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Millions Downloaded vs. Billions Sold: Apple's New Brand Collective Changes the McDonald's Game

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You've no doubt seen the Apple ads. Big, full page splashes that trumpet the number of iPhone applications that have been downloaded -- over 500 million, they represent.

The phone nests in the center of the page, and it's surrounded by call-outs that recite the range of sexy applications.

Let your iPhone "hear" a song and Shazam will tell you who's singing it. Get your yoga poses anywhere you want with Yoga Stretch. Edit your photos and add witty, Stewart-esque commentary with Photogene. They're all part of Apple's Brand Collective.

Every time I see this ad and its startling and convincing 500 million number, I am reminded of the way McDonald's used their Golden Arches signage to boast of the vast quantities of its empty calories Americans had consumed.

As Wikipedia describes it:

From 1969, the number was displayed in billions, increasing with every 5 billion. When the total reached 100 billion in 1993, the signs of this era were changed to display 99 billion permanently, as there was only room for two digits, though some signs use the "Billions and Billions Served" tagline.

Both approaches employ a similar strategy: people like stuff that other people like. Marketing people have always realized this. And it's a fact that evolutionary psychologists are increasingly proving, as they use MRIs to demonstrate that specific brain systems are triggered by representations of popularity."

But there's a fundamental difference between McDonald's and Apple that points up an equally tectonic change in the structure of our consumer economy.

McDonald's prideful statements of consumption success are based on sales of stuff they made themselves. Their hamburger flippers were the ones who grilled all-beef-patties, added the onions and the special sauce.

But the iPhone situation is radically different. Apple is boasting about downloads of "products" that they had no hand whatsoever in creating.

What Apple did was create an open platform, and then challenge the imagination of developers to create cool stuff that consumers would want, and that pushed the iPhone to heights (and I include in that the best-selling iFart Mobile application) that even their on-fire creative people had never anticipated.

By releasing the toolbox that lets entrepreneurs play in their sandbox, the result has been a gush of the unexpected. Apple has figured out a way to let developers make money (or, as far as the free apps are concerned, strut their stuff) while also making the iPhone more of a must-have, must-leave-on-the-bar consumer gizmo.

Marketers take note: What platform can you create that lets others into your code -- literal or metaphorical -- so they can sell your product for you?

Imagine, for example, if Detroit insisted that the manufacturers who produce their GPS systems (Garmin and others) opened their platforms to developers? There would be an explosion of GPS innovation -- games, mash-ups, Breathalyzers, even connections between the iPhone itself and the GPS.

By itself, this wouldn't have rescued Detroit. But it would have given consumers something new to talk about. And multiply that by 100 -- which means opening up the communication system to developers --and you'd have something. After all, every vehicle today is a mobile computing system.

And imagine what would happen if Quaker woke up tomorrow morning and said that we could sell a lot of more oatmeal if we opened up our oatmeal platform?

They'd invite their version of developers -- food scientists -- to create a range of new breakfast, snack, lunch and dinner products using the core oatmeal "product code."

Of course there'd be a level of control and an approval process -- just like Apple maintains veto power over applications. But imagine how this would accelerate the innovation behind Quaker Oats. No internal R&D process could ever come close to harnessing the imaginative energy of an intellectual free market.

Of course, this requires a real mind shift in the way traditional marketers see their products. They've been trained to be control freaks, the helicopter parents of the corporate world. There's no open-source in their DNA.

But Apple comes from a world where good things happen when you throw the door open. (It wasn't always that way; Apple's closed approach to the Mac operating system, compared to Microsoft's more developer-friendly philosophy was a real obstacle to their growth. And they learned from it.)

You'll soon see. The McDonald's approach -- succeeding based on the what you produce yourself -- will find itself being replaced by the Apple approach -- succeeding based on the vastly more potent combination of what you and others can produce together.

The Brand Collective. It's the new secret sauce.