Alan Mitchell on Branding: Source of Apple's success

The company's reputation is driven by the interaction of factors that go far beyond branding alone.

If you had a queue of 300,000 people keen to fork out hundreds of pounds to buy your product on its first day, you might think you had a raving success on your hands. Some people, however, are being sniffy that this is 'all' that iPad has achieved on its US debut, which goes to show how high our expectations of Apple have become.

You can see why. The company's recent performance really has been extraordinary. Last year, it shrugged off the recession to boost Mac sales by 33%. In the last quarter alone, it grew total sales by 25%, including 8.7m iPhones. Profits soared 50%. Perhaps not surprisingly, Apple also came top of Fortune's Most Admired Companies list for the third year running. 'The whole world held its breath before the iPad was announced,' BMW chief executive Norbert Reithofer told the magazine. 'That's brand management at its very best.'

Is it really 'brand management' that's driving Apple's success, or is it awe-inspiring innovation? Or design flair? Or disruptive business models such as iTunes? Or visionary leadership? Or a unique corporate culture? Or great customer service?

In fact, if there is one thing that isn't driving Apple's success, it is probably 'brand management'. Sure, it does its fair share of 'branding'. It has a cool, instantly recognisable logo and it's done some great advertising. It's also a past master at event management. However, these are all just icing on the cake - necessary but small contributions to a much bigger process.

People don't love Apple products because they adore the Apple brand - they adore the Apple brand because they love its product. When I say 'product', I don't mean just the single item people happen to buy, but the 'product' of everything Apple does.

Let's borrow a little bit from physics. Our world is full of 'epiphenomena': stable patterns that arise from the interactions of many different constituent elements and display unique 'emergent properties' that cannot be seen at the level of these elements. The wetness of water is an example of an emergent property. You cannot see wetness at the level of the individual water molecule; wetness arises from the way millions of them interact.

The disturbing thing about epiphenomena and their emergent properties is that, while they are as real as wind and rain, they also elude narrow if-then logic. If you are looking for a neat, straight line between cause and effect between water molecule and wetness, you won't find it. Somehow, at a certain stage, wetness simply pops out, as if by magic.

Great brands probably work in a similar way. You won't find the secret of a great reputation or strong emotional associations in any one thing they do in isolation. These are emergent properties arising from the combination of everything they do.

Contrast this with brand grandiosity - let's call it 'brandiosity' for short. Brandiosity makes grandiose claims about the powers of an obscure alchemical art called 'branding' or 'brand management' - an art carried out by superintelligent, super-creative beings in isolation to, and separate from, the rest of the business.

Brandiosity lays each and every business success at the feet of this unique and mysterious art, thereby treating everything else as little more than an afterthought.

Brandiosity is very tempting for marketers, because it makes them look good, but it's not how great brands like Apple are built. Great 'brand managers' like Steve Jobs know this. It's one of the things that makes them great.

Alan Mitchell is a respected author and a founder of Ctrl-Shift and Mydex.


30 SECONDS ON... Apple's ground-breaking products

- Having built a business based on its text-based Apple I, II and III models, in 1983 Apple produced the Lisa - its first graphical user interface (GUI) computer, using a mouse to select icons on a desktop.

- The following year the company launched the Apple Macintosh, backed by the now-classic '1984' ad, first shown during the US Super Bowl. The computer is credited with popularising GUI and inspired the first 'Mac evangelists'.

- Apple continued to develop different Macintosh lines; in 1991 it rolled out the PowerBook, a portable computer with many features that became standard for laptops.

- In 1998 it introduced the first in its series of iMac all-in-one desktop computers, the G3.

- The iPod was launched in 2001. The original model, featuring the signature 'click wheel', had a 5GB hard drive that could store about 1000 songs. The biggest capacity available today is 160GB.

- The iPhone was released in 2007. Its touchscreen interface draws on concepts developed for the Apple Newton PDA in the mid-90s.

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