Archive for March, 2011

The simple secret of Apple’s brand strategy

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

How does the Apple brand create so much value? In the last decade Apple has introduced an unparalleled stream of breakthrough products, re-defined how people engage the world with digital devices, delighted millions of new customers, built profitable new platforms and ecosystems, disrupted lethargic industries and created rich new markets. With 200 million credit card accounts in iTunes and a market cap north of $300 billion, the Apple brand must be doing something right.

The simple secret of Apple’s brand strategy

As I see it there’s a simple secret behind Apple’s astonishing success in the last ten years. It’s an Apple brand that’s operational, where core brand principles shape the Apple culture and drive the business. Apple is a classic example of the brand goes in before the brand goes on. At Apple, the brand is a systematic and integrated method to create value. It’s a method, not a message. While Apple’s cutting-edge aesthetics, exemplary taste and showstopper keynotes often draw the media spotlight, it’s Apple’s operating brand at work in Cupertino that makes Apple’s strategic success possible.

Two principles focus Apple’s operational brand strategy

From press accounts and public documents we can discern two brand principles that shape and focus Apple’s operational brand strategy. There may be more, to be sure, but these two stand out to me. They steer the Apple brand toward market-leading products and superior customer experiences.

I’ve gleaned these brand principles from comments by Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. They caught my attention because they make profound statements about the Apple brand mission and brand approach.

First, Tim Cook on the Apple brand mission:

We believe that we’re on the face of the earth to make great products . . .  in markets where we can make a significant contribution.

Second, Steve Jobs on the Apple brand approach:

We put ourselves in the customer’s shoes and ask: ‘What do we want? . . . “

Let’s now explore the brand implications of these principles.

Tim Cook on the Apple brand mission

We believe that we’re on the face of the earth to make great products . . .  in markets where we can make a significant contribution.

I’ve adapted this principle from Tim Cook’s remarks in a 2009 conference call on Apple earnings. (It is two phrases made into one principle.) From a brand strategy perspective, Cook does three things in this principle.

A singular, elemental mission

First, with “We’re on the face of the earth to make great products Cook makes great products the singular mission of Apple and its employees, with pursuit of greatness an elemental (face-of-the-earth) calling. This positions the Apple brand to reshape the world. In fact, it demands it. And it’s a context that’s unkind to excuses.

Setting a high standard for the brand

Second, with the mission of “great products” Cooks sets a high standard for the brand. Apple is not in the business of producing “market offerings.” It makes “great products.” There’s a difference. For some implications, see The Apple doctrine.

Is “great products” mere rhetoric? Ask these folks. Or check this chart.

Apple’s brand goal: make a significant contribution to culture

Third, Cook shapes the Apple mission when he states Apple’s goal is “to make a significant contribution.” A contribution? Interesting choice of words! Does Dell demand that its products make “a contribution”? Acer? Asus? HP? The implied Apple brand goal is to make a contribution to culture. Thus, Apple’s brand mission is cultural:  judge us by our contribution to the fabric of human endeavor. (This sets another high standard, and a decisive one in high technology.) Given how Apple has advanced design, music, telephony, computing and publishing, and may help usher in advances in learning via the iPad, the company’s brand intent to contribute to culture would seem to have made a difference. For additional reference, there’s also this picture.

Apple’s cultural context

Within Apple’s cultural context the Apple brand enables customers to engage the world in more meaningful ways. This is a cultural achievement based on what the brand does rather than on what the brand is.

Steve Jobs on the Apple brand approach

“We put ourselves in the customer’s shoes and ask: ‘What do we want? . . . ’”

I have abstracted this principle from a famous 2007 Steve Jobs  Q&A (audio file) in which Jobs was asked why Apple did not slap stickers on its products like other PC makers. His comments end with the quote above, which I have slightly abridged.

This is a profound brand approach. The maker places himself or herself in the shoes of the user, and asks, “What would satisfy me?” The brand identifies with the user, empathizes with the user, looks ahead for the user (brand vision) and wants what’s best for the user within the realm of the product or service. A brand that lacks these abilities won’t get far. It will “target” customers with netbooks instead of changing their lives with touchscreen tablets and a new ecosystem of engagement.

A brand puts itself in its customers’ shoes so customers can run faster and farther, leaving competitors behind.

It’s a strategic act when a brand puts itself in its customers’ shoes. A brand puts itself in its customers’ shoes so customers can run faster and farther, leaving competitors behind. While this is simple in concept it’s difficult in practice. You need deep vision, sharp, unrelenting focus and the talent to make it all work. To it’s credit, Apple does.

