Is Facebook a brand or a product?

It’s one of the most recognizable logos in the world: a small white f set against a shiny blue backdrop. Alongside Twitter, McDonalds, and Apple, the Facebook symbol is one of a handful of icons that transcend borders, nationalities, and cultures with its meaning.
And Facebook’s logo is just one small fraction of its global reach: more than 1 billion people use Facebook everyday, according to the latest statistics. The social network has changed the way we reconnect with old friends, transformed the way many people date and even helped spark a revolution.

But with all that influence, there’s still something lacking when it comes to Facebook: Facebook is a product, not a brand.
For example, let’s look at some of the fundamental requirements of a strong brand, and then compare against Facebook today:

A strong brand isn’t for everyone: As our own Dave Donars often says, “The first rule of branding is to alienate people.” This principle isn’t intended in a mean-spirited way. Rather, it’s at the fundamental core of successful brands—they simply aren’t trying to appeal to everyone. Instead, they focus on a key group of highly passionate customers who understand the company’s mission and goals and embrace their product or service as the right tool for their needs. In the case of Facebook, the goal of the company is to create a platform that will fit the needs of nearly every human with an Internet connection on the planet, instantly rendering itself bland and undifferentiated.

A strong brand has a conversation with its customers: As we discussed in a recent post on the growth of user interface technology on the web, businesses in the digital age are increasingly expected to have a two-way conversation with their customers. Yet Facebook is largely a platform built around customers having a conversation amongst themselves. Though the company has tried to interject from time to time—enabling “Year in Review” posts for its users, for example—the average Facebook user views the site more as a repository of their own personal information than a company (or brand) they need to engage with.

A strong brand cultivates customer loyalty: How much loyalty do you feel, for example, to your internet service provider or your electric company? Chances are you would switch to a more cost-effective option if you could. Facebook may be suffering from a similar issue. Whether it’s confusing privacy settings, concerns over user data, or simply suspicion on the part of core users, Facebook has long suffered from a gap in customer loyalty.

So where does this leave Facebook as a company?

It may have a weak brand by our standards, but it remains a tremendously popular and profitable product.

In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that Facebook is becoming not just any product, but nearly the equivalent of an Internet utility, as ubiquitous as our Internet service provider or our electricity company as a tool we use to engage with the digital world.

And recent moves within the network point to the fact that Facebook may be becoming even more of a utility-like service than a standalone product.

With moves like Facebook Instant Articles (where major news publishers publish a version of their content to the social network) and its Atlas ad server, the network now resembles the early days of America Online, when the early ISP made billions helping us connect to the web from within its confines.

But that’s also a cautionary note for Facebook, as well: as Kevin Kelleher writes at Pando Daily, AOL was riding high in 1999, making more than $4 billion in revenue. But he notes, “the Web outside AOL’s walls became more secure (and much more compelling)” and users began to drift off, unrestricted, into the greater Internet.

Could the same thing happen to Facebook? If a new, more enticing, less restrictive competitor arises, perhaps. That’s the risk the company has taken by becoming a product, not a brand.

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