If there is any one brand that personifies the advances of the digital age, the seamless integration of technology and the ability to constantly innovate to excite customers, it has got to be Apple. Although Apple started out as a computer company rebelling against the market leader Microsoft, it has successfully reinvented its brand identity over time to suit the changing trends and times. Unlike most iconic brands that get complacent and the rest of their past laurels, Apple has been an exception in continuously innovating and creating pioneering products that have changed the rules of the game. And so powerful is the Apple brand that literally every product launched by the brand in its portfolio.
Given such a stupendous success, it is no wonder that Apple has consistently ranked as one of the world's top 100 brands as evaluated by Business Week and Interbrand. Given the many hallmarks of the current business landscape—hyper competition, rapid globalization, new regulations, and the constant struggle to innovate—companies are desperately searching for a sustainable source of competetive advantage. From such a search has emerged brand equity as one of the most important corporate assets that can offer a sustainable source of competitive advantage to companies. Apple, more than any other brand, personifies a well managed global iconic brand.
In this context it is interesting to note the humble beginnings of Apple and its constant tussle with the market leader Microsoft. The origins of the Apple brand began with the mighty Microsoft’s PC ruling the roost in the early days of the personal computer. Apple with its Macintosh computers began to be seen as a young rebel trying to compete against the market leader. It was very much akin to the David versus the Goliath story.
Macintosh’s distinct identity, its design, its unique operating system, its applications and its appeal as the rebel and the young gun attracted a very strong and loyal following, made Apple a cult brand quite early on.
But unlike other successful brands, Apple did not rest on the laurels for Macintosh. Macintosh computers were reinvented as the trendy Mac Books. So popular have these computers been that the recently launched Mac Book Air has been touted as the thinnest and the lightest fully functional laptop computer ever made. Even though the Macintosh computers were the flagship product of the Apple brand for the most of its Industry corporate history, Apple decided to leverage economies of scope, by putting to use the technical brilliance, the design genius and the highly iconic brand allure to other products.
Apple iPod, the MP3 music player, along with iTunes, the online Apple music store have together rewritten the entire digital music landscape. The stupendous success of iPod changed the face of Apple overnight from being a rebel computer company to the ultra chic and trendy digital electronics company. While iPod was still in its prime, Apple came out with what has become of of the most talked about mobile phones-the iPhone.
By ofering the best iPod, a touch screen based mobile phone, in-built GPS system and the powerful wireless capabilities, the iPhone has not only managed to challenge the traditional mobile phone manufacturers such as Samsung, Nokia, and Motorola but also the advanced smart phone manufacturers such as the Blackberry, Palm Pilot and others. Finally with the release of the iPhone 3GS, Apple has yet to again surpassed customer expectations by offering exciting applications that both carry a symbolic and functional value.
And the latest numbers confirm Apple’s strong leadership position in each of these product categories. Apple's operating profit jumped an impressive 20% on a revenue jump of 12% for the second quarter of 2009. Despite being in the market for a couple of years, Apple still managed to sell 2.29 million Macintosh computers for the year 2008.
Similarly, since being released in June 2007, iPhone has sold more than 7.4 million—out of those, 6 million units were sold in the fiscal year 2008. In the first quarter of 2008, Apple’s computer products have grown 3.5 times the industry average and in doing that has bet HP and DELL.
Furthermore, Apple has repeated its performance in 2009 despite the recession by beating its competitors Samsung and Sony in the music and mobile phone categories by posting higher operating profits and revenues as of the second quarter.
Although Apple’s biggest competitors span the computer industry, the digital music industry and recently mobile phone industry, Apple has been successful in defending its turf and successfully competing against all the other players on multiple fronts. Such success highlights some very fundamental branding steps undertaken by Apple. Apple’s branding strategy can be analyzed from four dimensions that form core pillars of Apple’s identity.
Constant innovation. Apple has emerged as one of the pioneering innovators in the consumer electronics industry. What started as an innovative computer to challenge the dominant PC has spawned a whole range of products in music and mobile telecommunications. Innovation and efficient commercialization of those new products have helped Apple to constantly excite customers and to enhance their loyalty towards Apple. With such generation defining products as the iPod and iPhone, Apple has successfully reinforced its cult, iconic identity among customers of successive generations.
Collaboration as competitive strategy. As the number of fronts in which any company has to fight competitors increase, conventional strategies of market competition may not serve the best purposes. Collaboration has been found to be much better than all out competition. Apple embodies such logic. Apple has led the way in collaborating with both potential competitors and customers.
For a long time, Apple had Google’s CEO serve on its board of directors. Furthermore, Apple collaborated with Google for both enhancing search and offering map services. Similarly, Apple has enabled thousands of independent developers around the world to be part of the Apple adventure. Through its online app store, Apple has allowed customers to ally with Apple in developing cutting edge applications. Such collaborations have only strengthened the identity of the Apple brand and enhanced the inherent buy-in from all these important stakeholders to the brand offerings.
Consistent communication. One of the fundamental aspects of a strong brand is its CEO being the staunchest brand ambassador. Steve Jobs of Apple has carried on the role of the chief brand ambassador of Apple with excellent panache and finesse. Every year, Apple celebrates the coming year of technology and programs with its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). WWDC has become such an anticipated event in the technology and consumer electronics industry that it offers the Apple brand an excellent opportunity to showcase to the world its superior technology, cutting edge design and cool applications. Steve Jobs always represents the brand at these conferences to convey a very strong commitment from the top to the brand in the eyes of its customers, collaborators and competitors.
Connecting with customer touch points: Apple has established a seamless experience for customers across online, telephone and personal touch points. The Apple store is the physical manifestation of the brand. In addition to displaying all Apple products in a very simplistic store design, Apple store offers training workshops to potential customers, conducts customer gatherings for existing customers and overall offers an engaging and exciting experience for customers who wants to interact with the Apple brand.
Similarly, its online web portal and its telephone customer service offer high quality information and service to all Apple followers. Such consistent connection with all possible touch points with customers allows Apple to constantly reinforce its core brand image and identity. More importantly, it offers customers a firsthand opportunity to experience the many different tangible aspects of the brand. Such moves have helped Apple to remain one of the highly liked brands worldwide.
These four pillars of Apple’s brand seem simple enough for any other company to implement. But not many brands in the marketplace command as much loyalty and brand equity as Apple does. Implementing branding as an organization wide discipline led by the CEO and the top management board is one of the toughest challenges for any company. Apple proves yet again that by investing in the brand, it is able to stay ahead of its competitors and define the industry it plays in.
print ed: 12/09