The Long View | Why Fashion Brands Need APIs

Oren Michels | Photo: Scott Beale

NEW YORK, United States — Today, rapid innovation in consumer technologies and accelerating adoption rates are driving explosive growth of new devices and platforms — from iPads and gaming consoles to web-connected cars and internet-enabled TVs — putting pressure on brands to design and support a diverse and fast proliferating array of digital touchpoints. Keeping pace with consumers means thinking beyond the web browser. The days of simply building and supporting a brand website are over. But creating new experiences and applications for every new channel dramatically increases the cost and complexity of engaging consumers, a significant challenge for even the most savvy and well-financed brands.

While there is no escaping this new reality, forward-thinking brands are learning to efficiently leverage external partners and developers to create new experiences and applications for them — driving innovation and increasing revenue while reducing cost and complexity — by creating and publishing open APIs.

An API, or application programming interface, enables interaction between pieces of software, much the same way that a user interface facilitates interaction between people and computers. Specifically, an API makes it easy for one piece of software to open part of its functionality or content for other programs to leverage. Technology leaders like Google, Facebook and Amazon have long published open APIs, making specific content and functionality available to external partners and developers who can then use these building blocks to create new experiences and applications. For example, Amazon’s Product Advertising API provides programmatic access to the retailer’s vast product range so that external developers can easily advertise Amazon products on third-party websites.

Now, embracing APIs and the ecosystem growth strategies they enable is rapidly becoming vital for all brands and retailers, not just technology companies. Indeed, Gartner predicts that by 2014 over 75 percent of Fortune 1000 companies will have APIs.

BoF spoke with Oren Michels, co-founder and CEO of leading API management, infrastructure and strategy firm Mashery, to find out more about the fast approaching future of brand APIs.

BoF: Technology companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter have APIs, enabling an ecosystem of developers to build new applications on top of their platforms. Why should brands have APIs? What are the benefits?

Oren Michels: We have entered the post-website era, where customers and fans are more likely to engage with a brand outside of the brand’s own website, as accessed through a desktop or laptop browser. Brands that provide a compelling experience on partner and retailer websites, mobile and social apps, or in other channels will have a huge advantage over their competitors. But leveraging new online channels is not in the core competency of most brands. So being successful as quickly as possible requires working with partners or other external resources who can take everything the brand has to offer and repurpose it for the new channel. By far, the fastest, easiest and most economical way to do this is to make these building blocks available as easy-to-integrate APIs.

APIs can be used to make numerous apps that can be targeted toward particular customers, use cases, operating systems or platforms. A great app is not an entire website shrunken to fit on a different device; instead, a great app grants a wish. It does one or two things really well for a particular slice of users who have a particular need based on time, place or situation. Therefore, successful brands and retailers will recognise that a one-app-fits-all approach will fail, just as they have learned over the years that they must buy and merchandise differently for different physical stores based on factors like location, climate, demographics, season.

BoF: Who is doing this well?

OR: So far, it’s the retailers that are further ahead. Nordstrom recently released a terrific iPhone and iPad app that runs on their API. Outside fashion, Best Buy has been a leader in this area for years and has been able to use their API to tap new distribution channels, such as selling directly to Citibank customers who are redeeming rewards points.

BoF: Where are the biggest missed opportunities for fashion brands?

Most fashion brands distribute through a range of retailers, both online and off. While their merchandisers are often able to create compelling brand experiences in the physical stores — especially at flagship stores in large cities — more often than not, the online experience puts a great brand’s products in the same look and feel as all the other brands sold by that retailer. There is a huge opportunity for brands that want to partner with their online distribution partners in the same way as they do with their brick-and-mortar partners. Think of it, in physical terms, as the difference between having some Gucci bags mixed in with the rest of the handbag displays versus having the Gucci “shop-in-shop” that can be merchandised like a stand-alone Gucci store.

BoF: For many fashion brands, selective distribution and image control are critical concerns. How can brands embrace the openness of an API without losing control?

OR: A well-managed API opens different services to different partners, under different terms or rules. So if you are partnering with a multi-brand retailer, for example, with whom you have a strong and trusting relationship, you can and will open a broader set of services for them.

BoF: How should brands go about developing their API strategies?

OR: They should start by creating an inventory of all the great ideas that they know they should be executing on, but can’t because of resource constraints or lack of internal expertise. Once they have catalogued their ideas, they’ll need to take a look at all the things that a well-managed API needs: developer communication — documentation, code samples, app gallery, forum — self-signup and provisioning, security, scalability, rules enforcement, analytics and so on. They should also study companies who are doing this well — in other words, companies with widely-used API programs.

BoF: Will having a brand API soon become as indispensable as having a website?

OR: It already is. Because fewer and fewer people, as a percentage of overall visitors, are coming through a desktop browser pointed at your website. As that trend continues, interacting with your customers when and how they want is important — and an API is the way to get that done quickly and effectively. Smart companies are investing less in iterating on their legacy websites and more on APIs that can power the apps that reach customers.

Vikram Alexei Kansara is Managing Editor of The Business of Fashion