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The 124 billion dollar brand question: what does Apple stand for?

Last year, I posted my most widely read article by far on what Apple’s brand stands for (see below).  At that point in time, there had been no corporate declaration of brand strategy; you had to read between the lines.  But this all changed last June, when Apple posted their ‘intention’ video.

For the first time Apple clearly stated what their brand was about:

We simplify, we perfect, we start over, until every thing we touch enhances each life it touches.

Last month, another video appeared, called Perspective, that harkens back to the iconic ‘Think Different’ campaign.  Directed to employees, or prospective ones, it asks of them only to lift up humanity, break down barriers and heal the landscape.  There’s a motivating, if somewhat daunting, job description.  The text is below but it’s well worth a viewing.

Here to those who have always seen things differently.

The ones who follow a vision not a path.

Where others perceive first, first, first as valuable, you value the first thing that actually matters.

While others are distracted by the new, you focus on the significance of a whole new take.

Even before you could see how to change things, you never doubted we would change things together, and then we did change things together. Again and again and again.

Relentless optimism is what moves the world forward. So, keep seeing things differently.

Keep trusting there is always another way, a better way, a bigger way.

One that lifts up humanity, breaks down barriers and heals the landscape.

You are the difference between the world as it is and the better place it will become.

And different is the one thing about us that will always be the same.

In 2014, Apple is still the most valuable brand in the world, claiming the number 1 spot in Interbrand and BrandFinance’s rankings, and second only to Google in BrandZ.  Since 2013 it has risen 7% in value (taking all valuations into account).

Their uninspiring mission statement has disappeared and in its place, ‘thinking differently, simplifying, perfecting, starting over, until every thing we touch enhances each life it touches’, is clearly a strategy paying dividends.

Posted March 2013:

Brand Finance launched their 2013 brand rankings last week, and Apple got the top spot.  If you aggregate, and average, this with the BRANDZ and Interbrand valuations, this makes it the most valuable brand in the world.  No surprise there. For years, people have been using Apple as the brand benchmark.  But when you look at these ‘lessons from the leader’, there is a wide disparity of views on what is at the heart of the brand; what it stands for.

Consider these proclamations;  “Apple’s brand promise is “we make it easier to love technology, so that you can experience the future.” “Apple has a stronger brand idea at the heart of the company … Apple’s dedication to ensuring that everything they do is about human technology and shaping technology to benefit human needs is very clear.”  “The ingenious brand positioning of Apple is “the brand for the smart, independent, informally classy person…”

To try and avoid adding another unhelpful hypothesis to the mix, I have been looking at how Apple describes what they stand for – in their words. What is most interesting is the lack of anything that resembles a brand positioning/promise/purpose in their corporate materials.  This in in contrast to the other corporate and consumer brands who appear in the ‘most valuable brands’ lists, most of whom have a statement out there in some shape or form (all of the 182 organizations that span the three lists have at least one way of describing what they stand for).

Apple do have a mission but this is more descriptive of what they do and make, rather than what they stand for.

“Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.”

Contrast this to the clear articulation of purpose from other brands in the top 33, such as Nike, whose mission is ‘To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.’ Or Coca-Cola who aim, ‘To inspire moments of optimism and happiness.’

What does come out of the Apple mission is a sense of being the best, and proclamations of leadership/reinvention/ revolution/defining the future.   And this speaks to how Sir Jonathan Ive describes what drives the company:

“Most of our competitors are interested in doing something different, or want to appear new – I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that’s what drives us – a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better.”

Tim Cook reiterated this in his December 2012 Businessweek interview, “the DNA of the company, the thing that makes our heart beat, is a maniacal focus on making the best products in the world. Not good products, or a lot of products, but the absolute best products in the world.” He goes on to say, “We’ll only do things where we can make a significant contribution. I don’t mean financially. I mean some significant contribution to the society at large. You know, we want to really enrich people’s lives at the end of the day, not just make money. Making money might be a byproduct, but it’s not our North Star.”    An Apple employee friend of mine summarised this in a slightly different way, explaining that she sees the core idea of the brand as being encapsulated in the Steve-ism, “Insanely Great.”

Being better?  Being great? Is that it?? I hear brand consultants shuddering at these words. Better is not a strategy…  Better does not define HOW you are going to be different…   But the notions of ‘insanely great’ and the description of their ‘maniacal focus’ add critical nuance to the idea of being the best, and hint at the role that values play in supporting a brand idea.

In 1982, Steve Jobs stated, “Marketing is about values.”  And in their corporate materials, and in executive interviews, some values appear consistently. Simplicity. Innovation. Focus. Collaboration.  Excellence. Courage. Self-honesty. Every detail matters. Creativity.  Passion.   In a 2009 earnings call, Tim Cook explains,

We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot. And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. And I think regardless of who is in what job those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.”

Last year, in his internal memo to employees following the US court win against Samsung, he reiterated the importance of values.  “For us this lawsuit has always been about something much more important than patents or money. It’s about values. We value originality and innovation and pour our lives into making the best products on earth. And we do this to delight our customers… Today, values have won and I hope the whole world listens.”

In an effort to summarise what the Apple brand is about, I’d say that their purpose is “To make the best products in the world, to enrich customers’ lives” and they achieve this because they are truly driven by values of simplicity, innovation, focus, collaboration, excellence, courage, self-honesty, detail obsession, creativity and passion.  

So perhaps there are some brands in the world that can get away ‘being better’ as a brand idea – if they have the culture, people, values, products or services, that back this up.    But they are few and far between.  Only one other brand in the top 33 pursues a similar strategy. Mercedes Benz launched a new ‘brand claim’ in 2012, The Best or Nothing, a principle from the company’s founding father Gottlieb Daimler.  This is supported with some clear brand values of perfection, fascination and responsibility, and was accompanied with the guidance that,  “The brand claim is linked strongly to the brand values: when summarizing what the brand stands for, we should use both.”

On balance, I would caution other organisations who are tempted to replicate this as a brand strategy (we are the better bank, the better energy company…). If you pursue this route, the pressure to be demonstrably, relentlessly, continuously better is a significant challenge – particularly when you have Apple and Mercedes as your brand benchmarks.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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