I went to a business rountable last week in San Francisco, and found myself sitting around a table with a group of senior marketing executives talking about various issues in pop marketing. The topic of Apple’s incredibly successful run over the past few years came up, and the popularity of the iPod. One anecdote in particular made me start thinking more critically about Apple’s current position, and how that might change as they take on more visibility and more market share.
One of the guys at the table was shopping for an MP3 player for his teenage daughter. When he mentioned the iPod, she screwed up her face just as you would imagine a girl would if her father offered advice on fashion accessories. "I don’t want an iPod. Everybody has those." Apparently, the cool brand among her friends was anything but an iPod. She ended up falling in love with a Zen from Creative Labs.
A little red light started glowing in the back of my head when I heard this story. There have been a number of interesting PR threads over the past few months involving various growing pains for Apple: their shift to Intel chips; an increasing virus threat as their OS gains market share; their lawsuit against three journalists for uncovering future product plans; closer scrutiny into Apple’s environmental record, and some complaints among music fans about iTunes’ business structure. None of this is too surprising: Apple is a large company on a tear–their stock has doubled in the course of a single year. Along with all the glowing coverage about how Apple is shaping popular culture, you expect a fair amount of critical coverage as well.
What interests me about this anecdote, though, is that it cuts to the heart of what has always been Apple’s brand–the cool factor. Apple has always put a lot of resources into design aesthetics, and with good results. They’ve been the creative light in the middle of a technology industry dominated by Bland. But the more technology becomes mainstream, and the more marketshare Apple gains of that mainstream, the more ordinary Apple’s image becomes.
I’m sure no one at Apple is losing any sleep over their image–they have a strong sense of identity, and good retail brands like Apple are very adept at reinventing themselves to stay fresh. But Apple’s rapid growth is going to change the dynamics of brand marketing significantly. I’m sure Design will remain at the core of Apple’s brand image, but it will be interesting to watch their positioning moves over the next year to see how they adjust to a growing presence in the mainstream. What does it mean to Think Different when every third person in your Subway car is wearing a set of white ear buds?
Thought: A propos of "Think Different", does anyone know if the genesis of that tagline was a response to IBM’s longtime motto "Think"? Apple was often going after IBM aggressively in their ads (remember the toasted bunnies?), and it’s typical of their strategy, but I’ve never seen anyone parse it specifically.