In Apple’s case the result is a brand strategy that positions both Apple and its customers to win—with a “secret” that’s in plain sight.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Brand precept: to create great brand emotion you must start with great brand discipline

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Just to riff a bit on my post, The brand goes in before the brand goes on, it seems to me that great brands really begin with great brand discipline. They’re an unwavering commitment to certain core principles and processes. Before the brand can flower into a delightful and transformative experience for customers, with lasting emotional power, it must pass through the disciplined process of defining the vision, maintaining standards, craftsmanship, endless iteration, all-nighters, solution-searching, soul-searching, loose ends, dead ends, never settling for second best, and the iron focus to ship a product or service worthy of the art.

A brand precept: discipline before emotion

Thus, this brand precept:

To create great brand emotion you must start with great brand discipline.

Evidence in the field

There’s certainly evidence in the field that many great brands exemplify a disciplined approach that sets them apart. Great brands of automobiles, watches, wines, luxury goods, restaurants and fashion distinguish themselves by great attention to detail—a discipline itself. To compromise would break the brand.

High tech products may not always show an outward brand discipline, especially when they are mass-produced in the millions, but it’s certainly there in the software that makes them satisfy. In software products and services it’s really the brand discipline that holds all those electrons together. If that fails it’s brand over.



If your story rings false, so will your brand

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

There’s nothing better than a customer testimonial to build credibility and trust in a brand—except when the testimonial doesn’t ring true. A case in point may be testimonials Samsung recently presented in support of its latest Galaxy Tab models. The validity of the testimonials has been called into question.

Samsung competes against the Apple iPad and other tablets in the red hot digital tablet market. The company presented video testimonials as part of a Galaxy Tab product presentation at a press event at the 2011 CTIA conference in Orlando. Samsung then posted  a video of the presentation on YouTube.

How true is the testimonial?

Something didn’t ring true to tech editor Harry McCracken about the three individuals who praised the Tab in the testimonials in the video, so he did some checking. He found that two were actors and the third was member of a production company that has worked for Samsung.

Here is the video. The testimonial portion starts at 7:45.

What are “true life stories of Galaxy Tab users”?

Now Samsung might contend that these are not testimonials per se because they describe the videos as an “interview project” (whatever that might be). They might argue that the segments were merely dramatized use cases of a hypothetical travel writer, film director and real estate exec. In that sense, what we see are fictionalized personas, not (real) people. However, the on-stage presenters make it seem that the testimonials are real. They say, “It’s always very interesting to hear the true-life stories of Galaxy Tab users” (11:30) and they refer to the last video segment as “one consumer’s story” (25:05).

Truth matters to a brand

So, it would appear that we are supposed to believe that these are true stories of Galaxy Tab consumers, although facts suggest that they are scripted stories using paid talent. That’s not good for the brand. A brand draws a clear line between truth and fiction. That’s what separates a brand from fakes. Ergo, truth matters to a brand. And the worst kind of image a brand can create is an image of deception.

Let the Samsung brand walk the walk

Samsung is a highly capable global brand. I have no doubt that it can be a formidable competitor to the iPad and other tablets. But rather than jeopardize its brand credibility with pretend consumer testimonials, Samsung would be better advised to take the role of underdog to the iPad and give us spirited demos of what the Galaxy Tab can do in different use cases. Put someone real on a Galaxy Tab. Amp that person with 50,000 gigawatts. Let the Samsung brand and the Galaxy Tab walk the walk. Let that person talk to us. Directly.



Position the customer, not the brand

Monday, March 21st, 2011

In conventional brand strategy a great deal of effort is often spent in “positioning the brand,” as if we could park the brand in a premium space in people’s minds. From a brand strategy perspective, I’m not convinced that such “positioning” exercises are all that  productive. In fact, “positioning the brand” usually gets things backwards. The strategic priority is to position the customer. That’s where the customer—and the brand—gain advantage.

Position the customer—to win

As I see it, the goal of every brand is to position the customer to win. That’s strategic, and that’s the only “brand positioning” that counts. Thus, brand positioning is customer positioning. We position the customer to win by making the customer strategically better off, through carefully crafted enabling and empowering capabilities unique to the brand. As the customer moves forward the brand moves forward, too. Smart brands position the customer in new realms of being and doing, beyond the reach of clunky, mediocre competitors. The customer wins, and so does the brand. Think of how the best-selling  iPad positions customers far beyond netbooks, and how it potentially positions them in a new age of computing, beyond the tired paradigms of the PC.

