Steve Jobs was one of the best business strategists of our time. So what lessons can we take from Apple’s moves over the years?
Before speaking at a conference last year, I received a rather unusual instruction. It said, “Dear speaker, we urge you to avoid any references to Apple, but if absolutely necessary, please keep them to a minimum.” Surprised by the request, I raised it with the conference organiser. Her reply took me aback. She explained, “Every speaker these days refers to Apple. They cite Apple case studies and constantly quote Steve Jobs. If we were to allow every speaker free rein to talk about Apple, we might as well rename our events ‘Apple this’ or ‘Apple that’.”
I have since come to appreciate her problem. At almost every conference I’ve since attended, 9 out of 10 speakers cite Apple. Of course, the brand didn’t achieve such universal reverence without reason. So … let the following advice, inspired by Steve Jobs, form the blueprint for any company with serious brand ambitions.
- What industry category do you operate within? Break out of it.
If you had to choose one option, what industry would you say Apple operates within? Computers, music, telephones, or retailing? In terms of revenue, the answer is phones. However, the name Apple first came to be associated with computers. When Apple released the iPod, Walt Mossberg, a product reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, interviewed Steve Jobs. Mossberg spoke to Jobs about his reasons for venturing into the music industry. Jobs explained that Apple is a digital products company, not simply a computer company.Had Apple defined itself as a computer company, it would wave goodbye to 2/3 of its current revenue. Is this where your company is heading today?
- “When you reach for the stars, you might not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud, either.”
So said the legendary advertising man Leo Burnett, although Steve Jobs could just as well have uttered these words. When attending a board meeting of what shall remain an unnamed Fortune 100 company, the chief of innovation announced 31 new revisions to their existing product portfolio. After his presentation, I asked him which of his announcements he felt best represented his iPad moment. “Two perhaps,” he replied. Wrong answer. There’s only room for one. Neither you, your company, nor the world has patience for 31 tweaks these days.Will your next product release represent your iPad moment? If not, go back to the drawing board.
- Even if you predict the future just one minute before it happens, you’re still in good time.
I’ll never forget the Macromedia conference I attended in San Francisco during the late 1990s. Steve Jobs made a surprise visit on stage. That was the moment he threw the new Apple Newton message pad into the iconic Apple bin on stage. Apple was too early in the game and once the game began, they were too late. This was a lesson Steve Jobs learned the hard way. The Walkman came before the iPod, Microsoft’s tablet arrived before the iPad, and the Blackberry arrived before the iPhone–though Apple’s impeccable timing managed to beat them all.Being first isn’t necessarily best–understanding timing is the essence of a breakthrough.
- “What do you want the stores to say to people when they walk in?”
In my new book, Brandwashed, I quote the question Steve Jobs put to Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, when he was asked for advice on the redesign of Disney’s retail stores.If your storefront, product, service, website, store fit-out could talk to the customer, what would it say?
- Identify and attack your enemy in public.
When Apple’s iTunes program was already well ensconced on millions of PCs, Steve Jobs was asked what it was like to be a major Windows developer. He replied without hesitation, “It’s like handing a glass of ice water to someone in Hell.” Jobs never shied away from pointing out Apple’s number #1 enemy in public. CEOs could learn from this.Often behaviour that’s too self-consciously politically correct can lead to a watered-down focus and profile, both internally and externally. An enemy can define who you are, and who you’re not.
- Don’t read about your competitors to learn more–visit them.
However, it is probably a good idea to conduct such a visit before they’ve become your competitor. During Steve Jobs’s early days in the business, he did, in fact, pay a visit Sony. He wanted to learn about the Walkman, as well as get a sense of Sony’s well-oiled operation. Jobs was heavily inspired by both. Indeed, many companies can boast of Jobs visiting them in the past–providing Apple with inspiration.When did you last pay a visit to a potential competitor?
- Don’t take your success for granted–reset your watch every time.
I’ve always been amazed by how some of the world’s most successful organizations continue to work as tirelessly as they did when they first began. For example, take the rock group U2. Their most recent promotional tour was as intensive as the first one they embarked on 15 years ago, impressing even the most jaded rock journalists both then and now. Steve Jobs’s unwavering enthusiasm for Apple was the same. Walt Mossberg recalls first seeing the iPad at Jobs’s home, because, as Mossberg explained, “He was too ill at the time to go to the office.”Act entrepreneurial. Assume you have no equity–fight as hard for your product as you did the very first time you promoted it.
- Every company should learn from their own mistakes and success stories.
In reality, all companies experience a regular turnover in staff. So, the filing of experiences and the internal education often fail to capture invaluable knowledge for future reference. Apple managed to circumvent this by entrusting their HR department to employ academics and historians to document events (both good and bad), publish internal papers, and systematize the transfer of information to new Apple employees.Have you systematically captured and transferred the good and bad experiences within your organisation?
- Make your brand sticky.
Gillette is the master of the “sticky” brand. Once you buy a Gillette razor, you are forced to buy Gillette’s blades. Similarly, once you’ve installed Windows on your PC, it’s almost impossible to avoid installing Office. True, you can buy an iPod shuffle for not much more than $100 but, beware, this is just the beginning–the chances are you’ll soon be buying anything and everything that starts with a small “i.”Have you made your product or service sticky?
- Treat your brand as a religion.
If you’ve read any of my books or articles, you’ll know all about my obsession with the parallels between religion and brands. This connection was something I first discovered as part of the $7 million fMRI studies I conducted for my book Buyology.Most of the world’s most influential religions represent several, if not all, of these foundational pillars: a powerful vision, sensory appeal, storytelling, grandeur, symbols, mystery, rituals, enemies, a sense of belonging, and evangelism. As I have come to learn, Apple is no exception.
How many of those 10 boxes can your brand tick?