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Pre-ordering the iPad: It's All about the Brand

A number of recent commentators, including one in an article reprinted by Macworld, questioned why anyone would bother to order an iPad before they had a chance to see one in a store or to read the reviews. The answer is "the brand." The strength of the Apple brand explains why people are willing to risk their hard-earned cash on something they haven't personally seen or experienced.

Strong product branding encompasses many variables, such as specifications, pricing, packaging, features, and overall utility. However, those are all part of the rational, logical reasons we buy something. Also significant, and, I would argue, even more important, are the unconscious reasons we buy a product such as an iPod or iPhone. If you talk to someone about why they bought an iPhone, they will list reasons such as the App Store, ease of synchronisation, or other functional aspects of using the phone. The closest we normally get to an emotional reason is the "cool factor," which is an acceptable way of describing your emotions towards the product without appearing goofy! However, these deep emotional keys motivate us to spend money on a product which has not yet been tried and tested.

Few companies can do this. It's almost inconceivable that HP or Dell could attract such attention for a new product. I would argue that since 1998 and the launch of the iMac, Apple has slowly but surely built its brand to such a position that there is confidence in what the company represents and what the company produces in terms of the quality of its products.

This is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Building a strong brand requires consistency over a long period of time, and Apple has managed to produce consistently exciting and innovative products, which means that consumers are willing to take a leap of faith, trusting that the next gadget will be on a par with those that have gone before.

One of the most fundamental differences between Dell and Apple is that Dell produces products, and Apple builds its brand. When you remove the chips and the circuit boards from a Dell computer, there is virtually nothing left. What does it represent? How does the consumer reach it? It may be about value-for-money and costs, but there is no sustainable brand there if a rival undercuts it on price. This is what has made Apple virtually immune to the recession and price cutting by its competitors. People still buy Apple products, since they are buying into the Apple brand. Apple is all about brand values and consistency, backed up over time by highly functional products.

The iPhone is a perfect example of almost everything that the Apple brand embodies. When the product was launched in 2007, it arrived with a number of shortcomings - no third-party development support, a handful of core apps, and no to-do list, to name a few. But overall, the phone was groundbreaking. It represented everything that is strong about the Apple brand, and the iPhone line continues to reflect what the company has stood for over the span of 10 years (or possibly back to Apple's start in 1976).

The iPhone molded together three elements which are at the core of Apple the company: easy-to-use interface, groundbreaking combination of features, and stunning industrial design. These elements have been at the heart of Macs, iPods, Mac OS X, and all Apple innovations over the last 10 years, and so consumers have come to trust a brand that is so marked in its consistency and delivery. The willingness of people to pre-order before the wider public has had a chance to hold and use an iPad shows how this trust has been built up and forms one of the key parts of Apple's brand values.

However the future may not always be so rosy. The risk comes where there is a perceived breach of faith and trust. If Apple were to produce a product which was subpar or contained significant flaws that Apple failed to address satisfactorily, it could damage the way people view the company, and make the consumer begin to doubt their previously held perceptions. (For an example, look at the Power Mac G4 Cube, which was a fine machine in many ways but widely perceived to be underpowered, overpriced, and suffering from manufacturing defects.)

In offering the iPad for pre-order, Apple is relying on its brand and asking people to trust that it will deliver the same quality that was demonstrated with the iPhone. As we are likely to see if Apple releases the pre-order sales figures, consumers entered into this brand contract in large numbers, believing that Apple will deliver not just functionally but also in terms of their emotional expectations.

Critics may point to "flaws" in Apple's first-generation products as a reason to sit back and not order right now. For example, when the iPhone shipped in 2007, it had no copy-and-paste feature. However, Apple has built this into expectations, as almost all first-generation Apple products have some minor omissions. But it is crucial to understand the differences between major flaws and minor time-corrected omissions. The lack of copy-and-paste on an iPhone did not stop consumers from purchasing, using, and enjoying the iPhone. Copy-and-paste was one of those features which most consumers apparently didn't miss sufficiently to put off purchasing, happy as they may have been to use it once it finally arrived.

