Before Steve Jobs got his hands on Apple for the second time in 1997, things were far simpler. Serious business customers were different from their playful consumer counterparts. Men bought technology products; women were fashion buyers. Kids had disposable income to waste, and mature folks cautiously invested their pennies. Branding promises were made solely in beautiful advertising, price was pretty much all that mattered at retail, and customer usage and satisfaction were afterthoughts.
Oh, what a difference an iMac makes.
It's also what makes Apple so hard for marketers to comprehend. Most analyses of the company's branding success get it wrong. They highlight specific qualities: The ads were great; product design trumped the competition; the packaging was exquisite; Jobs was a magician, capable of casting a "reality distortion field" on anyone in his presence.
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No, he was an entrepreneur, just like you. And, by inventing a new reality, he ruined branding as we knew it.
Apple blew up the rules of branding because Jobs simply didn't recognize them. He didn't follow the approved checklist, and he never did what he was supposed to do. He knew that someone else's success wouldn't be his own, not because of his ego, but because it's a fact that imitating others has never resulted in great successes. He left it to Apple's competitors to produce lame, unsold computers with colorful lids, knockoff ads that inadvertently made Apple look better and a world of smartphones and tablets that look like iPhones and iPads.
In doing so, Apple focused on doing one thing right: It was a business with a vision, a sometimes monomaniacal approach to operations, and a product and service offering that was consistent with its purpose.
Jobs' insight was that you can never connect emotionally or meaningfully with customers by conceiving great marketing. No segmenting, strategy, technology or psychological insight will deliver a great brand. You must deliver a great business. The brand will be the words and emotions people use to narrate it. Jobs focused on the cart, yet even today, most marketers confuse it for the horse.
The bad news is that you can't copy how Apple executed on this promise. You can, however, copy the basic strategy, whether you're a startup or a multibillion-dollar brand. Do things better or, better yet, uniquely. Care about the details of your business more than your competitors do. Discover novel ways to communicate with customers. Circle back and improve what could get better, and replace what can't with something else. Then repeat.
Apple ruined branding as we know it.