The proof of positioning is in the customer

A brand is well-positioned when its customers have advanced beyond the reach of competing brands and commodities, and have no need to turn back. The proof of positioning is in the customer. We are re-positioning (i.e., elevating) customers above the level of competitors. We’re changing the game by changing the customer. In this process the brand is not just another “offering.” It’s a new way forward.

“Brand positioning” is more messaging strategy than brand strategy

What is called “brand positioning” today is often more messaging strategy than brand strategy. It’s really campaign positioning. It’s a campaign approach that tries to create a new and relevant category of meaning in the customer’s mind that is only fulfilled by the “positioned” brand that “solves” the  problem. The typical result is a campaign to sell “the brand” as a desired product perception. The danger is that such campaigns can usurp the brand. They can transform it into a platform of messaging, greatly reducing its ability to innovate and enable. Such brands often fall short strategically because they do little or nothing to advance customers. When they fade—as all campaigns fade—customers move on, leaving the brand behind.

How to position customers to win

A brand positions customers to win when it enables them to be more capable, more creative and more proactive than previously possible under incumbent brands. For customers, the best brand positioning should manifest itself as a new world of opportunities. The Weber brand of grills positions its customers to win as backyard grill chefs via recipes, videos and apps. The Harley Davidson brand positions its customers to win via the camaraderie of its Harley H.O.G. clubs. Historically, the PC revolution re-positioned office workers from being slaves to hierarchy to being proactive contributors with the power to launch ideas on their own. A pair of running shoes can help position you as “fit,” but only if you run. The brand can step in to help you run, and to help you make the most of your miles. Thus, the Nike + iPod Sport Kit and Nike+.

The evolution of brands from mark, to media to means

Brands must be enablers if they are to position customers to win. We want customers who are smarter, stronger and more proactive, so they can grasp the value of the innovations lined up in our R&D pipelines, and leave behind the do-nothing brands of yesterday. As enablers, brands have history on their side. The digital era is the era of the brand as “means.” See: Brand evolution: from mark, to media to means.

Differentiate the customer, not the brand

Making a brand “different” doesn’t really help the customer. Difference does not enable. I’ve discussed this subject in a previous post, Differentiate the customer, not the brand.

The brand positions employees to win, too

As I’ve discussed previously, here, here and here, the brand is a method to create value that optimizes internal operations as well as customers. A well-executed brand will position its own employees to win, too, by unleashing their creative talents. They’re the key to making the whole brand work.


Photo credit: Mandeep Flora — Flickr

FAQ: Creating your brand as a customer-focused application

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

In a previous post, Brand strategy: create your entire brand as a customer-focused application, I set forth the advantages of developing your brand as an application to move customers forward. In this FAQ I’ll answer some basic questions about this approach.

How does the application approach for brands differ from traditional brand approaches?

In the application approach the brand is a customer enabler. It incorporates dimensions of innovation that can move customers forward by making them better off. It does so as part of a joint venture with customers, an act of teaming rather than an act of selling. This is quite different from conventional brand approaches which treat brands as a structure of meaning to be communicated, or as a persuasion package to influence how customers feel and think.

Why is the application approach better?

The application approach incorporates a complete brand/customer strategy. The brand goal is to make customers better off through innovations that advance customers beyond the reach of competitors. Example: iPod and iTunes advanced customers beyond the CD, and beyond less integrated music players. They moved their customers to a new market space (category) where competitors couldn’t (easily) follow—and, where life was much, much better for customers.

The application approach also anchors the brand in company operations. We have one brand approach for company vision, values and operations that we leverage into the customer sphere. The brand is the backbone from the lowest employee to the highest customer.

What role do ad agencies play in the application approach?

They become app agencies.

Why must the brand be geared to innovation?

Gearing your brand to innovation can confer strategic advantage. Your brand helps deliver value that advances customers into new realms (markets) where competitors can’t follow. You make customers exclusively better off. If your brand can’t innovate, you are condemned to ad campaigns to make your brand “work” —while your customers are going nowhere. Eventually, the only way they can move forward is to leave.

Aren’t all brands applications of some sort?

Yes they are. Most brand programs are applications. Customer service is a common brand application. Community programs can be applications, too. These will be piecemeal and inefficient applications, however, unless the entire brand is developed as a focused application to move customers forward. The good news is that your existing brand infrastructure may facilitate the transition.

