Helen Edwards on Branding: Apple of their eye

Marketers should stop trying to ape Silicon Valley's finest and focus on their own brands' heritage.

OK, I haven't heard the exact words: 'How can we become the Apple of the fish finger market?' I've come close, though. Marketers love Apple, just like almost everyone else, and increasingly, they are turning admiration into imitation.

Category distance is no barrier: from healthcare to automotive, senior marketers are gathering their global teams together to play videos of the iPad launch before turning back to their own situation and unashamedly posing the question, 'What would Apple do?' In the ensuing break-out sessions, teams are having a lot of fun coming up with the answers.

There is good and bad in this. In a general sense, it is good to look beyond your own category to jolt yourself and your teams out of self-imposed mental shackles. Disruptive innovation can be inspired by this kind of exercise, or, at the very least, given a helping hand.

The textbook example is Cemex. The Mexican cement business started on its road to dominance by thinking way outside its category. In a commodity market it knew that it could gain a service advantage by making smaller deliveries just when customers needed them, but because ready-mix concrete starts to harden on its journey, these deliveries would have to be perfectly timed. Cemex studied the way pizza companies plotted routes across the city and the technology mix they needed to achieve time-sensitive delivery of perishables.

The difficulty with cross-category thinking is knowing when to stop. Some clever ideas just won't make the leap across sector barriers. Many marketers admire the way the iPad was launched without defining what the product is, and have sought to treat their own innovations the same way. However, this is much riskier in business-to-business markets, where a frame of reference is often mandated by long approval chains and procurement procedures.

Another downside of the current infatuation with Apple is that it encourages teams to focus on the shiny brand image they see in front of them, rather than the hard-graft, product-up reality that got it there. Apple's obsessive attention to detail at the level of product development, long before Steve Jobs gets his black top tucked into his trousers for the launch, is something that is exceedingly difficult to copy, and, in practice, rarely attempted.

So, marketing teams tend to arrive at their 'let's-be-Apple' moment when the essentials of their product offer are already fixed. This means they are looking to mimic only Apple's cool confidence in launch tactics, distribution and communications. What they quickly discover is that insouciance is a hard trick to pull off when the product or service is merely slightly ahead of, or just on a par with, category norms.

The most serious consequence of wanting to be Apple - or any other widely idolised success - is that the brand loses the conviction to be itself. Dreary as it can be for teams to dig back into their own history, immerse themselves in their own culture, and re-engage with their own foundational belief, ultimately, this is the only difference worth having.

Better that people hold up your brand and ask how they can do the same in their category, than your achieving the apparent nirvana of metamorphosis into Apple. Besides, there is an obvious flaw in the desire of all those brands out there wanting to be just like the darling of Silicon Valley: if they all succeeded, what do you think Apple would do?

- Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers

30 SECONDS ON ... BRANDS THEY ALL WANTED TO BE

The desire to be like the sexiest brand out there is hardly new - Apple just happens to be the brand of the moment. Here are some of the brands that have inspired marketers to imitation over the years.

- Starbucks: Became the brand flavour of choice during the early 2000s when it was opening stores at the rate of 1600 a year.

- Nike: 'How can we do a Nike?' became one of the industry cries of the mid-90s, particularly in advertising circles.

- Dirt is Good (Persil, Omo and Skip): Five years ago everyone wanted a counter-intuitive campaign like this. Dove was also a popular reference-point for a while.

These Unilever success stories have gone out of fashion more recently.

- BMW: The one that has stood the test of time. The desire to emulate its clean, aloof style has been pervasive since the early 80s and still surfaces today.

- Virgin: 'We want to be the Virgin of ...' Easy to say - devilishly hard to execute.

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