Archive for January, 2007

Apple’s brand platform challenge for the iPhone

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Apple faces some daunting challenges in crafting an effective brand platform for its dramatic new iPhone. Simply being “cool” will not be enough. Because the iPhone “redefines the phone” (in Steve Jobs’ words) it also redefines the world of the traditional phone customer. It’s up to the iPhone brand platform to define and deliver the new context of that customer, in that vibrant new intersection Apple has created between “phone” and “computer.”

The iPhone brand platform must also deliver a strong value stream as it elevates iPhone customers above traditional mobile offerings. The iPhone’s stunning design certainly suggests that it intends to be more than just a new handset with a flashy GUI. (If that’s all it amounts to, Apple will disappoint many customers.) Given the iPhone’s potential, there are vast amounts of value waiting to be unlocked—at the product level and at the brand level.

In this post I’ll briefly discuss brand platforms, then sketch out some key iPhone brand platform issues facing Apple. These are interesting from a brand practice perspective because the iPhone pushes the boundaries of what brands and brand platforms are expected to do.

The importance of brand platforms

When you’re building a brand, your goal is to create the customers who will drive your business forward. Your brand platform is the central structure of your customer creation strategy. It defines how your brand will deliver strategic customer value. It also governs how you intend to grow your customers in the ways that will make your business succeed, while pre-empting competitors from taking those same routes.

Yes, brand platforms are strategic. I alluded to this in a previous post on how the iPhone works to create a new class of customers for Apple.

Definition of “brand platform”

Here’s how I define a brand platform (from our New Brand Glossary):

Brand Platform

The brand platform is a structure of integrated brand components architected to create focused customer growth. As a platform, it: 1) serves as a common foundation for brand program applications; 2) allows for greater efficiency in brand program development via shared elements; 3) leverages context and content across the brand; and 4) enables customers to extend the brand through bottom-up brand innovation avenues.

Focused customer growth

“Focused customer growth” is the key. A “brand platform” is never a paper exercise, or a simple scheme of brand elements, such as identity, symbols, “brand personality,” promises and programs. It’s an action-oriented platform for advancing the customer via the brand. Indeed, a brand platform succeeds the more it behaves as a customer platform. It’s your structure and strategy for moving your customers beyond the reach of your competitors.

Building iPhone “brand allegiance”

The question, then, is how can Apple use the iPhone brand platform to create and grow customers who will want little to do with the conventional offerings of major carriers and handset makers? For Apple, this will be a matter of building ongoing “brand allegiance” through innovation, along a diverse set of growth points that clearly raise customers above the typical mobile experience. This is a matter of brand deliverables, not hype. It’s a process that could start in the Apple Store, where one could live test the iPhone’s calling features, its Wi-Fi and its Safari browser, alongside the iPod, iMac and other Apple products that are also fully operational and hands-on.

Specific brand platform challenges

While there’s still several months before the iPhone ships, we can already discern some specific iPhone brand platform challenges:

  1. Articulate a coherent brand vision that transcends current cell phone/pda/mp3 paradigms.
  2. Develop a brand roadmap that synchronizes iPhone innovations with brand program initiatives.
  3. Create reference customers or customer archetypes to serve as models for path-breaking iPhone use.
  4. Extend the iPhone brand experience beyond that of current competitors.
  5. Maintain the Apple brand in a Cingular world.

Some comments on the above:

Articulate a coherent brand vision

During his introduction of the iPhone’s unique qualities, Steve Jobs asked the Macworld crowd if they truly understood its significance: “Are you getting it?” he asked. For the iPhone to reach beyond Apple loyalists, Apple will need to articulate how the iPhone will make a profound difference in customers’ lives. In other words, Apple must illustrate how the iPhone is more than just a handset (e.g., deliver on the iPhone slogan: “your life in your pocket.”)

This can’t be a vision solely dictated by Apple. As a brand vision, it has to be seen through customer eyes. While it was easy for customers to “get” the iPod, the iPhone represents a larger context, and will be a different, multi-layered story. Potential iPhone customers will “get it” when the iPhone becomes their story, too.