What about brand relationships?

In the application approach, a brand creates customer relationships through its structured customer interactions. These relationships become sustainable when the brand delivers value that moves customers forward. They are more strategic compared to relationships formed using the brand identity model, where what the brand “is” (or what it represents) forms the basis of relationships. Thus, a brand trying to become an “icon” is at a disadvantage to a brand developed as an application (other things being equal.) The icon is fixed. The application moves forward on customer feet. It can explore new types of brand relationships because it’s made to be iterative, collaborative and open to prototyping.

What about brand experience?

The application approach offers the best platform for creating strategic brand experiences. You will have a single, unified brand application that runs the business and makes customers better off.

Can the application approach scale the brand to new levels and new markets?

Yes. That is one of its primary benefits. It is designed to scale. And it can pivot.

Does the application approach entail a different definition of brand?

Yes. It defines the brand as a method of creating value. The brand goal is to create new forms of customer value that advance customers into new market spaces that competitors can’t reach. As a method for creating value, the brand equation is Company Potential X Customer Potential. The brand works as a single, integrated and systematic method to optimize company performance and customer performance. (A philosophical tenet of the application approach is that a company is only as good as its customers.)

Does the application approach change the context of the brand team?

Yes. The brand team acts more like developers than communicators. Instead of “building” a brand as a structure of meaning to be communicated, we develop it dynamically as an enabling platform, through strategic acts of innovation, in concert with customers. The brand team works shoulder to shoulder with product teams through product development and delivery. Ideally, the brand team leads product development. Through the brand team product development becomes customer development.



The brand goes in before the brand goes on

Friday, March 11th, 2011

In developing brand platforms and brand applications it always helps to have a concise brand strategy directive at hand, to keep things aligned. One that I favor is this:

The brand goes in before the brand goes on.

This directive is easy to remember and anchors the brand in company values, principles and operations, where its true strength lies. It defines the brand as a method of value creation, consistent with the brand mission, and not as an after-the-fact add-on. What counts is what the company puts into the brand and the desired brand relationship.

Why this brand directive works for me

Here are a few more reasons why I like this particular directive:

  1. It’s strategic. It reminds us that the brand result depends on what we do upstream in product development. In other words, “brand in, brand out.” A development and production process governed by brand values will create products rich in those values. We’re talking about the brand value chain, and the brand value of kaizen.
  2. It recognizes that brand strategy is innovation strategy. If we expect our brands to change the customer’s world, then we better be developing world-changing products.
  3. It considers the brand to be a single application. Brands are much more than symbols and slogans. They’re customer-focused applications of company vision and values.  We develop brands to advance customers beyond the reach of competitors. What we design  into the brand now can have long-term rewards as the application takes root.
  4. It creates brand authenticity. When your brand goes in before the brand goes on, your brand is authentically you.
  5. It reminds us that brands are not campaigns. Brands are the stuff that companies are made of. Campaigns come and go. The customer take-away from your brand is what you put into it.

Brands can be methods to create value, or campaigns to sell perceptions. Which brand would you buy?


Photo credit:  Bill Gracey — Flickr

Never let your brand be “flummoxed”

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad 2 he cited Apple’s commanding lead in the “post-PC” tablet market and stated that the iPad’s competitors were “flummoxed” by the depth, quality, and speed of the iPad’s innovations, as if iPad competitors didn’t really understand what the tablet category was about.

Here are his exact words as he illustrated the iPad’s success — (about 6 minutes into the linked video):

Our competitors were just flummoxed. They went back to the drawing boards. They tore up their designs because they weren’t competitive.

It’s the brand’s job never to be flummoxed

The brand is the sensory edge of the business, and if the brand is flummoxed the business is in very deep trouble. It’s the brand’s job never to be flummoxed, or even close to it. Being flummoxed is an all caps brand FAIL.

What it means for a brand to be flummoxed

For a brand, being “flummoxed” means more than being confused, perplexed and bewildered by new market events. A brand that’s flummoxed can’t figure out what’s really going on, or what its next move should be. It has no clue to the context. It’s at a loss, conceptually and practically. Where the brand should power a company’s most perceptive vision, and sharpest focus, it is suddenly sense-less. It doesn’t know itself. And most critically, it doesn’t know its customers.

