The Technology Beneath the Brand

by Derrick Story

Leander Kahney just published Apple: It's All About the Brand as part of his ongoing series on Wired. In the article, there's the statement, "... in some cases, branding has become as powerful as religion." And I think this is true in Apple's case.

I'm not a critic of powerful branding, mind you, especially concerning Apple because I believe it saved the company. Clearly, one of the most important moves Steve Jobs made upon his return was to reestablish the brand that had floundered under the watch of the previous inept CEOs.

Alan Deutschman covers this quite well in his biography of Apple's controversial CEO, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, which you can download from and listen to on your computer or iPod. By reestablishing the brand, Jobs was able to quickly stop the bleeding and buy time to develop an entirely new product line up, including Mac OS X.

But sometimes companies cling too tightly to brand identity, and I think Apple falls prey to this also. The company wants everything to appear "very simple" because a key component of its identity is ease of use. Actually, many of Apple's products, like the iApps, are really quite sophisticated.

I'm not really complaining about this because I make my living by showing people the hidden power beneath the advertised GUI. But I do think, as technologists, we shouldn't let ourselves become hypnotized by effective brand advertising. There's always more beneath the surface -- both good and bad. And we're the ones who need to keep that discussion alive along side the branded messages.


2002-12-04 13:01:43
Thank you
For some of us geeks, the Apple GUI and product design are interesting bits on top of some solid practical foundations.

I never thought I'd come back to the Mac - I moved to a PC more and more around 1996 - but OS X gave me some solid technical reasons to come back to the Mac. Apple's problems before Jobs' arrival may have had something to do with the brand, but they also had a lot to do with technical stagnation and the lack of a compelling story. Changing the color of the boxes may help with some sectors of the market, but it doesn't help with all of them.

Branding's nice for management, but getting work done is what excites me about my Mac.

2002-12-04 13:31:28
Thank you

There's much that needs to be discussed about Mac OS X in terms of what's available now, and where we could be going with it. I think O'Reilly developers are doing a good job of uncovering smart ways to get work done on this platform, then writing about it.

I'm fine with letting Apple maintain the store front. They're good at it. The more users they can bring in, the easier it is to get developers interested.

But I hope its management continues to let us do our thing too in terms of advancing the platform with solid open source know how. Right now, I'm cautiously optimistic.

2002-12-04 22:04:42
Where Apple gets it right
When you look at it from 10,000 feet it's brilliant. Apple managed to leverage two very important things in it's favor, one being the open source movement and open technologies and two being it's loyal existing community. Though adoption of osx was slow at first it's moving along much faster due both in part to it's switcher campaign, convincing existing users that it's still easy to use, and due to it's geek appeal. Apple successfully harnessed another market, that of the techno saavy and still hang on to the design crowd. The mass appeal of products like the ipod help shore up the Apple identity. Sometimes I wish the effort spent on marketing apple's products went into making them even better. Apple needs a hardware partner that can keep up. That being said, I own and am happy with my 933g4 powermac and I'm about to get an 800g3 ibook.
2002-12-04 22:39:38
10,000 foot view - I like that
The Wired article bugs me for the sole reason that it generalizes all Mac users into the stereotype propogated by the media - Mac users are loyal fanatics.

Frustrated with the Windows world, I decided to give the Mac a try when OS X was first released. I used a Mac and a PC side-by-side for about a year before going all Mac for one simple reason - it was by far a better computing tool for me. But that's my view; I would never push a Mac on someone else, nor do I care about the petty squabbles between Mac and PC users. I don't feel part of a community, nor do I develop my self image based on the type of computer I use.

Marketing may have saved Apple, but marketing "geniuses" who feel they need to sell me anything but a good, solid product are over-valued and over-paid. There is nothing stopping me from switching back if the Mac falters or the PC excels.

2002-12-05 05:32:20
Corporate Switcher

This is off topic, but when is O'Reilly Network going to do an Apple Switch TV ad suggested by your CIO a few weeks ago. I can't wait to see some techno luminaries like Tim or yourself saying in front of millions

"We love Mac OS X for its dual personality - the child-like simplicity and the addictive sophistication. We are O'Reilly Network, and we publish for the alpha geeks."

which would be big boost for the Apple brand and much more convincing than Yo Yo Ma or Tony Hawk.

By the way, I love reading your article. My name is Bao C. Li, and I am a professional programmer.

2002-12-05 06:09:53
Gobe must be joking
I totally agree with the following from the Wired article:

Marketer Marc Gobe, author of Emotional Branding and principal of d/g worldwide, said Apple's brand is the key to its survival. It's got nothing to do with innovative products like the iMac or the iPod.

"Without the brand, Apple would be dead," he said. "Absolutely. Completely. The brand is all they've got. The power of their branding is all that keeps them alive. It's got nothing to do with products."

