From customer to fanatic: 12 branding tips, courtesy of Apple

This week, Apple will own the news cycle with the expected unveiling of the iPhone 5. How does Apple stoke the buzz and build customer loyalty? A ‘PC-Man’ explains.

For most brands, their most-devoted fans start as customers. It isn’t until much use and positive engagement with the company that they become loyal brand advocates. Mac has never had customers; they start out as fans and quickly move to cult-members.

Like every other computer vendor, Apple is no stranger to hardware, software, or even pricing issues—the missteps and glitches that PR pros dread and that give sales executives nightmares. Yet, the legion of Appleholics grows and grows, apparently ignoring some of the very issues for which they so venomously criticize other brands.

What makes them so loyal?

Alas, that may be a bigger secret than how they get the caramel inside the Cadbury Caramilk bar. In hopes of uncovering the secret, this self-proclaimed “PC-Man” has done some research and compiled this list of 12 branding tactics used by Apple to drive customer loyalty.

1. You’re “cool,” or you’re “the other guy.”

Regardless of what you think of Apple, you have to admit it has swagger. The marketing geniuses from the early days have positioned it as the hip alternative to the corporate three-piece suit. Right up to the modern “I’m a Mac” commercials that personify the Mac as the good looking, fit Gen Y male as opposed to the Boomer parent/corporate manager. It’s brilliant on so many levels. Fight the Man! Just brilliant.

2. As long as they’re spelling my name right.

As referenced in the intro, Apple is no stranger to hardware, software, or pricing snafus. Many believe they’re all carefully orchestrated PR stunts to keep the media interested and frantically focusing on “what’s next” from Apple. Remember when a second iPhone prototype was lost in a bar. Accident? Really? Brilliant.

3. Where everybody knows your name.

When Apple removed its products from big box retailers, some called it a snobby move; in reality, it was an ingenious branding and loyalty initiative. Not only is it a showpiece that seems to be designed “just for customers,” Mac enthusiasts look to it as a social club. Mac-heads go to the Apple Store to meet Mac-headettes, chat all things Apple, and do their secret-handshake thing. It’s “their” place—and I’m sure each location has a Cliff Clavin waiting to give them some useless, but entertaining piece of pop-culture trivia. Brilliant.

4. Square pegs in square holes.

Apple’s products pretty much plug-‘n’-play so well with one another that buying just one is akin to a drug dealer’s giving you a free hit. He knows you’ll want the next one and the next one and will charge you through the nose to get it. Apple was so smart they control the farming, packaging, and distribution of anything related to its drug so even if you wanted to go elsewhere, you couldn’t. Brilliant.

5. Don’t like Apples? How ’bout them oranges?

There are many people who—for whatever reason—simply won’t buy a Mac, but will fork over hundreds or even thousands of dollars for an iPhone or an iPod. They’ll stop buying CDs and download their music from iTunes. And then the local drug dealers show up (see No. 4) showing you how much faster and easier they’re designed to work with a Mac—and soon enough, you need to call the Betty Ford Clinic. Brilliant.

6. Back to the future.

Many credit Apple’s incredible product launch successes with its product development patience and detailed research; however, what’s made the company so successful is not its ability to give customers what the want today, but what they’re going to want in a year. Back to the future, indeed. Brilliant.

7. That’s the help’s job, not Steve’s job.

I’ve wondered at times whether anyone other than Steve Jobs worked at Apple? The company is virtually absent from social media engagement. Is the entire company automated? The reality is that Apple has made it a policy to outsource whatever it can so that whatever consumer engagement the public does have with it directly, is guaranteed to be positive. Brilliant. 8. More like 1984 than you may think.

Apple’s Macintosh computer was launched in what will go down in the annals of marketing history as one of the most powerful product launch campaign ever: the “1984” Super Bowl Commercial, which positions the Mac as the means of saving humanity from the “conformity” of IBM desktops. Yet, every Apple product is incredibly consistent and “conforms” to a simple, albeit effective blueprint. Essentially, they’re criticizing the drug cartels while secretly bringing the drugs into the country via little old ladies’ handbags. Brilliant.

9. Never let ’em out of your sight!

While the products may conform to a single formula as listed above, they are varied enough to ensure that there’s never a time where you won’t need or want to have one of them by your side. From the laptop to Apple TV; from the iPod to iTunes; from the iPhone to the iPad—there’s never a point in your day where an Apple product will not be by your side. Brilliant.

10. Get ’em while they’re young.

The most successful drug dealers (and other marketers, like the purveyors of breakfast cereals) understand the value of “getting ’em while they’re young”—and impressionable. Apple has always focused on providing incredibly attractive pricing to schools and colleges to ensure that our public school system pushes out adult Mac-heads ready to drink the juice. It’s a rather Orwellian policy, but kudos to them for thinking about it. Bet Microsoft wishes it had done so first. Brilliant.

11. Yeah, baby, yeah!

Apple has always understood that simplicity is sexy. And sex sells. Design was never an afterthought to functionality. Design is function, and Apple leveraged it in everything from packaging to product development to the graphical user interface. Brilliant.

12. Is it a religion or a cult?

The greatest political leaders have learned that appealing to the audience’s spiritual or emotional senses is the best way to engender loyalty. And Apple has been quietly creating its own cult, er, religion with surgeon-like precision. Complete with a deity figure (Steve Jobs) and prophets (Guy Kawasaki), churches (Apples stores) and pilgrimages (Mac Expo). People don’t simply purchase Apple; they worship at its altar. Brilliant.

Many will argue that the product is so good, that it’s enough to earn such diehard fans. I’ve always disagreed with that premise, because in other categories there are products that rise to the same level of quality, if not better, and yet they’ve not been rewarded with such fanaticism.

So, you be the judge. Are these the factors that have driven such fervent loyalty? If so, could it be replicated for other businesses? What are your thoughts?

Sam Fiorella is the chief strategy sensei at Sensei Marketing, where he is responsible for strategic campaign guidance and marketing technology development that power the Sensei Customer Lifecycle Methodology. Follow Sam on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn. A version of this story first appeared on the blog 12 Most.

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Topics: PR

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