In the first of these articles I looked at the basics of brands and the way a brand is separate from both the company and the company's products. This week I'll take a closer look at Apple's brand and the values behind it.
Design Supports the Brand -- Throughout Apple's history, groundbreaking design has played a key role. The original Macintosh bore little resemblance to the hulking IBM PC-compatibles of the day, while other attempts to stand out - such as the Macintosh TV and the Twentieth Anniversary Mac - were unfortunately never meant to be mass market products. It was only with the advent of the iMac and iBook after Steve Jobs's return to Apple that style and design came to the forefront in Apple's hardware products. In short, Apple's product design elegance in both hardware and software plays an essential role in the company's brand message.
It all makes a difference. Minimizing windows with smooth animation in Mac OS X, the glossy white plastic used in the iPod and iBook, the clever packaging that comes with all of Apple's products - everything combines to support a message about the brand. Simplicity, attention to detail, ease of use, creative thinking, and an absence of jargon are all messages conveyed through these products. Steve Jobs has said that Apple's position in the computer industry makes it possible to design a product from scratch. By controlling both software and hardware, Apple can integrate their products more tightly, providing an advantage over PC companies like Dell and Gateway. Even when Apple does offer a cross-platform product, the PC version isn't as good. Look no further than the iPod: the Mac version outshines its Windows-compatible counterpart thanks to its tight integration between the iPod hardware, the Mac OS, and iTunes.
Brand messages are supported by other aspects of the company's activities as well. The first-time visitor to the Apple Web site is left with an impression distinct to the Apple brand. The site is clear and easily navigable, and it manages to avoid clutter and technical terminology. Contrast this with the complex and confusing Dell Web site. (Really. Open the links below in two windows, and browse around a for a minute. You'll see what I mean.)
With Apple, the impression you're left with matches the experience of the product. Anyone who has received a new iPod will tell you of the beauty of the packaging, its simplicity and attention to detail tying in with the product itself. Buying from the Apple online store, the purchasing experience, the packaging, and finally the product itself and its functions, all fit into Apple's carefully constructed brand promise. That's one of Apple's major strengths - the company maintains its brand promise from the customer's research phase on the Web site, through the online store purchasing experience, and all the way to the point where he or she unpacks and starts using the product. Arguably, the Dell Web site risks leaving the consumer feeling bewildered by the site's complexity. The relationship between the consumer and the brand is of necessity rather than attraction. Consumers may use and find value at the site, but it is difficult to see how it could appeal to them or inspire brand loyalty.
Brands Go Deeper Yet -- This element of promise conveyed by a company's products and Web presence goes well below the surface. Since the "1984" commercial (if you haven't seen it before, or at least recently, it's easy to find a downloadable version) that launched the Macintosh, Apple has overtly challenged convention. The "Think Different" marketing campaign that Apple started after Steve Jobs returned to the company asked consumers to step beyond conventional wisdom that has resulted in 95 percent of computer buyers looking no further than Windows on Intel-compatible processors. Given its strong base in education and creative content markets, where iconoclastic thinking is commonplace, or at least admired, Apple's approach is correct.
However, I would suggest that Apple's customers should not simply be seen in terms of market segments. Apple's brand message is actually focused on people of a particular outlook, and that may or may not correspond with specific professions. This point is important, because brands deal with people on a level of feelings and instincts that goes beyond role and circumstance. The "1984" commercial epitomizes rebelliousness and the chance for a fresh start, smashing the status quo along with the Orwellian vision of video-induced conformity. In an age when a desktop computer was still a rarity, Apple offered the consumer "fire from the gods," giving the individual power and freedom that was at the time nearly unimaginable. Such was the brand promise, and the Macintosh delivered on that promise. Apple's brand has remained remarkably consistent ever since, and that is, to a large degree, the secret of Apple's long-term success. Products change quickly, technology constantly evolves, but the message stays the same. Consistency over time makes a strong brand, especially when it's supported by fresh and contemporary ways of demonstrating the same attitudes and brand promises.
During the early 1990s it could be argued that Apple stopped rebelling and tried to compete with the PC world on the unfamiliar ground of the corporate market. The company lost touch with its origins, and only with "Think Different" in late 1997 did Apple return to its beginnings and rediscover what made the company and its products special. With its release in 1998, the original iMac delivered on the promise of "Think Different." What most people miss in all of this is that the suggestion Apple needs to sell to the corporate market to succeed is flawed, because Apple's carefully cultivated brand image will never appeal to the bean-counters of the world. From a brand point of view, Apple sells to the "Think Different" market irrespective of whether the particular customer works in the corporate sector, in design, in film production, or in education. Apple appeals to an attitude choice and not a market segment. Market segmentation is a conservative marketing tool that fails to recognise the strength of brands working at a deeper level.
Of course, there were limitations in Apple's approach with "Think Different." The message could inspire consumers, and it was a call to reject conformity and bland establishment values. However appealing it may have been to some people, that message was also tremendously threatening to others. Choosing to think in a different way could be risky, and Apple's attempt to make a virtue out of difference could equate to isolation. Plus, the brand promise of "difference" could translate into "incompatible" to a potential purchaser. That's the downside of having a brand as strong as Apple's - it can generate both positive and negative instinctual reactions.
The new "Switch" campaign refocuses Apple's primary message on ease of use and represents a new tone for Apple. "Think Different" was necessary for Apple to re-establish their mark of differentiation as a way of regaining lost confidence amongst the Mac community. But that's done - Apple is now a reinvigorated organisation and can move toward using more subtle, less confrontational tones in attracting new users. Less confrontational doesn't necessarily mean safer, however. There's nothing wrong with pushing the view that it's easy to switch to a Mac, but at the same time Apple must take care not to blur the lines it has spent so long defining. Consumers intuitively see through mixed messages, so Apple must avoid suggesting that ease of switching is equivalent to compatibility - doing so would damage all those years of praising difference. It's a fine line to negotiate.
Still, "Switch" carries a powerful message. Ease of use is as relevant today as it was at the introduction of the Macintosh, when the world realized there was more to computing than the DOS prompt. "Switch" points to how much simpler it is to use a Mac, a territory both Mac and PC users associate with the Apple brand. Windows has never been able to make a strong claim to this space, and Apple's promotion of new technology such as Rendezvous promises new simplicity when it comes to complex computing tasks (even if long-time Mac users know that in some senses Rendezvous merely brings to TCP/IP what AppleTalk had provided all along on the Mac). Apple needs to gain the confidence of potential buyers, and since ease of use is a constant gripe for PC users, this new, softer approach may produce results.
Looking Toward Retail -- As a brand, Apple is strong, and the company's brand promise is currently matched by the user's experience online, with Apple's products, and in marketing campaigns. The main place where Apple's brand suffered was in the retail space, where buying a Mac was often a frustrating, unsatisfactory experience. In the final article in this series, I'll focus on Apple's retail strategy and the role the Apple retail stores play in confirming the brand in the mind of the consumer.
[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.]