Archive for September, 2008

A stress crack in the iPhone brand platform

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

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.

A recently rejected iPhone application has become a cause celebre.

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).


A university makes a money-back guarantee

Monday, September 8th, 2008

Guarantees play important roles in commercial brands, but do they have any role to play in university brands? A new guarantee at Stanford University raises some important issues.

Enjoy the game—or your money back

Stanford is making brand history of a somewhat controversial kind. In order to fill seats at home football games, the University’s athletic department is offering fans a “Gridiron Guarantee.” If fans don’t enjoy the games at Stanford Stadium, they can get their money back.

That’s right: it’s a money-back guarantee from one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Giving football fans “their money’s worth”

Let’s review some background on the Stanford guarantee. Several years ago Stanford replaced its ancient 85,000-seat stadium with a modern 55,000 seat facility, thanks to $100 million from donors. While the new stadium is more compact and comfortable, it has yet to have a sell out. In this same time frame, prior to the 2008 season, the Stanford football team had a losing record of 10-25, with many defeats at home.

From the San Francisco Chronicle

When you’ve won two home games in the last two years, a money-back-guarantee might seem a little risky.

The Stanford athletics marketing department has little choice but to take a big chance and hope that the payoff finally comes – first on the football field and then, maybe, in the stands of its sparkling but half-empty stadium.

The deal works like this: New season-ticket and new “Family Plan” buyers can ask for the “Gridiron Guarantee,” and if unsatisfied with the “entertainment value” at season’s end, the cost of the season tickets will be refunded.

“It’s good motivation for us, but that motivation is already there,” Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We definitely want to give fans their money’s worth.”

A guarantee can change a university’s core identity

University brands typically operate in a realm above commercial guarantees. The concern with any sub-tier “guarantee” is that it can change the core identity of a university brand, tipping it from a traditional brand of collegial culture and learning—where commercial guarantees are irrelevant—toward a “buyer-seller” brand of commercial transactions, where hot deals and promotional promises are the name of the game.

A guarantee can alter a university’s brand context

At first glance, Stanford’s Gridiron Guarantee seems innocent enough, and it has some carefully-crafted limitations. Nonetheless, it points toward some new contexts for the Stanford brand. As it’s currently framed, the Guarantee implies that Stanford is now a brand of “entertainment value.” This puts the University in the same brand boat as ESPN, or even Vegas. Is that where it wants to be?

Moreover, at least one Stanford team is now obligated to give fans “their money’s worth.” That seems an odd mission for unpaid athletes ostensibly imbued with Stanford’s traditional identity and values. (The football coach doesn’t need the Guarantee to motivate the team; it’s an external obligation. As his quote in the Chronicle indicates, the team’s motivation to win “is already there.”)

A slippery slope toward more “guarantees”

The first “guarantee” made by a university, however innocent, may set a precedent. It may set the university on a slippery slope toward more guarantees—with no end in sight.

Where might Stanford’s Gridiron Guarantee take the core Stanford brand? If a Gridiron Guarantee is on the table, perhaps other performance guarantees are in order. Might parents ask for a “Commencement Guarantee:” a money-back guarantee if their sons or daughters didn’t “enjoy” their Stanford experience, or somehow didn’t “receive their money’s worth?” Similarly, would there be a “Donor’s Guarantee” to insure that funded developments perform as expected?

Why position Stanford athletes as “entertainers?”

The Gridiron Guarantee states: “If at the end of the season you do not feel that you received your entertainment value for the ticket, Stanford Athletics will refund the price paid for the season ticket.”

From a brand perspective, one might ask why the Gridiron Guarantee positions Stanford football players as “entertainers”—as if they’re the Rockettes with cleats. Does the football team exist to put on a show? Is that why the players risk serious injury during months of practice and in league games? Is “entertainment” their charter? Isn’t there a higher purpose behind the concept of athletics at Stanford? Are the players given athletic scholarships or entertainment scholarships?

A healthy university brand shouldn’t need guarantees

If a university brand is healthy, “guarantees” shouldn’t be necessary. The brand itself should have the wherewithal to sustain the campus and its relationship with the community. This includes everything the campus and the community create together, such as a fan base.

It’s worth noting, however, that a brand that lacks confidence can project its insecurities outward. As one sports columnist noted, with reference to what he called the “daffy” Stanford guarantee:

If you buy a ticket knowing you could get your money back if and/or when you are disappointed, you are being rewarded for either your lack of faith, or the team’s.

An attendance problem—or a brand problem?

Ideally, the Stanford football team would win most of its games and Stanford Stadium would be deliriously packed. There’d be no “guarantees” needed.

Until the new football coach can make that happen (not impossible: the man has energy and imagination) Stanford has a need to fill seats at home games. A sports marketing approach would typically view this as an “attendance problem,” to be solved with promotions, and maybe something inspired like a “Gridiron Guarantee.”

As noted above, that approach, however well-intentioned, may actually work against the University’s brand.

A brand approach

A brand approach would aim to solve the problem at the strategy level instead of at the promotion level. It would ask if the lack of attendance might be a sign of a deeper brand problem, where the full value of Stanford is not being developed and articulated. The goal would be to create a higher platform of attendance to sustain the team through thick and thin.

A brand approach would ask questions like these:

  1. Is the brand identity where it should be?
  2. Is the correct brand model being employed?
  3. Does the brand leverage its platform strengths?
  4. Is the brand culture sufficiently inclusive and expansive?
  5. Does the brand create the kind of student/alumni that the University needs?
Photo: maveric2003 — Flickr

Notes on “university brands”

Monday, September 8th, 2008

What follows are some of my notes on “university brands.” These are preliminary thoughts as I’m working through various ideas and concepts on the subject.

