Apple, Google, and the open vs. closed positioning war |

Apple, Google, and the open vs. closed positioning war

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Over the last few months, the battle to define the meaning of the word "open" has intensified into one of the more interesting brand positioning exercises I've seen in the technology industry (if you aren't familiar with brand positioning and would like to learn more, consider starting here).

I thought I'd do a quick report from the front lines, diving in specifically to examine the battle for smartphone leadership, and looking at things from a brand positioning strategy perspective.

Google Goes on Offense

Think back to 2009 and the state of the smartphone industry. The iPhone had completely redefined the entire market, while Google was just beginning to see traction with Android and looking at a long struggle to catch up with Apple.

While most other smartphone makers were attempting to catch up playing by Apple's rules in the market Apple defined (usually a losing strategy in the long term when the leader has a solid head start), Google took a different approach—they tried what now looks to me looks like a classic repositioning strategy.

In Chapter 8 of their book, Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind, Jack Trout and Al Ries (the guys who invented the term positioning) discuss the concept of repositioning the competition. According to them, the best time to employ a repositioning strategy is when you can't find a "hole" in the position of your competition you can exploit to differentiate yourself.

Certainly in the early days of the iPhone, Apple's positioning looked pretty airtight. Beautiful, simple design. Incredibly functional and flexible product. Your computing world in your pocket, at a reasonable cost. Booyah.

So rather than join their competition in trying to "out-Apple" Apple, Google began employing a smart strategy to reposition Apple instead—as "closed" to Google's "open."

From my point of view, it has been an incredibly effective strategy for Google.

In a world where openness and transparency are themes du jour not just in business, but also in government, education, the law—you know, the stuff we talk about here on—open is so very 2010, where closed is so, well, 1984 (I couldn't resist).

Google's strategy to reposition one of the world's best-loved brands seems to be working pretty well, especially within audiences swayed by the power of "open" (and probably including many of the folks who read and write for this site, if these articles are any indication).

Your Move, Apple

I never expected Steve Jobs, a fierce competitor, to allow his company to be re-positioned this easily, though.

From my perspective, one of the worst brand positioning mistakes you can make is to play defense when someone tries to reposition you. It makes me absolutely cringe when a company being repositioned responds defensively in the new frame created by their competitor. Apple has been smart not to fall into this trap.

The best strategy to fight off a repositioning challenge is either to stick to your guns (if the repositioning attempt is a weak one) or— you're gonna love this—go on the offensive and reposition the attempt to reposition.

Still with me?

Google's "open vs. closed" repositioning of Apple was a strong move at the right time. With market share for Android growing quickly, Apple couldn't ignore it.

Over the last few months, I've watched as Apple has made a strong move of their own to reposition the open vs. closed debate.

Apple's counter-offensive is beautifully articulated in Steve Jobs' comments earlier this week on the Apple earnings call. Here is a taste from the MacWorld article about the call:

"In reality, we think open versus closed is a smokescreen to hide the real issue," Jobs continued, stating that the real debate is between "fragmented versus integrated" and which is better for the consumer. "We think Android is very, very fragmented and becoming more fragmented by the day," Jobs said. "We think this is a huge strength of our approach compared to Google's... When selling to users who want their devices to just work, we believe integrated will trump fragmented every time."

Bold move. With this statement, Jobs is changing the conversation from "closed vs. open," a conversation which clearly favors Google, to "integrated vs. fragmented," which clearly, at least in my view, favors Apple.

From my point of view, both are very strong brand positioning strategies.

Now it's your turn. Which do you think will be the winning brand position in the long term? Do you see this open vs. closed and fragmented vs. integrated battle playing out elsewhere?

I'd love to hear what you think.





About the author

Chris Grams - Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World....