The simple secret of Apple’s brand strategy

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
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