The early days of my career were in Product Management and I eventually became a Vice President of Marketing (later title inflated to Chief Marketing Officer.) But I never worried about things like company logos, colors and taglines.
I had and still have a strong bias that in a startup, company strategy means product strategy. Brand is important, but we must not get confused about what it means.
A brand is the promise that a company makes combined with the experience customers have. So if you ask me if I like a brand, it depends very much on my experience with the company’s products. The Apple brand, particularly in the first few decades, stood for innovation, ease of use and creativity. Over the years, Apple invested extensively in its brand advertising to support these ideas. Their advertising, in print and on television to launch the Macintosh supported this idea. It was a computer “for the rest of us” meaning, for non-technical people trying to do creative work.
However, my perception of the Apple brand is also grounded in my experience (and probably many people’s) with their actual products. The Mac was easier to use than the contemporary DOS-based IBM-compatible personal computers in the mid 1980s. There was an elegance to the hardware and software design that elevated the product experience, especially when compared to the very utilitarian computers from IBM, Compaq and others. Apple clearly cared about it’s product design, in a way that other companies did not. Apple products were in the same league as icons of design such as the Fender Stratocaster, Bang-Olufsen stereo equipment or Ilya coffee machine. And like those products, you paid a premium for that experience.
Later, when Apple stumbled, and its products were not very competitive, the brand suffered. Windows machines eventually got to a comparable level of ease-of-use and much higher levels of performance using commodity Intel processors. In part, this was due to a virtuous cycle from the “Wintel Duopoly” of Microsoft and Intel such that every year or two CPUs got faster, memory got cheaper and more and more applications were written for Windows. During the 1990s, Apple consistently lost market share and as they did, more and more of the innovative software was written for Windows rather than the Mac. Ultimately, Apple’s market share fell to below 5%.
It’s not clear what the Apple or Macintosh brand represented during this time. As many people did, I abandoned Apple in the late 1980s and had become a regular user of Windows machines for the next twenty years. But I can tell you that the Windows brand was strong on attributes like high-performance, good value and fun. After all, the best software, including games, were running on Windows, rather than the Mac.
When Apple fell behind, it was not because there was something wrong with their logo. It was because their products no longer had a unique and valuable position in the marketplace. Apple’s brand marketing people could have shouted from the rooftops “Our products are better…” but the market response was a clear “I don’t think so!” as people rushed to wait inline to buy their copies of Windows ’95. (Yes, that actually happened!)
Astute readers will of course know that the situation didn’t stay this way. The industry is always changing and evolving and new product innovation can surface changing billion dollar markets.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 with the acquisition of his failing company Next, there began a steady improvement in the company that would last for several decades. Jobs focused on fixing the Apple brand. But what he really did, was he strengthened the “promise” that Apple made in creating products that were unique and valuable to people who worked in creative fields. Sure, a Windows machine might be the standard in corporate accounting, but designers, lawyers, writers all wanted something easier to use and more fun.
Jobs cut mediocre, undifferentiated products and focused his efforts on a new and colorful computer called the iMac. It was an all-in-one design that was easy to set up and get going. Over time, Jobs expanded the appeal of the Mac to software developers, engineers, data scientists and pretty much everyone.
Jobs brought out a ground-breaking easy-to-use MP3 player in 2001. In 2006 he moved Apple to Intel CPUs. In 2007 he introduced the iPhone. And in 2010, in failing health, he introduce the iPad.
Jobs re-ignited the Apple brand helping to make it one of the most valuable companies in the world. But it was not a marketing exercise, it was not about the logo, the tagline, the colors. It was about delivering products that customers could not live without.
So when you think about your company’s brand, what is the promise you are making to customers? How can you improve your products and services to better deliver on that promise? There are lots of ways to differentiate your product in the market, but your logo isn’t going to make a difference.