Like etanbrand, I love Mac purely for its superior technoloy and not for Apple's marketing. Apple has not only ignited the PC revolution, but also continues to innovate at a faster pace than MS, HP, Sun and a host of other much bigger and richer players, for the benifit of the whole computer industry. In many ways, Apple is the victim of its own inventions which have made it possible for pure box makers like Dell to parasite on other's R&D budget and undercut them in pricing. Steve Jobs is mostly right in saying that Apple is the only one left in the computer industry that is capable of innovations, and I would suggest that IBM is another.

2002-12-05 06:12:32
Gobe must be joking

I totally disagree rather than agree with the Wired article.

2002-12-05 09:12:58
Missing the point about "brand"
This whole discussion appears to miss the point about what a "brand identity" IS. Brand identity is not just about a name, a logo and some clever marketing. The marketing will be useless and the "brand identity" will be negative if the substance behind it (products and services) are garbage or do not reflect what is being marketed.

Apple has a certain brand identity that is shorthand for a whole set of images in people's minds. Apple MAY be in the process of altering (hopefully improving) this brand identity over time. But this will not be done by "clever marketing". Marketing is about communication. Communicating the benefits and value of something (or some company). But people are not stupid...if the benefits and value are not really there, then marketing is just about lying.

Currently the Apple "brand identity" probably has a couple of different meanings, depending on who you talk to:

1. Innovation. Elegant industrial design. Ease of use.

2. Expensive. Proprietary. Insignificant.

Of course there are probably a few other characterizations that can be applied to the Apple "brand". The point here is that BOTH of these are valid characterizations for the Apple "brand". Some things more true. Some thins less true. Some things are dated notions.

The bottom line is that "brand identity" is NOT about marketing, it is about the substance behind a name/logo/etc.

Marketing can be used to communicate (sometimes effectively, sometimes not). But there needs to be substance behind it.

2002-12-05 09:30:35
No, brands miss the point
It's nice that in this case the Apple brand does have some substance behind it. Unfortunately, substance and brands are only loosely connected at best.

Planning for "a brand" has too frequently replaced planning for "a product" or even "a product line". Making sure that a company's brand is backed up with decent products makes sense, but fetishizing the brand and focusing on the brand instead of focusing on more traditional measures for quality comes with a whole new set of potential disasters.

2002-12-05 09:43:21
No Logo
If you want a real analysis of the "brand," along with its full implications, I suggest you read No Logo by Noami Klein.
2002-12-05 09:45:06
Ask marketeers...
...and of course they'll say that brand and marketing are what saved Apple - after all that's what they do for a living. But how about asking the loyal users why they are loyal - or would that be too simple?

I think Apple's strong brand is only half the story. Yes, brand and marketing are important, but only if the company backs them up with products. Both have to work hand-in-hand, or the word of mouth between customers will soon give the brand a negative value.

And that is a lesson marketeers and advertisers tend to forget.

2002-12-05 15:03:59
10,000 foot view - I like that
Your point is a good one. This is why I'm so keen on Mac OS X having an active, intelligent developer community. If you have great software that helps you get your work done efficiently (and hardware remains solid), then you will continue to use Apple tools regardless of what the current marketing campaign is.
2002-12-05 15:07:54
Corporate Switcher
We have talked to Apple and explored the whole corporate Switch thing. At the moment, it really comes down to money. We want to upgrade 70 to 80 percent of our machines, and are very interested in doing so on the Mac platform. But it's a tough economy right now, and we're still using our existing hardware. (That's why I bought my own TiBook to complement my aging Windows PC :)
2002-12-05 19:51:16
The product has nothing....?
If brand is everything and product means nothing then no popular brand would ever fall into disfavor. I think history teaches otherwise.
2002-12-06 06:12:26
Corporate Switcher

First of all, I am sorry that I can't make my comment under yours. Is it because I am not registered? Thanks for replying with the interesting stuff:

"We have talked to Apple and explored the whole corporate Switch thing. At the moment, it really comes down to money. We want to upgrade 70 to 80 percent of our machines, and are very interested in doing so on the Mac platform."

Surely Apple would throw in a few Xserves and TiBooks free for the deal, or are you asking for too much?

"But it's a tough economy right now, and we're still using our existing hardware. (That's why I bought my own TiBook to complement my aging Windows PC :)"

I use my own iBook almost all the time at work (C++, Java, Macromedia, etc), in a virtually exclusive Windows environment. Everything just works and in a better way, including printing, networking, VPN, etc.

The IT guy refuses to support anything other MS and Dell probably because that's all he knows, and he really enjoys spending hous setting up or reinstalling the Dell boxes.

2002-12-06 14:00:47
Corporate Switcher
Well, it's a tough economy for Apple too, and they weren't able to provide much in the way of discount. Plus, part of our motivation was to write about the details of switching on a large scale, so we would want to ensure out editorial freedom. If we asked Apple to do something exceptional, that might color our reporting.

We are lucky in that our IT Dept. supports Unix, OS 9, OS X, and Windows. I know this is rare. One of the reasons I came to work for O'Reilly is because they would allow me to work on multiple platforms without feeling like I was a burden to the IT staff.

And yes, Macs are easy to support ...

2006-04-19 18:58:49
Does anybody have the new Apple Brand Standards?