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.]