10th December 2014

Apple: the superpower brand

BBC Panorama approached Rebecca for her viewpoint on the Apple brand for a report they were producing. The request got us thinking…

From the hippy-ish, counterculture brand of the late 1970s and the 1990s niche player with a devoted fan base of designers and creatives, Apple is today’s most dominant consumer technology business in the world.

The brand is brave, aspirational and emotional. Although it has become a status symbol, it’s strangely also very democratic and inclusive. It is a cultural phenomenon. A technology company that doesn’t behave like a technology company – but like a fashion brand or a pop group. Apple is also a master at promotion. From the 1984 Superbowl ad launching the first Macintosh and the ‘think different’ advertising campaign known worldwide today, Apple has perfected the art of creating maximum impact and masterfully generating hype around new product launches. Who else launches a product and finds it makes the headlines year after year on every major news channel?

Apple clearly has a very unique culture and I would imagine it’s hard to understand unless you are on the inside, which I am not, but go into any Apple store and you will see the product of that culture. They employ bright, interested and super-helpful people of all ages who love technology and love people. Such a contrast to many other technology businesses! They took retailing to a whole new level when they launched the Apple store. They created an interactive art gallery / immersive playground to communicate the spirit and ambition of the brand.

And the hard work is paying off! After all, why are we all willing to pay a hefty price premium for an Apple product versus other manufacturers? It’s because we too value design, simplicity, ease-of-use, manufacturing quality, reliability and great service. We like what the brand enables us to do: creating a richer digital life, wherever we go.

I’m sure that behind the scenes there are many casualties of such an exacting organisational culture, (we’ve seen this with the much-publicized Apple manufacturing scandals), but this doesn’t appear to deter individual Western consumers and the loyal Apple fans.

I don’t know enough about the specifics of Apple’s manufacturing processes to comment in detail, but I think it’s naive for people to think that the same standards we enjoy in the West apply everywhere else in the world. If you’ve travelled to Morocco, Turkey, Vietnam, India or China, then you know that the health and safety police have not yet arrived in many places. These are countries going through a tumultuous economic revolution where the imbalances between East and West are being redefined. It’s a revolution that is happening at pace; often behind the closed doors of manufacturing plants, sometimes in the full glare of publicity out on the streets.

There are many participants in this revolution, from the companies that design the products and subcontract the manufacturing and the firms who own the factories, to the national governments who define the standards and laws and the agencies that police these regulations. Apple can’t be held responsible for the entire progress of that revolution, and they certainly aren’t the only company with a responsibility to act in an ethical and responsible manner.

Labour rights issues have been part of public and corporate consciousness since the mid-1990s, when brands such as Nike were condemned for their use of sweatshops in the developing world. More recently, the Media has attacked Primark for the same reasons. If Apple is guilty, then doesn’t this apply to the whole of the Western world and every consumer with it?

We as consumers have to take some responsibility too. Most people don’t stop to think where and how their products are made. I think it’s fair to say there is a general complacency from most Western consumers. I mean how many people can claim to know where their suit or microwave was made? We’ve all made a huge effort recently to be more conscious and aware of animal welfare and the provenance of our food. Surely we should apply the same practice when purchasing technology?

In branding, we talk about ‘reasons to believe’ – the proof points that substantiate the claims that brands make. Perhaps all brands need to prove their social value with greater transparency and authority, but whether this would affect the choices consumers make is another question entirely.

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    Rebecca Battman

    Managing Director

    Rebecca is the Managing Director of rbl. An experienced brand and marketing professional, Rebecca has spent her 25-year career helping businesses to build, design and manage their brands.

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