Develop an effective brand roadmap

By design, the iPhone is an innovation platform. (It certainly acts like one, able to gain new features and functions with each new iteration of chips and software.) The iPhone of 2008 will probably do much more than the iPhone of 2007. Apple needs an effective brand roadmap to synchronize product innovations with depth of brand experience, to ensure there is no brand overshoot or undershoot. The roadmap keeps customer advances on track, and also helps manage customer expectations. It also insures that innovations deliver the desired brand experience payoff.

A potential issue: The Apple product release cycle is shorter than a two-year Cingular contract. The brand roadmap should address how Apple will make it easy to upgrade to new iPhone releases without incurring Cingular contract difficulties.

Create reference customer “archetypes”

A phone that’s been radically “reinvented” requires a reinvented customer to make optimal use of it. Apple will need to select or create reference customer “archetypes” who will represent iconic iPhone users. These are individuals who will raise the bar and push the envelope with the iPhone, so that potential iPhone customers will have model iPhone users to emulate. These reference customers will show the world how the iPhone frees and empowers them in ways that conventional mobile phones cannot.

The brand platform should define reference customers for each application set that’s deemed critical to iPhone success—currently and into the future.

Extend the iPhone brand experience

How will Apple insure that its iPhone does all those dozens of things that customers want, while still providing a unified, “100% Apple” brand experience?

This will be a major challenge for the iPhone brand platform.

In order to control the iPhone brand experience, Apple has indicated that it will be the gatekeeper of all iPhone software applications. There are sound reasons for this iPhone “closed system” approach, mostly dealing with maintaining system integrity, UI consistency and quality. For a “revolutionary” new product that’s trying to change the game in a mature market, this approach is understandable.

A downside

But there’s a significant downside. By routing all software applications (i.e., iPhone functionality) through Apple, the iPhone’s approved application suite may lag behind those of its smart phone competitors, such as Nokia and Palm, who embrace more open development platforms and feature hundreds of applications. (These are often life-critical apps on a human scale, such as subway schedules, currency converters, crossword puzzles, flight trackers, shopping lists, etc.) The first people to notice iPhone application shortfalls will be new iPhone customers who find that their iPhone can’t do what their “old fashioned” smart phones easily could. At that point, the touch screen will get old in a hurry.

Apple’s third-party developers feel more than a bit miffed that they (currently) cannot write apps for the iPhone platform. They believe they could enrich the platform, in short order.

From a brand platform perspective, Apple’s task is to deliver a suite of iPhone applications that advances customers farther than Palm, Nokia, et al. How Apple will build a pipeline to deliver these apps remains to be seen. Some applications may be made available as web-based apps or widgets, via Wi-Fi, but these are limited. To be competitive, the iPhone will need a larger pipeline of apps than these.

Maintain the Apple brand in a Cingular world

Apple needs Cingular to help make the iPhone a reality, but to many Apple customers, Apple and Cingular represent opposing brand models: one company (mostly) on the side of liberating the customer through innovation, while the other (mostly) limiting the customer with onerous contracts and restrictions. No one would confuse the Apple brand experience with the Cingular brand experience, or an Apple Store with a Cingular Store.

Apple’s iPhone brand platform must include measures to maintain the Apple brand context, the Apple iPhone brand identity and the Apple brand experience front and center, with Cingular positioned as the deep background “carrier,” a recessive, dial-tone brand of switches and towers (and that—ahem—monthly bill.) Apple has managed similar brand acrobatics before, with the music industry and with these guys, but this will be extreme brand management in virgin territory, with high stakes.

Many potential customers may prefer to buy the iPhone and sign up for Cingular service in an Apple Store, and never have to venture over to the “Cingular side.” Apple has clearly thought about this, because Apple store staff will also be trained to troubleshoot iPhone problems, including Cingular network issues.

Long-term, the prospects for the iPhone brand look best if Apple can wean itself from exclusive dependence on a single carrier, and possibly leverage the iPhone’s Wi-Fi capabilities to enable low cost VoIP. (With what they save on calls, customers can buy more iPhones.) This assumes that Apple intends the iPhone to be more than a “handset brand,” and more than a flanking move to protect its iPod franchise.

