Thursday, 19 November 2009

Building a Participatory Brand that transcends Commerce

The Client Ask
At the beginning of (almost) every client engagement (for the past fifteen years) when we ask clients (high-level) what they’re hoping to accomplish—the response is always akin to wanting something “breakthrough”, “compelling”, and “game-changing”.   We’ve also heard “Cool”, “Apple-esque” and a slew of other descriptors.

We get it.  Everyone wants to be the next big thing.  Brands like Apple have established deep, lasting bonds with their customers and are archetypal emotional brands.  It's not just intimate with its customers; it is loved.  Who doesn’t want this?  It’s important to note that it wasn’t always like this for Apple.  Apple took a financial tailspin during the mid-1990s.   Its products were lackluster, it’s branding a mess, and the company looked in danger of going out of business.

What did Apple do?  They decided to rebrand.  Apple abandoned the old rainbow-hued Apple logo in favor of a minimalist monochrome one, gave its sleek computers a funky, colorful look, and streamlined the messages in its advertising.  They architected a brand that transcends commerce and evokes an emotional response.

Building an iconic brand
How did they do this?  A few ways.  Apple has a simple and unique visual (and verbal) vocabulary, expressed consistently across all product design and advertising.  Apple also projects a humanistic corporate culture (and a strong corporate ethic), characterized by support of good causes (and involvement in the community). Its founding mission was “power to the people through technology”, and has also established an emotional connection with its cult-like customers.

Apple's brand is one big tribe, and purchasing an Apple product makes you a member. Building this tribe takes several forms, from building trust to establishing a community around a product or service. Apple capitalizes upon the fact that people want and cherish a "human touch" and to feel like they're a part of something bigger (as it gives a sense of security and grounding).

BUT, all that aside—the one single thing that has allowed Apple (and some notable others like Nike and Harley-Davidson) to achieve what they have from a brand-equity standpoint is that they are no longer selling products. They are selling brands, which evoke a subtle mix of people's hopes, dreams and aspirations. Benetton used images of racial harmony to sell clothes, while Apple used great leaders -- Cesar Chavez, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama -- to persuade people that a Macintosh might also allow them to "Think Different."  People are drawn to these brands simply because they are selling their own ideas back to them, they are selling the most powerful ideas that we have in our culture such as transcendence and community -- even democracy itself.  Apple today is an ideology, a value set, and a symbol of counterculture -- rebellious, free thinking and creative.

What we have learned from all of this is simply that brands are more important than products. Products have limited life cycles, but brands -- if managed well -- last forever.  Ryan Bigge, writing in Adbusters, said: "Our dreams and desires for a better world are no longer articulated by JFK’s, nor generated through personal epiphanies -- they are now the intellectual currency of Pepsi, American Apparel, and Diesel. We used to have movements for change -- now we have products. Brands befriend us, console us and inspire us”.

Apple’s Secret Sauce
So, you want brand equity like Apple has?  Here’s the secret.  Make the purchasing of your product and/or service the equivalent of belonging to an elite club. Hip, righteous “outsiderism” with an ample dose of rebellion against injustice. 

If you’re looking for additional information on building an emotional, transcendent brand like Apple, read