The dramatic success of the Apple iPod is a major business story, but the iPod’s innovations in brand identity are a major brand story as well. The iPod represents a game-changing shift in how brand identity is developed and managed. It shows how brand identity can become more effective when it’s less about the company and more about the customer. For brand builders this may seem counter-intuitive, but the iPod demonstrates it can work with great effect.
The iPod’s brand identity innovation
The iPod has moved beyond traditional brand identity approaches in two critical areas. First, it shifts brand identity from a company context to the context of the customer. This is a big change that greatly expands the scope of “brand identity” itself. It allows for many new layers of brand innovation. Second, placing brand identity in a customer context opens many new avenues for creating customers, and for advancing customers beyond the reach of competitors. The iPod itself is testament to how this can be done.
I’ll discuss the iPod’s brand identity innovation below, but first I’ll review some of the problems with traditional approaches to brand identity.
Problems with the traditional brand identity approach
In a traditional brand identity approach, the brand team develops a brand identity that’s company-centric. The identity stems from a unique company “essence” that differentiates the brand from competitors and supports marketing goals. Unfortunately, this approach comes with a major problem out of the box: it treats brand identity as a proprietary “package” that’s separate from the customer. Because it’s company property, it’s not meant to be shared. The customer is simply invited (or persuaded) to embrace it, and to become, in effect, a (passive) brand follower.
The traditional approach makes no attempt to add value to the customer’s own identity through the brand. By its nature, it tends to reduce brand identity to a perception play. Because companies desperately want customers to embrace their brands, the marketplace becomes flooded with competing brand campaigns broadcasting “me, me, me” brand identity calls, much like preening birds in the jungle, vying for mates. For customers, this typically results in too little signal, too much noise.
The generic weakness of the conventional approach is that it produces a brand identity in the context of the company, whereas the market exists in the context of the customer. That’s a disconnect. Brands use advertising to bridge this gap, but advertising is imperfect and expensive, and increasingly locks the brand into a perception-play spend.
An alternative to the standard approach
There is a brand identity alternative. Why not: 1) add value with your brand identity; 2) share it with the customer; and 3) frame it in the context of the customer, rather than the company? This can provide you with a more direct path to creating customers in the first place, and then keeping them for the long haul.
And that’s where the iPod points a new way.
Identity is all about the customer—not the company
Customers care about brand identity when it helps them grow their own identity. In truth, they want their identity, not yours. In other words, effective brand identity is about them, and not exclusively about you. The genius of the iPod brand is that it elevates customers to a new identity, without trying to impose its own. This is an act of liberation, not an act of conversion. It changes the game of brand identity from being company-centric, where dozens of brands compete head-to-head, to being customer-centric, where a brand teams with the customer to create a shared identity platform.
Buy an iPod, be a DJ
The iPod nurtures a customer identity from below, rather than projecting a brand identity from above. Through this organic process, the iPod becomes a customer identity enabler. It raises the customer from being a lowly “buyer of music” and a lowly “buyer of an mp3 player” to a superior identity: that of being a DJ — with the creative power of 10,000 songs.
Why buy an mp3 player from Creative or Dell when one can be a DJ via Apple? Being is superior to buying.
As an identity enabler, the iPod delivers demonstrable coolness. The iPod includes iTunes, and with iTunes every iPod customer can create customized playlists for every mood and occasion. Yes, playlists are a creative act. The iPod elevates the customer from a passive listener in his/her room to a mobile music creator and performer (the DJ), ready to share one’s taste, sets, mix and rhythms.
Brand identity is customer identity
The iPod does more than give customers power over their music. The iPod offers them their own musical identity. And thus, buying an iPod is an investment in one’s own identity. This is real, not symbolic. iPod customers are unlocking a part of themselves that’s been repressed and constrained. Apple understands this, which is why the integration between the iPod, iTunes and the iTunes Music Store is so strong. It is “seamless,” as is the identity it enables.
In fact, the iPod presages a coming convergence of brand identity and brand experience, where identity is forged as part of the brand experience process. This also means that brand identity/customer identity becomes deeply interactive.
Identity that makes a market
The goal of any brand identity effort is to create an identity that makes a market. For this to happen, that identity must be a customer identity. Instead of trying to “sell” a brand identity to the customer, or hook the customer on an illusion, the iPod simply frees a powerful identity driver within the customer. Note how Apple highlights the customer in iPod campaigns. The Apple logo and the iPod don’t dominate the stage. We see persons totally at one with their music. And they’re not mere “listeners.” They’re manifestations of a new brand identity that exists as a customer identity: dancers, DJ’s, performers, creators.
Hosting the new brand/customer identity
Creative and Dell used traditional, company-context identity strategies against the iPod and failed to gain market traction. In effect, their “company first” brand identities had to compete against customer identities fueled by the iPod. It was “no contest” because the iPod had already changed the game. The iPod strategically repositioned digital music identity from the product to the customer. Using its “umbilical cord” of iTunes and the iTunes Music Store, Apple now hosts this new identity—a very enviable position, indeed.