Branding is big business at the start of the 21st century. We are constantly drawn to (or repelled from) images and messages from companies who ask us to believe them, join them, or react to their products in a certain way. A brand at its best is a call to the consumer, a request for us to be part of a style that it embodies.
Few companies have proven as successful at branding as Apple, to the point where the Apple logo was reportedly once the sixth most-recognized in the world - an amazing feat for a company that doesn't have even a tenth of the personal computer market. For better or worse, we Mac users are all participants in Apple's highly successful branding strategy. But because Mac users are generally far more knowledgeable about Apple than are customers of other companies, I think we should also understand just how branding works, how Apple has built their brand, and how this all ties in with Apple's recent forays into retail stores. In this article, I'll look at the role of branding; future installments will look more closely at Apple's approach to branding.
Branding Basics -- How rational are you when you walk into your local mall? How often have you researched products from rival companies and at the last minute opted to go for A over B based on a gut feeling or instinct? As much as technology companies try to sell you the promise of reliability and quality, very few manage to win the hearts as well as the minds of the consumer. The ultimate goal of the marketer is to inspire consumer confidence to such an extent that potential customers will choose one product above all rivals. When they think about the technology in question, do consumers think of one company first and benchmark all alternatives in relation to this product?
Good branding can help a company ensure that customers return and continue to purchase from them - brand loyalty is the highest reward in an age of fickle decision-making and a dazzling array of merchandise from which to choose. A brand is built up through a range of different elements such as commercials, the retail outlet where the goods are purchased, the way a product works, and the post-sales support.
However, as much as a company will seek to control all these elements to ensure a consistency for the customer, total control is impossible. A company builds and controls a product, but the brand evolves from the interaction between the company and the consumer. The company makes a set of claims and proposals about itself, and consumers react to these messages; the brand lies between the two. Perception is the key to a brand - it starts with what the company says or does, but is inevitably modified, sometimes significantly, by the way customers interpret the message.
Perception can be harsh. A company that attracts bad news or reviews for an aspect of their business can be perceived as failing in all other areas. Through bad public relations, poor customer service, or flaws in basic implementation, a technology brand may build a perception around it that is disproportionate to reality. Microsoft is a good example. Although to date the antitrust legal proceedings have had little or no impact on the structure of the company, they have negatively impacted the Microsoft brand. While the case and its final outcomes are still being debated, the company remains intact with its business and products untouched. However, if in its advertising Microsoft claimed to be open, enthusiastic to competition, or a guardian to fair play in the marketplace, the majority of consumers would reject such a message thanks to Microsoft's brand being tarnished. The products remain unaffected, the company remains unaltered, but the connection between the organisation and the consumer has been damaged. Apart from any legal ruling to date, Microsoft is perceived to have acted unfairly. This view appears to have entered the consciousness around Microsoft's brand and is now part of what it represents in the mind of the public.
Brand Bosses -- There is often an uneasy relationship between a strong brand and its custodians, the managers of the company. For a much-loved brand, the custodians are often treated with skepticism by loyal consumers who have bought the products for far longer than the current crop of top employees have been in position. Remember what happened to Coca-Cola in 1985 when they tried to change the formula of the product and altered the taste? The resulting consumer revolt was met with a quick backtracking and release of Classic Coke to accommodate the consumer reaction. Coca-Cola learned that breaking the unwritten contract between brand and consumer risks long-term damage.
If a company plans to alter its products, it should make sure the change fits with the brand. In 1998, British Airways discovered that selling their airline seats at low prices was negatively affecting the company's brand identity, which was about quality, service, and making the passenger feel special. So British Airways launched Go!, a low cost carrier that offered budget seats between European destinations. Go! sought to be fun, youthful, cheerful, and cheap - a very different brand proposition from that of British Airways.
It was essential that British Airways did not blend the two individual brand messages together into one combined entity. Doing so would have led to a perceived diluting of the British Airways brand and its heritage, and as seen in the case of Coca-Cola, perception can have a harsh backlash.
Brands vs. Products -- A brand is also separate from the product or company that it is linked to. Apple (the company) builds the iMac (the product), but both of those are distinct from Apple (the brand). Everything Apple does, says, publishes, and advertises contributes to the building of the company's perceived identity, the brand. For many companies, the brand is the corporation's most valuable asset. During the early nineties, at a time when Apple's management was seen to be making poor decisions and when the company had lost focus, a large proportion of users remained loyal to the brand, even if they were highly critical of its custodians.
These loyal users are in many ways ambassadors of the brand, and the recent move from the free iTools to the subscription-based .Mac service risks stretching this relationship too far. It strains the goodwill of Apple's brand ambassadors and wastes some of Apple's hard-won brand capital.
In purchasing a computer we consumers are influenced in numerous ways. The machine's technical specifications are of course important, but how many people who purchase based on brand loyalty will justify an already-made decision by quoting specs? Branding and the values that become embodied in a brand can have a decisive influence over us as consumers, whether or not we realize it.
In the next installment of this series on branding, I'll look more closely at the Apple brand and show why Apple is unique in the computer industry in the way it has taken advantage of strong branding.
[Simon Spence is head of research and information technology at Alexander Dunlop Ltd., a brand consultancy working with multinational corporations to define brand identity. He also provides Mac consultancy to small businesses and educational establishments in Ireland.]