12.072009

there’s a brand strategy for that

Yesterday’s New York Times’ article, Apple’s Game Changer, Downloading Now, was a fascinating read.  MobileAppsI’m not knowledgeable enough about the technology behind mobile apps to evaluate the story as a representation of the programming and development challenges and opportunities of all the different companies.  But I found it a provocative report on the different brands’ strategies.

Apple/iphone as curator

First, there’s Apple.  Actually the primary point of the piece was Apple’s approach to approving – or in some cases, not approving – applications for inclusion in its app store. “The company places high value on what it describes as ‘customer trust,’ or the idea that users have faith that an application distributed on the iPhone won’t crash the platform, steal personal information or contain illegal content,” the article reports.

As such, it utilizes an approval process that some developers criticize for being opaque, arbitrary, and/or slow.  Nonetheless, the process positions the Apple brand as a screen for quality.  It also adds to the brand’s cachet, because developers of all sizes and scale are able to submit their apps for consideration and those that make it through seem to have a cool factor that Apple has bestowed upon them.

From a brand point of view, this is a smart strategy.  The role of the brand as editor or curator has always been important in sectors like retail and media, but it is becoming more prevalent in other areas now.  By endorsing another company’s product, a brand builds its own equity as an arbiter of what is good.  The brand becomes less about what it makes and more about what it does – a position that’s inherently more valuable (I posted about this last year when Apple’s app store was just starting to take off.)

The approach does have its downsides as well.  It leaves a brand vulnerable to forces out of the company’s control.  If an app from the Apple app store has quality problems, there’s a chance it could tarnish the Apple brand.  The strategy can also bring a backlash if the brand’s editing is perceived as too subjective or exclusive.  The NYT piece relayed the stories of several developers who were frustrated with Apple’s process.  Philip W. Schiller, head of worldwide product marketing at Apple admits, “Sometimes we make a judgment call both ways, that people give us feedback on, either rejecting something that perhaps on second consideration shouldn’t be, or accepting something that on second consideration shouldn’t be.”

RIM/Blackberry as leading innovator

The article also reported on Research In Motion, which is focused on the utility of the apps it makes available to Blackberry users. Jim Balsillie, co-chief executive of the company, explains, “We’re much more interested in changing the applications and changing the user experience and really unlocking the promise and the money and revenue opportunity for the ecosystem.”  RIM believes it “is going to innovate in the right way to drive that value proposition to capture [the] growth [in the category.]

It appears RIM is aspiring to a brand position grounded in thought-leadership and innovation.  This builds on the existing perceptions of the RIM/Blackberry brand which is credited by many for creating the smartphone category.  And focusing on transforming the business value proposition of apps seems consistent with the brand’s history in the productivity and business aspects of mobile.

So RIM also seems to be employing a smart brand strategy.  Carving out a position of leadership through innovation has fueled many successful brands – and leadership of the “ecosystem” would be particularly compelling in a space that has so many moving parts.  Such a brand can enjoy the halo effect from the rising brands of all of the players.

However an innovation-based brand position can often be one with narrower appeal, particularly in technology.  Leading edge customers may easily understand and appreciate the value of the innovations, but “crossing the chasm” to appeal to the mainstream is a huge challenge.  As was the case with the Blackberry when the iPhone launched, the first-to-market brand may be relegated to a smaller, more niche position, while a more broadly-appealing brand which follows may be able to gain more traction after enough people have had enough exposure to the innovation.

Google/Android as populist brand

Google and its Android Marketplace were also discussed in the NYT article.  In direct opposition to Apple, Google eschews any review process – it allows any developer to publish an application instantly and as such, its app store already offers 14,000 applications despite being launched only a few months ago. “We’re doing everything we can to open the device to both developers and consumers,” says Eric Chu, group manager of the Android platform.

In a word, Google’s brand position is “access.”   And, once again, this seems smart.  It fits with Google’s broader brand aspirations “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”  Just as its programs and apps for computer users are intended to help people communicate and collaborate more easily, Google is working to tear down the walls that segregate and restrict in the mobile app space.

The strength of this approach is its populist appeal.  It has the potential to attract a broader base and use that widespread popularity to squeeze out the followings of brands that are more intense, but albeit more limited in size.

Problems can arise, though, if the brand becomes too unfocused.  By trying to be everything to everyone, there’s the risk of becoming nothing to no one.  Also the brand’s value could be limited if it is perceived simply as a channel.  Without a clear, distinct point of added-value, it could be become a commodity which simply provides access to other brands.

my takeaways

In the end, the point of all of this is not to advocate for any particular strategy.  They all have merit. And there are those who are much more qualified than me to posit which brand is most likely to be successful.  I simply want to suggest two important points about brand strategy that I took away from the NYT article:

  • 1.    The importance of differentiation. In far too many categories, I see multiple brands trying to position themselves in the same way.  The values and attributes embodied by each brand are not distinct from the others and all of the brands end up simply promoting drivers of the category.  In some cases this happens because the brands’ owners don’t understand or appreciate the value of differentiation.  But in many cases it’s because they think it’s not possible to carve out a distinct brand position.  The players in the mobile app space have demonstrated that differentiation is not only possible, it’s necessary. Differentiation helps companies steal share – and when differentiation is done well, it can grow the entire category.
  • 2.    There are advantages and disadvantages of every brand strategy. No single approach is a sure bet.  Leveraging the strengths of your brand position while minimizing its vulnerabilities requires careful management. And in a category that is changing and growing as quickly as mobile apps, the ability to adapt as the market evolves is key.  Back in the ancient history of mobile apps (aka last year), Apple’s brand strategy could be based more on exclusivity and the cool factor of being the only real player in the market.   Now as others have gotten in the game, it’s had to adapt its approach and apply those attributes to its role as a curator and quality controller.

Are there other brand strategy takeaways from the mobile app market?  Let me hear your thoughts – comments are open.

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  • Another spot-on post, my friend. Differentiation is key, but is also bears remembering it must be relevant differentiation – something customers want/need and are willing to pay for. Flexibility, agility, and the ability to adapt – thorough and swift decision making – are all characteristics of high-performing organizations, be it a business, a CBO, an athletic team, whatever.

    The mobile handset and app race is interesting. Oddly, i have two of the three you highlighted. Maybe Santa will surprise me with an Android device 🙂

  • Denise, I couldn’t agree with you more, and I wish I had said it as well as you did!

    I struggle with the concept of brands as curators or publishers, though, because it still seems rather inert, like they’re editing and overseeing conversation vs. focusing on the actions that you define as central to true differentiation, and then using conversation to narrate it.

    Apple and RIM have “conversations” with their customers that have nothing to do with any of the pretenses of conversation promoted by social media theorists. Their dialogs occur in objectively real behaviors, and actions are the language of conversation. There are certainly important lessons for other brands to learn from this…most notably that the key to adaptive corporate strategy isn’t to look at what your brand stands for (or what position it supposedly owns, or what attributes it declares, whether cool or not), but rather to focus on what the business DOES.

  • thanks for the thoughts, jonathan — i was referring to brands as editors in the way that they select from a range of products or services the choices they want to offer to you — as such, they are delivering a real value not only in narrowing down the choices but also in perhaps introducing new choices i wouldn’t have found/considered on my own. i agree the value of brands editing social media “conversations” is far more limited.

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