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):
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:
- Articulate a coherent brand vision that transcends current cell phone/pda/mp3 paradigms.
- Develop a brand roadmap that synchronizes iPhone innovations with brand program initiatives.
- Create reference customers or customer archetypes to serve as models for path-breaking iPhone use.
- Extend the iPhone brand experience beyond that of current competitors.
- 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.
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.