Brand Lessons from Apple

I feel for clients as they go around their agencies—presentations, suggestions, observations and, occasionally, insights. And then, when talking through a particular challenge, they are brought up. The Jesus of Modern Branding: Apple.

It's now at a point where it's become a cliche. When you're looking for a best of class example, head over to Apple, it must be so dull for clients.

But. But. Apple is excellent. And they do offer a lot of good lessons on what makes a strong brand. They’re not perfect, but you can see how they’ve built the brand up over time. And what Apple has done is repeatable by every brand, no matter what sector they’re in. It's not a matter of budget; it's about discipline. It’s that discipline that has marked out Apple over the years. Let's take a look at three areas that we can use for our own brands.

1. Apple is led by a purpose.

What drives Apple? A better iPhone? An innovation breakthrough? Higher profit margins? It's none of that. Apple's values drive them. And it’s where they start everything, even when they start their product launch events. Look at what Tim Cook talked about at the Spring Forward 2021 event:

Hello, and welcome back to Apple Park for our first event of 2021. After the challenges of this past year, we're optimistic that brighter days are just in front of us. As we move forward, we feel it's important that Apple continues to make a difference in people's lives, through our products and our values.

Products and values. It's one thing saying that you have values, it's another to then demonstrate the proof points around them. At the very top of this presentation, Tim Cook lays one of the values right out there.

This week marks the annual Earth Day celebration and I couldn't be more proud of the environmental initiatives and commitments we are making at Apple. Today, Apple is carbon neutral for our global corporate operations, with all of our offices, stores, and data centers running on 100 percent renewable energy. And by 2030, Apple will be 100 percent carbon neutral across our entire end-to-end footprint, including our supply chain and the use of our products.

Apple is driven by a sense of purpose. In this opening, they don't just say that they want to make a difference; they back that statement with proof points, in this case, their commitment to the environmental credentials of the business. And those proof points are nothing to do with their products; it starts with showing Apple living their values.

However, it's the last couple of sentences of this opening, though, sets the tone for the event:

At Apple, our values and principles make us who we are. They drive us to create products and services that are better, easier, and more enjoyable.

This sentiment, what drives Apple, is repeated throughout the event. 

  • And with the new iMac, the strongest lineup of Macs we've ever had gets even better.

  • We also have a brand new clickpad, with five-way navigation for better accuracy.

  • For M1 to fit into its incredibly thin and light design requires power efficiency that's way beyond just being better.

That sense of better is connected to making products easier and more enjoyable, all driven by their values.

Compare Apple's opening statement to that of Spotify's introducing a new Spotify product, Car Thing, on their PR blog.

Between work commutes, taking the kids to school, daily errands, and road trips, Americans spend countless hours on the road. It's no surprise, then, that there are over 70 million user-generated driving-related playlists on Spotify. No matter where you're headed, Spotify is the perfect companion in the car, thanks to the many ways to listen to Spotify and our curated playlists, like Daily Drive and Songs to Sing in the Car. And today, we're excited to announce our newest exploration: a limited release of Car Thing, a new smart player that fills your car with music, news, entertainment, talk, and more.

It's a feature-led opening. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that. But it doesn't tie you into Spotify's overarching purpose, which seems to be "becoming the world's number one audio platform". Again, it's not a terrible purpose, but, given the nature of their offering, it doesn't feel emotive enough to connect to. Or ownable. What does number one mean?  

The lesson here is that companies that just created products were driven to make better products. So proud of these products that they couldn't help listing specifications, features and details around the products. But anyone can try to copy a product. Companies with a strong sense of purpose combine both brand values and excellent products to help differentiate their offering to customers from the competition. 

Bringing these two elements together, brand values and excellent products builds trust with the customer and offers a significant competitive advantage.

That competitive advantage can be significant. The Kantar Purpose 2020 study showed that purpose-driven brands achieve more than twice the brand-value growth of brands that focus purely on profit generation. Purpose is directly correlated with financial performance.

The challenge is for organisations to determine their authentic purpose, borne out of the brand and its values. So, what's driving your company? Is it the product or your values? Having the discipline to understand your values and let them guide your product is key to lifting your offering beyond the competition.

2. Advertising is the business of words

Another pitfall with product-led companies is when they get excited about their products. Copy around the product then goes on and on, missing the point and losing the customer benefit. Apple does excellent work with their copy, making it look effortless. Let's take a look at how they describe the M1 chip, which is a big deal in performance and innovation.



This outlines the benefits of the M1 chip combined with the Mac's operating system. Big Sur. It gets geeky but hits you with big numbers. It's talking to a specific customer but using percentages to give a sense of scale. It's clearly written, but the following three areas of copy help to contextualise the M1 in how it solves customer problems.

It's really lovely copy, and it seems so effortless. But this is some hard-working copy; it puts the customer at the heart of the story rather than boasting about the technology.  Whenever Apple talks about new technology, they strike the right balance of mentioning features (85% faster), leading to a customer benefit that makes something better (the best photography on a phone). Understanding this balance helps connect the product to a customer need. Apple always focuses on customer benefit while promoting its culture of innovation. 

3. Creating Distinctive Assets

OK, let's start by stating the obvious. Apple spends a fortune on assets. Possibly the highest quality marketing material in the world. An image on the homepage of probably costs the same as a royal wedding. However, the interesting point isn't the quality of the assets, more how they are used. 

Apple always has a series of key assets that are shared through every channel. For the new 24" iMac launch, the asset you're going to see everywhere is this image.


It was first shown in the Spring event presentation:

It's on the Apple homepage.

It’s in the new ad:


It's on the main product page

It. Is. Everywhere. I expect to see variants over social media and YouTube over the next few months too. But given Apple's budget, why have they not gone for new images of a great looking product at every point?

Regardless of the quality of the asset, the critical point is that the repetition of that asset builds up recognition and mental availability in the mind of your customers. This all contributes to then being the first brand in mind when an individual comes to buy. This asset expands beyond these kinds of images; your logo is an asset that should be repeated as often as possible in your marketing efforts. It builds brand and awareness with the customer. 

I know that sounds straight from the school of the bleeding obvious, but it's amazing how many online display ads don't use the logo.  This can be partially explained by the prominence of performance marketing trying to solve a problem at that particular moment rather than strengthening a brand with every customer interaction. I get it, but it very short-term thinking. Apple always ends an ad with that logo, reinforcing the brand at every turn.

Look at what you have, make sure that it feels distinctive and then make sure it's used everywhere that's relevant. It sounds easy but needs the discipline to make sure that it's consistently done over time.

Apple isn't perfect. Some of the brand architecture decisions over the past few years have been questionable, to say the least.  But the three areas I covered are where Apple excel and do so repeatably. But these aren't magic bullets. They're brand principles that are applied rigorously and patiently over a long period of time. That's why agencies mention Apple so much, not because of the shiny, shiny Apple produce but the discipline around the execution that's so impressive.