Note: This is an essay I wrote for a branding assignment a few weeks back. To summarise Apple’s brand in only 1500 words was quite a hard thing to do, but I do feel it is an accurate reflection of the company and covers the main points in the company history. The original PDF can be downloaded here.
Apple may seem like an easy target for a branding exercise – recent successes have seen their market share in mobile devices explode1 and their brand become one of the most widely recognised in the world – but it was not so long ago that the Apple brand faced extinction, along with the company itself and opinions vary over what it is that really makes Apple the global technology powerhouse we see today.
Apple started out on April Fools’ Day 1976 like many tech companies – in a Silicon Valley garage. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were young, naïve 20-somethings who set out to bring the personal computer to the masses.
Starting with the Apple I, and later the legendary Apple II and Macintosh computers, the two Steve’s built one of the fastest growing companies in the world and carved out a reputation for being design innovators. In the words of Mr Jobs, design at Apple “is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works”. This is one of the cornerstones of Apple’s brand – to create products of the highest quality that are easy to use.
Throughout the 80’s Apple steadily gained market share amongst business, education and enthusiast markets, helped by their introduction of the Laserwriter – one of the first consumer laser printers – and popular desktop publishing software. It was during this period that Pepsi President John Scully was appointed as CEO and it was he who transformed Apple “into the biggest single computer company in the world […] boosting the advertising budget from $15 million to $100 million”5.
In the early 90’s after the firing of Jobs and a series failed products, the company’s market share and share price dropped rapidly, to the benefit of Microsoft who conversely focussed on selling software for cheap commodity hardware. It was only in 1997 with the buyout of Next Computer and the return of Steve Jobs that the company was able to turn around its fortunes after a series of changes to the product line, a partnership with Microsoft and the introduction of the Apple retail store. When asked in October 1997 what he would do with the troubled Apple Computer, Michael Dell quipped “I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.” Not 10 years later, Apple’s market capitalization exceeded that of Dell’s and Apple was back to profitability.
The company today
Today, Apple have enjoyed recent strong sales, even through the worldwide recession. This is in part due to a few key products, namely the iPod, the iPhone and the iTunes Music store, all of which have been phenomenally successful. This has helped the company to boost its brand, rising steadily over the past 6 years from 50 to 20 on Interbrand’s list of ‘Best global brands’.
Additionally, after being heavily criticised by Greenpeace in 2004 for their lack of environmental responsibility, Apple has quickly responded by removing toxic chemical and harmful materials from its entire product line and switching to more environmentally friendly glass and aluminium based designs4. They have also worked hard to reduce distribution costs by reducing the size of their packaging (packaging has always been a strong point for Apple, an area which they capitalise on to extend and improve the user experience).
The globally recognisable logo displayed boldly on every apple product has changed very little over the years. It started out as a fun stylised apple of which Apple executive Jean Louis Gassée said “[…] the symbol of lust and knowledge, bitten into, all crossed with the colors of the rainbow in the wrong order. You couldn’t dream of a more appropriate logo: lust, knowledge, hope, and anarchy.”. Contrary to popular rumours, the bitten logo has nothing to do with forbidden fruit or the untimely death of Alan Turing according to designer Rob Janoff8. Apple’s logo has also become a symbol of brand loyalty, with many evangelists tattooing and shaving the mark onto their bodies.
By 2001 and with the release of OS X, the Apple logo was updated – the stripes being removed and replaced with a glossy look to match the new Aqua interface of the operating system (OS) and the striking Jonathon Ive designed iMac G3 from 1998. The logo was further evolved in 2003 to a chrome theme which again represented changes in OS interface and materials used for the hardware of the time.
The design of apple hardware and the associated logo changes have become a symbol of the evolving Apple brand2 and also the arrogant superiority with which the company views itself. Phil Schiller once remarked “the back of our computer looks better than the front of anyone elses”. This arrogance is to a large extent led by Steve Jobs himself who has criticised others such as Microsoft and Dell for their ‘lack of taste’ and ‘beige boxes’.
I would go so far as to say that Jobs is a part of Apple’s brand. Right from the start he has always had a hands on approach to every aspect of the company’s output, from insisting on the finest typography, to playing the lead role in the almost theatrical product introductions. This is backed up by the attention Apple received recently over Jobs’ health problems. Many have speculated as to whether Apple could survive without Jobs because his such large influence over the company philosophy, products and management. Time magazine reported “Jobs is Apple, after all, its co-founder, Great Helmsman and Divine Light”7.