Photo: iJavier — Flickr
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Apple’s iPhone as “razors and blades” marketing

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

David Berlind looks into the iPhone as an example of a “razors and blades” marketing approach by Apple. His conclusion is that the stable “razor” component will be iTunes content and similar material of high personal value (in Apple formats) that Apple can enable via the iPhone. The replaceable “blades” component will be the iPhone itself. (Like the iPod, and unlike standard cell phones, the iPhone does not have a replaceable battery.)

With expected price drops, iPhone models will eventually be priced in the iPod range. So, you simply keep your Apple-induced “content” that you can’t live without, and pick up a new iPhone every other year. The hardware sustains the customer that Apple creates with its easy-to-use software innovations such as iTunes and the iLife suite.

Designing the customer to make this work

For this razor and blades model to work, Apple will need to pack the iPhone with finely-honed, customer-focused capabilities. This means designing a customer who will demand no less.

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Steve Jobs and Apple create a new customer

Tuesday, January 9th, 2007

In less than 60 minutes this morning Steve Jobs and Apple redefined the mobile phone, and perhaps the mobile phone business. They did this not by sheer technical wizardry, although there was plenty of that, but by reinventing the mobile phone customer, who just happens to be you and me.

Advancing the customer

A key goal of brands is to advance your customer far beyond the reach of competitors. With the iPhone, Apple has done just that. The iPhone enables a new you to emerge through its integrated music, media and communication powers. Once you’ve seen the iPhone, you can’t go back to the cramped stump of buttons that defines current mobile phone technology. That would be like going from a rich GUI back to a green phosphor CRT and command line.

iPhone and iPod cut from the same customer cloth

My guess is that Apple began work on an “iPhone” at the same time the iPod was conceived. Both are cut from the same customer cloth. In a true brand approach, Apple started with a higher concept of customer and worked back toward the product. They designed a new customer from scratch. Rather than compromise the customer, they kept innovating on the product side—until they got the right combination of form factor and performance.

Free the customer from a form-factor dead end

In terms of the iPhone, Apple’s brand goal was to free the customer from the historic constraints of the mobile phone—in every aspect of look and feel and operations that had taken the customer to a form-factor dead end. Existing phones were a platform for the carrier, not for the customer. The only way the Apple brand could change that was to reinvent the phone.

Today’s icons are tomorrow’s millstones

So, the iconic cell phone buttons had to go. Buttons now hang like millstones from the necks of every other mobile device. Flips, flaps, slides and hinges also went, along with the need to contort one’s fingers to them. Apple’s seamless digital approach is much kinder on customer digits. Similarly, Apple’s OS X software inside the iPhone is much kinder to the human spirit. You experience a powerful contextual device whose interface is obviously designed with you in mind.

Looking ahead

The new iPhone has a lot to live up to. We won’t know how much impact it will have on users until it’s available this summer. Exclusive carrier Cingular has a lot to live up to as well.

The Apple brand, though, is definitely on the side of customer freedom. That’s where every brand wants to be.

Photo: Ri©k™ — Flickr
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Saving brands from the missionary position

Monday, January 8th, 2007

Modern brands have brilliantly grown from labels to lifestyles in their first 100 years, but along the way they’ve had the chance to pick up a few bad habits. One of the most notable is a strong dependence on the missionary position. In this approach, the brand does not lead as much as it tries to dominate, positioning customers as docile and passive subjects. The brand assumes a superior, top-down role, dispensing thrills and goodness from on high, while grateful customers are expected to swoon with desire, and rejoice.

Instead of freely interacting with customers, the missionary brand rather crudely projects itself upon them.

Slam, bam, thank you brand

To a certain extent, the missionary position of brands is every (male) marketer’s dream, which is probably why it has endured. It’s a fantasy that flatters the brand, and the presumed potency of its makers. As a fantasy it promises to put the brand in total control, keep customers “loyal” and submissive, make sales easy, and limit accountability to vague promises. It’s more male ideology than brand strategy. (As an approach, it might even be a distant cousin to this.)