I’ll be adding to this post, or changing it, as time goes on. Comments and suggestions are welcome, as always.

Should we use the phrase “university brand?”

I go back and forth on this question. I’m not totally sold on the phrase “university brand”—even though I use it. Part of me says that universities really don’t need “brands”—certainly not in the commercial sense. Universities just need clear and coherent expressions of themselves. As it is, universities are largely “self-branding.” They’re co-creations of faculty, students, alumni, community and their own histories.

The last thing universities need is “branding” advice that’s more appropriate to a strip mall. Universities are a special form of culture. They’re brands of culture rather than brands of commerce.

Maybe we should just say “university” instead of “university brand.” The concept of “university” is pretty universal to begin with.

That said, there’s a lot universities can learn from the concept of “brand,” mainly because much of what we call “brands” today was invented by universities hundreds of years ago. A university that understands brands has a better understanding of its potential value streams, and its future.

A recap: what is a brand?

Brands are methods of creating personal, social, intellectual and moral value. Think of them as company potential X customer potential. They’re collaborative efforts, proactive co-creations that result in more freedoms for participants.

The above definition sounds pretty much like a university, does it not? In many respects, universities are brand models for others to imitate. Why do so many businesses call their facilities “campuses?”

What can a “university brand” do that a “university” can’t?

Well, nothing, really—if the university totally has its act together. (Not all universities do.) A “university brand” is a method that enables a university to create new forms of value. It opens a university to more of the world; it enables the university to initiate and to innovate in ways that the “old” university probably would have ignored.

Great brand ideas can come from faculty, students, administrators, alumni and the community.

What about strategy?

A university brand will have a strong strategic component. This will be aimed at adding new value to enable the university to be more, and to do more, in years ahead. Brand strategy = value strategy.

Universities as brands of collegial learning

One way to view “university brands” is to say that universities are brands of collegial learning. Thus, the difference between two universities lies in their approaches to learning. But there’s obviously more to it than this. A class at Cal or UCLA may be essentially the same, but the “brands” of these two schools are different. Superficially different? Essentially different?

The strategy of place

A university is also a brand of place. Campus = four years of “brand experience.”  What is the brand strategy during these four most formative years?

What’s the appropriate brand model for a university?

The conventional brand model—where a brand is fashioned as a stylized sales stimulant—is rarely the right model for universities. It’s unilateral, superficial and too dependent on advertising.

A standard marketing approach to building a university brand, in which the “brand” is defined as a package of symbols, slogans, values and images to be communicated to students, alumni and others is not enough. The “brand” is not an idea or an “image” to be sold.

Brands are programs to get things done. They lead by example.

The problem with many university brands is lack of intensity, not lack of “essence”.

A university brand model would include: a collaborative culture that’s collegial, exploratory, innovative, questioning and proactive, with a focus on shared freedoms rather than top-down doctrine. It would be a joint venture of discovery. A “way” rather than a “thing.” The commencement exponential.

What makes university brands uniquely powerful?

What makes university brands uniquely powerful is that they’re structures of culture rather than structures of commerce. They’ve existed as “brands” in this context since the first universities were founded in Europe in the middle ages. Those institutions had unique identities, traditions, communities, customs, rituals, a special context of place and mission, a social life and an intellectual life, and they imparted all of these elements into their students, who went forth into the world so “branded”—and proud of it.

Universities are brand platforms

Certainly true. University strategies are platform strategies.

Universities and personal brand applications

Big potential here. Cf:  personal brand applications. Esp. Google, and Chrome.

Universities are context machines

Certainly true. Universities can generate multiple layers of meaning, for multiple publics. These can support multiple value streams, even sub-brands, some quite potent. Can be life-defining. The end of the “4-year college.”

The difference between university brands and commercial brands:

  • You can be a “Harvard Man” for about $200,000
  • You can be an “Aqua Velva Man” for $3.25

Which is the better deal?

Photo:  Richard Peat — Wikimedia Commons

What can I learn from this brand?

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

When a brand introduces itself, every customer should rightfully ask: “What can I learn from this brand?”

The answer should be, “A lot.”

Strong brands are leveraged sources of learning

Strong brands are leveraged sources of learning. They’re not pedants, of course. They’re bottled fire, beams of light and life that spark awakenings and foment revelations. They have something to say, and they aren’t shy about saying it. That’s why they’re brands, and not labels.

Brands have the wisdom to bring products to life

Brands have the wisdom to bring products to life. A brand in this mode is more than a stylized sales stimulant, or a pre-packaged “experience.”  For starters, it’s interesting. (That alone sets it apart.) It has a history of deeds (exploits, scars, triumphs) instead of a puffed-out bogus “narrative.” It asks the questions that other brands can’t.

Imparting brandly wisdom

As the brand engages and interacts with customers it imparts its brandly wisdom. This is the combined insight and intelligence of its makers, every iota of value they fused to the product and the brand to move customers forward.

Brandly wisdom is the sensuous set of smarts that creates customers—and helps customers re-create themselves. You see it in the details—and in the vision.

Expect tectonic truths that blink

Brands don’t “teach” as much as they lead by example, forging new dialectics with you and me. As a customer, expect tectonic truths that blink. Spiritual leavenings. Flashes of far horizons. Worlds de-packaged, unwrapped, laid bare for you to clothe.

Brand experience is shared wisdom

Brand experience is shared wisdom. It leaves the customer—and the brand—wiser.

Photo: amarola — Flickr