Snapchat Evolves From its Initial Vanishing Point to Major Brand Platform

13/06/2016 16:44 | Updated 13 June 2016

At this spring's SXSW digital festival in Austin, Texas, it was clear very early on that messaging app SnapChat had won the show and hit critical mass; everybody was talking about the company.

Rather like Twitter at the same show some years before, it was that moment when consumer-friendly became business-potential-infinity.

So how did a ephemeral picture app go from being a platform where mostly young people sent each other ​self-destruct images to a place where the world's largest brands are queuing up to spend their marketing budgets?

Founded at Stanford University, SnapChat was founded by Evan Spiegel, Reggie Brown and Bobby Murphy​. L​ike all highly valued startups, there was contention about who came up with the idea of disappearing pictures.

The app was launched in the summer of 2011 and called Pictaboo, Spiegel coming up with the 'ghost' logo, but at the end of that summer the app had ​less than 150 customers.

Then came the pivot. Reggie Brown was fired from the company and he consequently sued, the name was changed to SnapChat and the acceleration began. The case with Brown was subsequently settled towards the end of 2014.

Within six months the company had more than 100,000 users and after that the funding came thick and very fast, Facebook even allegedly making a $3 billion bid, which was rejected.

As the money came in, so did extra features, meaning users could send videos, video chat, message and create their own 'Stories'.

Other features were added, but the app remained baffling to 'non-millennials' or the parents of those who used it. SnapChat's earlier reputation as a sexting tool for teenagers continued to beset it, but US investors seemed to get it.

Even though the company is yet to turn a profit, its last $175 million funding round valued SnapChat at $16 billion and user numbers are ​more than 100 million, and more than those of Twitter.

So what is it that investors and their $1.35 billion investment get, but brands have been slow to pick up on? As usual, it's fear of the unknown.

While some see SnapChat as childish, others see fun, and one such feature is its Lens offering. Lenses allows users to overlay a photo of a person onto their face with various content and features.

Snapchat users are heavy creators​ and lenses helps them add levity to their messages and stories. One early SnapChat adopter Taco Bell recently used it to interact with its SnapChat audience. The company sponsored a Lens that meant users could turn their heads into giant tacos.

While not for everybody, it certainly was for a lot of people. It broke all records to such an extent that it received 226 million views over one 24-hour period. While Taco Bell did the creative, this was a joint effort with SnapChat and digital agency LBi; another early adopter in this space.

Chris Clarke is the Creative Director at Digitas LBi and he believes his biggest challenge is not SnapChat itself, but how potential clients misunderstand the platform based on its complications and alleged reputation as something for the kids.

"The biggest challenge for us is explaining to clients how it works. To middle-aged eyes, it might as well be a hypnotised cat reciting Vogon poetry underwater. The vernacular is hard for non-natives to grasp, but the rewards will be there for the right brands," said Chris Clarke, Creative Director, Digitas LBi.

While most people on the internet would ​probaly be very interested in seeing Clarke's poetic, submerged and hypnotised cat, not every older person is scared of SnapChat.

One high-level editor of a very prestigious business publication told me that his publication's SnapChat strategy rested on an initial two-hour conversation he had with his teenage daughter, one that he was glad to have.

The Lens feature in particular may be the SnapChat component that allows the company to monetise quickly. Apart from Taco Bell's success, 20th Century Fox recently announced that it had partnered with SnapChat to take over ALL of SnapChat's lenses ​for 24 hours ​to promote its X-Men: Apocalypse movie.

According to one ad buyer reported in AdWeek earlier this year, such 24-hour deals range between $350,000 and $750,000, revenue that a rival, and more mature, platform such as Twitter would love to be able to offer.

SnapChat may or not be overvalued at 'around $20 billion', but as those at the SXSW digital festival know, a SnapChat future is likely and one that may have been started by the kids, but is gradually being taken over by some very grown-up people indeed.