Missionary shortfall

Alas, while the missionary position for brands may be a boost to the male ego, it doesn’t do much to satisfy customers—or to build the brand. To begin with, it diminishes customers by positioning them as permanently passive. This deadens customer initiative and leads to low-performance customers, who add little value back to the brand. Beyond that, it’s monotonous, unimaginative, predictable, one-sided and boring. So, in the long run, it’s not that productive for brands, either.

Brands are a joining—of equals

Make no mistake about it: brands are a joining. Of hearts, minds, bodies, bones. But they’re a mutual coupling of company and customer, joining what’s freest in both parties. A brand is never the imposition of one. For that matter, a brand that locks its customers in a passive role is only half a brand. It can only begin to complete itself when it completes its customer—in the greater mission shared.

A counterpoint to the media pulpit

For brands still dependent on the missionary position, a good first step is to stop preaching and start listening. Brands are a spiritual coupling, too. For every brand message broadcast from the media pulpit, there are ten thousand customer voices waiting to be heard, many far more dulcet and beguiling than what the missionary can conceive.

Postcard: http://www.vintagepostcards.com (used with permission)
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Brands march to a different drummer

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

For many who work in brands it’s increasingly clear that brands march to a different drummer than standard business operations. Brands are different. While many companies still plod to a drumbeat descended from galley ships, driven by heads-down routine, brands are totally tuned to a customer beat. They’re compelled to step it up and step out, slapping the rims, mixing with the locals, getting down with the pop in populace.

Something like this. (Open in a new tab, and if you wish, listen along.)

It’s not a sales pitch that makes brands connect

Brands are not amped echoes from remote corporate corridors, and it’s not a sales pitch that makes brands connect. Brands happen as companies and their products jam with customers. Brands are the rhythms of the untamed new, looking for a way up, looking for a way out, ready for a signal rip or riff to get things going.

Brands are not made for rank and file

Brands are not made for fife and drum, rank and file, blind obedience or snappy salutes. And brand feet don’t slog. They skip, hop, or better yet: dance.

Brands are not yes-men pushing “yes”. They’re iconoclasts and adventurers, eternal seekers of better and best. Customers grasp this truth in a heartbeat. In the presence of a brand, customers are unfurled and unfettered.

Brands can be bigger than business

In some ways brands are even bigger than business. Since brands see through customer eyes, and beat through customer bones, they can discover truths far beyond the corners of a spreadsheet. Plus, brands have numbers on their side: the infinite facets of culture, and the infinite improv of customers. Brands are wider, deeper, richer and more diverse than any regimen of rules.

Brands put companies in their place

What this means is that brands energize the larger-than-life pulse of a culture, circulated from companies to customers and back again, replenished and rejuvenated. And yes, brands put companies in their place. Companies may be asked to sit in, drop a few licks, see what takes, but in the end they’re fellow players in a larger jam. The pulse goes on, putting tired strokes to rest, leaping lazy veins, getting out and about in the grandest of avenues, making things jump.

Dionysus knew this, too

All this, of course, was well understood by our inestimable patron saint of brands. The dude could groove.

Photo: JefPozkanzer — Flickr
Music: John Wilkie — Philadelphia Folklore Project
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Brands raise the bar on widget performance

Friday, January 5th, 2007

Here I am again writing about the potential of widgets to become new digital platforms for delivering brand value. To date, the progress of widgets toward brand-building levels has been slower than I expected (eternal optimist that I am). Truth is, brands significantly raise the bar for widget performance. A survey of the widget-scape still finds too many world clocks, weather reports, and single news feeds to enable this new brand form factor to begin to spread its wings.

Widgets must do something personal and special

Anne Zelenka has some insightful comments on the current widget state of the art, economics involved, and where widgets need to improve. She writes from a technical perspective, but everything she says applies to brand-building widgets as well. One of her points is that widgets must enable users to do something personal and special if they hope to deliver unique value. Yes, indeed.

The acid test: can this widget make my day?

At this point, my new widget acid test is to pose this question: can this widget make my day? If the answer is at least “maybe,” the widget has a chance.