You’re flummoxed when you don’t know what game you’re in

As a brand you can’t compete if you’re using the wrong playbook for the game at hand. But you’re flummoxed when you really don’t know what game you’re in. You can’t imagine a winning strategy. You can’t grasp the new logic of moves. You can’t envision the innovations needed. You have no idea where to lead customers. You can’t see through customer eyes. This may indeed be the case if you’re a still a “PC player” in a “post-PC” world. You’re deep into netbooks (a commodity PC) while a competitor is relegating the PC to the dustbin of  history.

What can cause a brand to be flummoxed?

A brand may find itself flummoxed for many reasons, but I would argue that the paramount reason is that the brand’s concept of customer is too narrow and too shallow. Often, the brand positions customers as nothing more than “buyers”—for what the business can readily produce. Customers are treated as commodities to be sold to, not as partners in a greater brand journey where they can co-create value with the brand itself. Instead of advancing customers, the brand (in this short-sighted view) tries to capture, contain and control them. In so doing, the brand locks its own imagination into the same dead-end corral.



Photo credit:  Crunchgear

Brand strategy: Creating a next-generation brand for a next-generation product

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

The amazing success of Apple’s category-creating iPad raises some important brand strategy questions for high technology companies. What makes a “next-generation” product that creates its own category? Can traditional brand methods power a next-generation product leap? Or do we need a “next-generation” brand approach, with a new form of brand and brand strategy? Lastly, does Apple’s impressive brand achievement (Mac, MacBook, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad) suggest a new brand strategy template?

These are critical times for brands in the digital era

These are critical times for brands in the digital era, as brand strategy and innovation strategy converge. Brands can no longer be treated as add-ons after the fact. They need to be baked in from the get-go, as methods of creating new customer value through the innovation process. As such, brand strategies can help power a sustainable first mover advantage. Brands late to the party can be reduced to peripheral players, on the outside looking in. Luckily, we can observe a “next generation” and “new category” transition first hand with the emergence of the iPad. The “Post-PC” iPad can teach us valuable brand lessons.

Is the iPad a next-generation product?

We can begin by asking, “Is the iPad a next-generation product?”  Writing in reference to the iPad as a “Post PC” device, Horace Dediu identifies key factors in  next-generation computer transitions, based on the historical computing transitions of Mainframe > Minicomputer > Personal Computer > Tablet.

He concludes:

I would suggest that the definition of a new generation of computing is that the new products rely on new input/output methods and allow a new population of non-expert users to use the product more cheaply and simply.

Consequences of moving from one product generation to the next

Dediu then enumerates the consequences of moving from one product generation to the next:

  1. Consumption increases
  2. Skill required decreases
  3. Support required decreases
  4. There are new applications and use cases
  5. The economics are not favorable for incumbents
  6. The economics are favorable for new entrants
  7. The older generation slowly fades through diminished growth but never disappears.

It would seem that the touch-screen digital tablet exemplified by the iPad certainly marks a next-generation product.

The iPad as a “Post-PC” product

Steve Jobs likes to claim that the iPad represents a “Post-PC” product, a new category beyond the reach of conventional PC approaches (not to mention traditional PC companies.). He contends that tablet manufacturers locked in conventional “PC” modalities—trivial hardware features coupled with an outsourced operating system— can’t match the seamless user experience that the iPad delivers. Apple develops the operating system, user interface, tablet device, key apps and processor for the iPad, enabling a high level of system integration and fluid, intuitive operation.

You can see Jobs drive home these points in the first 10 minutes of his keynote at the iPad 2 launch event.

Competing brands stumble, and can’t keep up

Some of Jobs’ comments are hype, to be sure, but the fact remains that the iPad has seemingly created a category unto itself in the year since it’s initial launch. Competitors aren’t keeping up.

Some examples:

  1. The Motorola XOOM has recently been released, but isn’t complete.
  2. The 10 in. Samsung Galaxy Tab is being re-designed.
  3. The BlackBerry PlayBook has yet to ship, amid marketing turmoil.
  4. The HP TouchPad (Palm WebOS) has yet to ship. April?
  5. The Microsoft tablet won’t arrive until late 2012.
  6. The ViewSonic tablet with two OSes seems cobbled together.

The biggest (apparent) loser is Microsoft, the iconic PC company. Microsoft invented the “tablet PC” a decade ago, and got nowhere with it. When the new Microsoft tablet arrives in late 2012 it will probably be competing against a third (or fourth) generation of competitors, including the iPad.