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
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
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
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
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
- 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?
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
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
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."