A widget that points in the right direction

A new widget that points in the right direction is the one from Volkswagen pictured above. The Rabbit “Free Events” Widget tells you what free events are happening in your town on a given date. That’s potentially useful information that could enrich an evening or a weekend, for yourself or for you and your friends. Widgets that point out opportunities will be winners.

Is VW in the calendar business? Not really. But they are in the business of creating customers, and that’s where widgets can shine.

Image source: Apple Dashboard Widgets
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Great brands simplify, and intensify

Thursday, January 4th, 2007

Every brand has to focus its value stream to deliver an optimal experience to customers. This is not a matter of managing dozens of brand “touchpoints.” It’s understanding the very few elements that define the brand experience in its purest form.

The key is to simplify, and intensify.

Powder ski destination Alta, Utah seems to understand this principle. The resort sees its mission as connecting skiers to the snow, in a simple, no-frills setting, so the elements can speak for themselves.

Purists drive simplicity, and intensity

Alta attracts purists who want the pristine powder experience. There’s a brand lesson here. Purists simplify and intensify by their very nature. And purists are often the power behind brands, both from the company side and the customer side. Purists are brand drivers. They know what counts. They don’t settle for less.

Alta is sometimes criticized because it lacks the glitz and glamor of high-style destinations such as Vail, but glitz and glamor often means a long wait in a lift line, and a longer wait for dinner. Not much simplicity, or intensity, in that.

Photo: Alta Ski Area
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Adios, “branding.” Your day is done.

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

For brand builders, it’s time to say goodbye. The age of “branding” is over. No, let me correct that. The age of branding is completely and totally finished. It’s kaput, finito, dead, and gone. Unless we all want to crawl back to the bunkhouse, strap on spurs and reek of burning cowhide, we can permanently retire the “branding” metaphor from the practice of brands.

Brand builders don’t do “branding.” Companies relapse into “branding” when they lack the vision, talent and courage to be a brand.

So, unless your name is Tex, Lefty or Lucky, please erase “branding” from your working vocabulary—now.

“Branding” was always a poor fit

For what we do, the “branding” metaphor was a poor fit from the get-go. It was a term that never accurately denoted or connoted the full nature of brands, the value of brands, what brand builders aim to accomplish, what they create, how they do it, how they work with customers, the brand experience itself (God forbid!), or how customers interact with brands.

“Branding” is skin deep

Some general points:

  1. “Branding” doesn’t add value. Brands do.
  2. “Branding” is skin deep. Brands express what’s inside.
  3. “Branding” is never strategic. Brands are a process of strategic value creation.
  4. “Branding” is imposed doctrine and dogma. Brands free customers to discover what’s new.

“Branding” disrespects customers

There are many problems with using “branding” as a blanket term to describe brand practice. The biggest problem is that “branding” disrespects and diminishes customers. It excludes them from the brand value process. “Branding” frames customers as objects to be used. There’s not much value potential in that. Does a “branding” campaign actually expect to sear attitudes, beliefs and impressions on the brains of customers? Does it assume that customers can be “branded” like cattle, and that once branded can be herded to and fro like dumb beasts?

The high cost of the “branding” mindset

I have worked with colleagues who thought “branding” was first and foremost a means of customer manipulation. Not surprisingly, the “brands” they produced were entirely skin deep. And instead of creating customers, they sent them running into the next county.

The “branding” mindset has probably done more to hold back the practice of brands than any other factor.

“Branding” burns the value out of brands

Brands are an interactive process of value creation, but “branding” burns the value out of brands. It metaphorically assumes the brander has total dominion over the poor wretch about to be seared. While this may be a tonic for sharp stabs of inadequacy affecting those wielding the brand stick, the resulting “brand” never grows beyond its initial mark. More often than not, those who do “branding” sear their own limitations into customers, perhaps permanently.

“Branding” doesn’t connect with customers

Brand value is built with customer connections, and “branding” is not connecting. “Branded” customers are not engaged. (Think about that.) A company that builds brands uses its brands to seed value creation in customers. Its brand-building is a creative, nuanced and highly interactive process that delivers value, nurtures value, and circulates value through a widening brand value net, ultimately returning more value back to the business.

A branding iron cannot compete with that.

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