As a brand platform expands, stress cracks can appear between the brand core (perhaps over-controlled by the company) and the active brand edge (a more freewheeling terrain energized by partners and customers). The brand and its innovation ecosystem may be moving in the same general direction, but they don’t always move as one. And they can move at different rates.
Brand stress cracks have to be fixed
Brand stress cracks have to be fixed. If allowed to propagate, they can seriously weaken the platform, and the brand. The issue is rarely one of “brand essence.” It’s typically an issue of process, or of brand value delivered.
A stress crack in the iPhone brand platform
Apple is currently dealing with a stress crack in its emerging iPhone platform. The issue is how Apple approves third-party applications for the iPhone, and then makes them available for sale in its online App Store. Apple hasn’t published guidance on the approval criteria it uses in the App Store, leaving developers in the difficult position of writing software that meets iPhone technical specs but may be rejected for other reasons. The fear of arbitrary rejection has dampened developer enthusiasm for the platform.
The importance of the App Store
Apple’s App Store is the location of this particular stress crack. The App Store is as important to Apple developers as it is to Apple and the iPhone brand. It’s the sanctioned gateway to selling third-party iPhone apps, and it’s crucial to the commercial success of an independent iPhone app developer. Selling iPhone apps outside the App Store conduit is very difficult.
In many respects, the App Store is the engine of the iPhone platform. It may represent a billion dollar market. It’s so vital that Kleiner Perkins has created a $100 million fund to help startups develop apps for the iPhone platform.
Third-party iPhone developers are a part of the brand
Apple needs motivated (and successful) third-party developers if the iPhone is to reach its potential as a broad-based mobile platform. Apple’s third-party developers form a critical part of the brand. Their initiative, imagination and innovation equal that of Apple’s in-house engineers, and they can spot iPhone apps in nooks, crannies and niches that Apple itself could never address. These niches can become selling points and growth avenues as the platform evolves.
The app approval process is a brand process
What’s at issue isn’t Apple’s right to exercise control over new iPhone apps. That’s a given. The issue is the transparency of Apple’s review and approval process. The App Store’s approval process is a brand process, a subset of Apple’s approach to its brand ecosystem and how it works with and nurtures its third-party developers. It’s a bit ironic that Apple should have this problem, because Apple knows this process. It was Apple who first sent out “software evangelists” to bring developers into the Apple brand 30 years ago.
The brand cannot be a bottleneck
One of the first rules of brand innovation is that the brand cannot be a bottleneck. Too much control at the top chokes off initiative and innovation, and eventually chokes the brand itself. Brand value is really a confluence of many streams, from the company, its partners and customers.
Brands that are “curated” as precious objets d’art in a temple tended by brand priests always run the risk of being bottlenecks. They’re too far from rough and tumble markets where active brands discover new forms of value.
Structuring the brand as a shared brand journey
Structuring the brand as a shared brand journey is often a step in the right direction.
A brand solution
The extent of developer angst over the iPhone app approval process indicates that a brand solution is needed. For sure, the iPhone app approval task inside Apple is challenging. There are thousands of iPhone apps that need to be vetted and tested, with a host of legal, technical, strategic and brand reasons why they must be carefully scrutinized. That said, there is a (brand) logical solution out there. Apple didn’t get this far without successfully resolving similar problems in the past.
One developer has proposed a six part solution, which begins:
Publish clear and unambiguous rules for what will be accepted and what will not. I don’t even care if this is a long and detailed document, but it needs to be The Rulebook from which both sides play.
Sometimes the brand ecosystem can lead in bringing problems to a close.
I’ve written about the iPhone brand platform challenge previously.
UPDATE: Here is one third-party developer’s step-by-step experience in getting an iPhone application approved by the App Store. A total of 22 steps. Not a quick process, but not unreasonable given that Apple found at least one bug in the software. (Hat Tip: Daring Fireball).