Should Apple Be Arbiter of Taste for iPhone Apps?

As Marketer Goes Mass, Issues Arise Around Third-Party Content

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SAN FRANCISCO ( -- Yeah, they have an app for that. But should they?

That's a question beginning to seriously plague iTunes, which offers more than 35,000 mobile games, utilities and entertainment applications from third-party publishers that generate $1 million in average daily revenue for Apple.

REZNOR: The Nine Inch Nails rocker was angered that the band's app, which had been live for weeks, was re-evaluated by Apple and pulled due to what the marketer called 'objectionable content.'
REZNOR: The Nine Inch Nails rocker was angered that the band's app, which had been live for weeks, was re-evaluated by Apple and pulled due to what the marketer called 'objectionable content.' Credit: Rob Sheridan
As the company moves from marketing to its once-niche following -- many experts have suggested Apple customers were for many years a cult -- to selling to the ever-broadening sweep of iPhone, iPod and iTouch users, it finds itself wrestling with some of the same issues that confront other truly "mass" marketers, such as whether it needs to be an arbiter, or some might say censor, of what content it makes available. Should it refuse to carry certain apps that might offend as does, say, Walmart, which won't sell albums with lewd lyrics? Or does such behavior smack too much of Big Brother?

On one side of the argument are people such as the representatives of the Sara Jane Brain Foundation, which caused Apple to drop a frankly indefensible "Baby Shake" app that invited users to silence a baby's cries by violently shaking the device. On the flip side of the argument last week was Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor.

Mr. Reznor was up in arms because the band's app -- which had been live for weeks in the iPhone store -- was re-evaluated and then rejected by Apple on the grounds of "objectionable content." The turn of events was triggered by the band's submission of an update to the app, according to an e-mail from Apple that Mr. Reznor shared in an online post. The content in question, Mr. Reznor wrote in the post, is "The Downward Spiral," the controversial Nine Inch Nails album about suicide that is not on the band's iPhone app, but whose title track is in a podcast that looks to be streamable to the app. Mr. Reznor alerted Apple that the song is for sale in the iTunes music store. Eventually Apple acquiesced to Mr. Reznor, and he posted on Twitter that Apple approved the update.

Succession of criticism
Apple wouldn't comment for this story, other than to make clear it has parental controls available in the App Store for the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPhone and on its Safari web browser. But its dilemma isn't new. Almost from the time the App Store opened in July, Apple has taken lashings from application publishers for being inconsistent, capricious and slow in its vetting process. But as App Store traffic skyrockets, Apple might be forced to take a harder line on policing its content. In his online rant, Mr. Reznor implies parallels between Apple and Walmart, which famously told recording artists to strip out any profanities in their music if they wanted shelf space.

While comparisons between ultrahip Apple and unhip Walmart may seem discordant, the reality is that both brands zealously guard their image. Like the Bentonville, Ark., behemoth, much of Apple's success is credited to management that keeps tight control over everything that touches the brand. The difference, at least until the last couple of years as Apple's customer based expanded, has been that it was making decisions based on what would fly with a relatively small psychographic.

"Brand management is about making choices that border on censorship, which will raise hackles but don't change the brand," said Karl Barnhart, partner at CoreBrand. "It's really just making apparent what Apple has done for the last 20 years, which is maniacally micro-managing its brand, which is about innovation and cutting-edge technology."

Mr. Barnhart said brands can be sanitized and cool at the same time, citing Vans, the skateboarding-apparel brand, as an example. "They push the envelope and they're aggressive in their styling, but they don't resort to bad language to get there. Apple is absolutely cool in its innovations and what it does with technology. It doesn't mean you should put any content out there without putting any rules around it."

In a sense, Apple's popularity and success is shaping its brand destiny, and the company is now in the business of pleasing the mass middle. "They're not a niche brand anymore," said Russ Meyer, chief strategy officer for Landor Associates. "They're a mass brand trying to appeal to a very broad audience. From a branding standpoint, they can't be as fringe as much as perhaps their advocates want them to be. They've become so utilitarian and mass."

Quality control
The company that once challenged convention and urged the world to "Think Different" only a couple of years ago may have outgrown its former self, but to keep its brand promise, marketing experts believe it has to continue to control the user experience -- even if the detrimental effect is that it's labeled a censor and alienates some core advocates, influencers and suppliers.

"For consumers, the element of implied oversight gives assurance that when they pay $2.99 for an app, it has gone through Apple's [quality control] and it's got Apple's halo around it," said Greg Hallinan, VP at Verve Wireless.

Questions for Apple, the mass marketer
  • Can it really hope to appeal to its original brand advocates -- tech-influencers, musicians and app developers -- if it censors app content?
  • Can it really step aside and operate without a vetting process, as many others do, and risk seriously offending large groups of existing and potential customers with objectionable content?
  • Is there a middle ground, and what does it look like?
  • Does Apple still stand for thinking differently, or does it simply have to have a mass mentality to succeed today?
  • And because the iPhone App Store has no equal in scale and traffic (it counts more than 1 billion downloads), Apple can afford to alienate a few thousand app publishers more than it can risk tripping on unsavory content. "At this early stage where the whole concept of apps is still new, the potential to do more damage to the brand is greater if Apple is too lenient," Mr. Hallinan said.

    Even if Apple's censorship tendencies dent its cool quotient, some say it's more important to safeguard its family-friendly credentials. After all, think of all the young consumers of the Macintosh computer, iPod and iPod Touch and the parents who pay for those devices. "Apple is a family brand, and they've worked hard to make the Macintosh the center of the digital lifestyle," said Tim Bajarin, president at Creative Strategies. "It's more important ... that it stands for quality, trust and reliability."

    Still, Apple will need to step forward with some coherent policy to deal with how it vets content as the app platform becomes an increasingly popular channel for entertainers to deliver packaged experiences for their fan bases. And vocal tirades by celebrities such as Mr. Reznor are likely to trigger some action by the company, industry watchers say. Moreover, as more competitors such as BlackBerry and Palm elbow their way into the app space, Apple will need to be more mindful of how it treats the development community.

    Suggestions to rate App Store content in the same way Hollywood does its films have been floated, as has the possibility of tagging content that has explicit language, as is being done in the iTunes store.

    Of course, the other alternative is for Apple to give up its role as the taste arbiter and follow other mobile-app storefronts that operate without a vetting process. "I don't judge Apple based on the apps from a third-party developer," said Anthony Scott, president of Innosight. "It is forcing its brand onto apps even though it doesn't have to."

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