

Platform thinking forces your brand to adopt a customer-centric view by creating value for consumers. In other words, this mindset is lightyears removed from short-term returns and profit for the company itself.

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Apple is a prime example. Anyone can build apps for their App Store. This is how they open up their ecosystem and expand their platform, so developers worldwide can do what they do best: create, develop, sell. A clear win-win situation: end users have more options and apps, whereas developers can make a living. This strategy takes Apple to a higher level and it is more effective than trying to do everything yourself.

4 models of platform thinking

Today, brands can opt for roughly 3 types of media: owned, paid and earned. Platforms can be considered owned media assets, but they are more than just interactive websites. They are a durable ecosystem of owned media (Facebook group, app ...). Ideally, it’s a place where specific topics are discussed in depth, where relevant value is created out of a sincere desire to serve the common good and not out of self-interest.

A platform strategy can be developed in very different ways. Below, we try to explain our take on these four models through a number of examples.

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1. A single sponsor and a single owned media asset

This is the most common form and, as a result, the least innovative ... A good case in point is the ‘self-learning entrepreneurial advisor’, a platform by and for starting entrepreneurs created by Duke & Grace in conjunction with KBC. The idea? Experienced entrepreneurs or advisors can log in to write advisory articles, whereas budding entrepreneurs benefit from custom-tailored advice. This creates a network (community) that can deliver substantial added value.

A second example is Airbnb. The company is a sponsor - the only sponsor - to offer a platform: a network of contributors (providers) and users (travellers) supply the content and the added value. So, while the sponsor doesn’t decide the content, Airbnb does monitor the quality, technological facilitation and communication. This is also known as the marketplace model.

2. A single sponsor and multiple owned media assets

With this model, we don’t use the term ‘platforms’ in the literal sense; instead we say ‘platform thinking’.

An excellent example is the Nike Run Club. Nike caters to a specific group of people with the need and desire to stay fit. The main purpose of the website is to drive a robust content marketing machine, but there’s more to it than that. Nike also diversifies its owned media assets with a running app, a fuel app, a fuel wristband, a Nike training club app ... In short, an entire ecosystem of assets with varying functions custom-tailored to user needs: monitoring overall health, measuring running performance, coaching during workouts ...

4 models of platform thinking

3. Multiple sponsors and a single owned media asset

Think of the online retailer bol.com. Several sponsors/retailers can join forces on a single owned media asset (the website again in this case). Having all those retailers in a single relevant location makes the platform the place to be for certain products. This is also an example of the marketplace model, where successful marketplaces allow third parties onto their platform, who can then also make an appeal to the buyers in the marketplace. In this case, revenue is generated solely by offering user-friendly access to the customer.

An even more explicit example? Suppose Tom&Co and Whiskas created the ultimate website for cat lovers together instead of implementing their individual strategies. Now, that would be relevant! At first sight, this feels like a bold move: why would these two brands pay to give each other exposure? But in this case one and one equals three. By creating truly relevant content together, both parties will ultimately gain more visibility.

4. Multiple sponsors and multiple owned media assets

One example is the partnership between Red Bull and Adidas on extreme winter sports. Both sponsors/brands boost each other by producing co-branded content and publishing it on their respective websites, social media and their athletes’ accounts...

Long-term strategy

The ROI of shouting the loudest? In most cases that return only lasts so long. Think of the typical awareness campaigns that seek to convince the masses through billboards, TV ads and online bannering. It works like a charm, but the impact fades as soon as the funding stops. Add in the fact that consumers are more selective than ever in the messages they want or don’t want to hear and it’s easy to see why temporary campaigns are no longer an overwhelming success.

More than ever, brands need a durable strategy. An approach whose reach and impact doesn’t disappear as soon as the money supply is cut off. Such a long-lasting effect is generated by creating value that remains accessible, making platforms the obvious choice here.

Naturally, it is utopian to assume that thanks to platform thinking brands will no longer have to pay for reach. However, it is a step in the right direction: because the consistent reach of platforms increases, the reach through owned media thereby reduces the need to compensate through paid media.

Moreover, there is a fundamental switch from a push to a pull strategy. This approach puts customers first and is based on their point of view. This means you’re thinking outside-in instead of inside-out.

In a nutshell: the principle of platform thinking

Consumer needs are either informative (e.g. entrepreneurial questions) or emotional in nature (e.g. the desire to be fitter). Platform thinking creates value around a specific topic. This is done by building a network of users and contributors, and therefore by collecting the input of multiple people. One thing this mindset does is bring you closer to the world of your target audience! 

  • Value for the consumer:because relevance to the consumer is central.

  • Value for the company:because platforms are a gold mine full of first-party data and consumer feedback!

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The concept and the architecture of a platform are absolutely crucial. A low threshold, user-friendliness and a good kick-start are essential to generate traction in the initial phase and successfully launch the platform.

Platform thinking is an opportunity of which many brands are still not really aware. Bear in mind that the method (= 4 models outlined above) on which platform thinking is based differs substantially depending on the brand, target group ... Need assistance implementing platform thinking, and therefore your long-term strategy? Then do not hesitate to contact us!


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Stefan Jenart

Stefan Jenart

Head of Digital Strategy

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