Similarly, the lack of a camera on the iPad will not stop consumers from purchasing in large numbers either. It is likely that a camera will be included at some point in a future version of the iPad, but its absence from the first generation is not a deal-breaker. Apple understands this, and, as they have shown consistently over the years, they know what the consumer expects and are very good at delivering on their side of the bargain. As another example, demand for the current iMac range has never been stronger despite press reports at the end of 2009 regarding glitches with the iMac's screen. Customers understand the overall promise, and they know that if their iMac has problems, Apple will fix them. It is a confidence issue, nurtured over the years by good customer support and the constant values running through the Apple brand.

Therefore, those who pre-ordered an iPad were not a group of mindless Apple zealots. Good branding is about trust and expectation, and the relationship built up over many years between Apple and its customers means that many are willing to trust that Apple will once again deliver. Products come and go, but good branding is the driving force that causes consumers to return to the Apple Store time and time again.

[Dr. Simon Spence has spent nearly 20 years as a Mac consultant in Dublin, Ireland, and has worked with multi-nationals such as Intel, Nokia, and Vodafone on brand personality and identity. He's ready to pre-order his iPad when it comes to Europe.]


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Comments about Pre-ordering the iPad: It's All about the Brand
(Comments are closed.)

John Baxter  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2010-03-29 07:49
I didn't pre-order iPad. I haven't figured out what I would do with one. Apple's brand does lead me to believe that it will do what it does quite well.

Meanwhile, on Saturday I ordered a Mac Mini (through a local Port Townsend retailer). I know what I'll do with that.
Michael Cohen  2010-03-29 10:02
I ordered one. Part of my decision is confidence in the brand, but I actually have some actual business reasons to get an iPad (there's the Take Control of Syncing Data ebook, for example, that I eventually have to update to cover iPad syncing). Yes, it totally sucks to HAVE to get an iPad, doesn't it?
Kendall  2010-03-29 10:09
I don't see the big mystery. The press has had their hands on iPads, anyone who's used an iPhone knows what the OS is like, and they've seen videos of the new stuff (like iBooks and iWorks). It's not some unknown quantity that people are taking a huge leap of faith on solely (or even, I'd argue, mostly) based on brand; they know what they'll be getting!
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-03-29 10:46
I've used one, and there are still lots of questions that won't be answered until we get them in-hand. I do agree with your points (in fact, I'd started writing an article just like this shortly before Simon sent us his article), but do think that it's a small leap of faith. $500 is still a good chunk of money.

Then again, we still don't know how many orders were in the first round... maybe it's just all people like us who need it right away, and then the more curious but patient folks will wait a few weeks.
Bob Peterson  2010-03-29 11:51
Losing brand loyalty is not a matter of the trivial examples given here (omitting copy and paste or leaving off a camera).

It is as easy as making power supplies that over heat (Time Capsule), iPod batteries that wear out too fast, and generally denying or sweeping under the carpet any defects serious enough to capture media attention (witness Toyota).

Apple plays a razor edge game of trust and loyalty-building here, trying not to give in to whining extortionists and yet needing to build trust through either public, self-critical honesty, or not making a public to-do of inevitable flaws in manufacturing process or product design. When to go public and when to settle the issue quietly is the key.
Judy Jack  2010-03-29 20:24
I pre-ordered an iPad on the first day that I could. My reason is that I can't read web pages well on my iPod Touch. I will continue to take my iPod with me wherever I go, and leave the iPad near my living room chair. I'll likely read most books on my Kindle 2. I love my iPod Touch for checking email at home and at my club house, playing games at home, and having my address book and calendar with me all the time.

I have one cross country trip planned this year and will likely have a movie or two to watch on my iPad. And, yes, I'm a gadget junkie.
Nick Morris  2010-03-30 08:45
I would have loved to have pre-ordered an iPad, but you can't in the UK. I recently completed writing an App for the iPad, and one thing really struck me (besides how difficult it is to write an App when you don't have the hardware), the iPad is not a giant iPhone. You have to approach programming it in a slightly different way. The iPad is also not a Mac, so you can't use your old Mac user interface habits. The iPad is an interesting beast, and I can't wait to get my hands on one.