Those theatrical product introductions are amongs the most powerful tools in Apple’s brand management toolbox. Notorious for being incredibly secretive about new product releases, special events and conferences are typically where Apple releases its new products and after the weeks, even months of rumours and leaks, many consumers are already sold on the product way before it is announced. BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer summed this up recently stating “The whole world held its breath before the iPad was announced. That’s brand management at its very best”
Giving products a life of their own is something that Apple is particularily good at – In 1984 the Macintosh introduced itself on-stage, and in 2002 an on-stage funeral was held for the ‘death’ of Mac OS 9. Even the 2001 iMac was personified as a playful character in its televised adverts. This can only serve to increase the emotional bond consumers have with these products.
Apple has long been known for it’s high profile advertising campaigns. Their long running partnership with TBWA\Chiat\Day has produced some of the most famous campaigns in history, most notably the ‘1984’ commercial introducing the Macintosh personal computer during Super Bowl XVIII. This 60 second slot did not even directly feature the product it was advertising, instead depicting an Orwellian scene of a young blonde heroine hurling a hammer towards a Big Brother figure on screen, “symbolizing the fight for the control of computer technology as a struggle of the few against the many” in the words of co-creator Lee Clow3. The advert is widely considered as one of the greatest of all time6 and defined future advertising and even consumer attitudes towards Apple. Steve Hayden of AdWeek concisely expressed the intent of the commercial stating that the Macintosh was to represent “The democratization of technology – the computer for the rest of us.”
Apple has a history of promoting friendly competition between it’s employees. In his auto- biography, Wozniak talks of the competition between the Lisa and Macintosh engineers – with Jobs (having recently taken control over the Macintosh team) firing his team up with the oft quoted “Why join the Navy when you can be a pirate”9. Early employee Andy Hertzfield recalls “I think the ”pirates” remark addressed the feeling among some of the earlier team members that the Mac group was getting too large and bureaucratic. We had started out as a rebellious skunkworks, much like Apple itself, and Steve wanted us to pre- serve our original spirit even as we were growing more like the Navy every day”10.
On the benefit of competition and asking the impossible Hertzfield says “Steve’s vision, passion for excellence and sheer strength of will, not to mention his awesome powers of persuasion, drove the team to meet or exceed the impossible standards that we set for ourselves. Steve already gets a lot of credit for being the driving force behind the Macintosh, but in my opinion, it’s very well deserved.”
The value of Apple’s brand is less in the tangible products they create and more in the mindset of the consumer. This is in part why it is so difficult to copy. Although many seek inspiration from their hardware, graphic and advertising designs, the company has a history of battling clone makers. The most recent example of which is Psystar, a company who tried to sell com- modity hardware loaded with Apple’s beloved operating system OS X. Apple has a long history of litigation and did not hesitate to take Psystar to court over copyright infringement – the OS X EULA specifically prohibits running the software on non-Apple hardware.
Although Apple was successful in stopping Psystar, many have doubts over whether it is moral or even legal to restrict the software’s usage to such an extent. Nevertheless, few doubt the negative impact it would have on Apple’s premium brand were other companies allowed to sell their software. Apple argue that this is to ensure a consistent user experience – a reason they extend to running their own retails stores. It is in Apple’s nature to control as much as they can about their products from in-house design, to end-user sales, to usage and it is almost certainly this control which allows them to maintain not only their premium brand but consistently above industry average profit margins11.
In a recent article on the removal of smut from their mobile App Store, noted technology blogger John Gruber speculated that Apple sees the store as an extension of their brand and just like with their retail stores, were not going to sell or be associated with anything that may diminish the clean, family-oriented reputation of the brand12.
Apple’s large and complex brand ultimately comes down to its reputation for creating focussed high quality products that make its customers feel special and empowered. The company is able to create and support such products due to its small product line and, strong leadership and strong culture within the company, all of which foster innovation and keep Apple ahead of its competitors. The company is also able to successfully market the majority of its products and create an emotional bond that drives it customers to become loyal brand evangelists.
Where it falls down is in its ‘them and us’ philosophy which not only limits the appeal of its products, but actively turns away some consumers. The lack of openness is also a concern for many, with DRM and cross-platform support being major issues. Apple is evolving from a computer company to a mass-market consumer technology company and it may struggle to hold onto the premium reputation it currently enjoys as its consumer base and product line inevitably grows.
‘Can apple survive without jobs?’, Time ↩
‘Interview with rob janoff: designer of the apple logo’, Creative Bits ↩
iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon, 1 edn, W. W. Norton & Co. ↩