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Apple is not a technology company

At the All Things D conference earlier this year, Apple CEO Steve Jobs articulated what I felt was a substantial brand-driven statement: “All we want to do is make better products.” This statement might seem quite obvious and insanely simple, but I see it as a clear, concise and incredibly effective positioning of his company. He used the words “better” and “products,” which tells us — and his employees — precisely what he wants everyone in the company thinking about when they go about their work. This clear statement also gives all stakeholders a sense of what he considers success, as well as what he considers failure. Focus, clarity, simplicity and inspiration are all critical components of a strong brand foundation.

The words he didn’t use are arguably just as important, including terms like technology, functionality, features, and value. Many technology-oriented firms use terms like these, and it’s not impossible to think that part of Apple’s success is Jobs’ very ability to lead with clarity of vision and purpose. It takes discipline (and/or natural talent) to communicate succinctly, and as can be seen at Apple, it can be highly effective. It’d be very easy for a company like Apple to wade into technology innovations, value-based pricing, and roll out lots of new, cool features. But they don’t, because that’s not their brand.

As Jobs put it plainly, Apple is a product company, which means that the end product is the center of their universe. Technology, content, industrial design, user experience… they all play a part in any product. And as most product people acknowledge, design is a critical differentiator in the product space. With Apple, design doesn’t just happen at the industrial layer (the layer where you and I both see and touch it) — it happens at all layers. For instance, in Apple’s latest iPhone and iPad products, they have designed a custom CPU to ensure that the speed/power consumption balance is just right for a mobile device. And, they both run on a custom operating system — iOS — designed specifically for mobile products. Many in the technology space accuse Apple of being too proprietary and closed, believing that technology should be “open” — and they’d be correct, if Apple saw their i-products as technologies or platforms. Most would agree that technology platforms should be open to get the most utility from the platform. However, I’d argue that this is the wrong frame: The iPhone and iPad are not designed to be technology platforms — they’re designed to be products, and products are by their very nature proprietary. Think about it: Would you expect that the ink cartridge in your HP printer work in a printer made by Canon? Are the shelves in your refrigerator interchangeable with shelves in another maker’s fridge? Will the brakes in your car be exchangeable with the brakes of another make/model? Of course, the answer is ‘no’ to all of these examples.

So why is there no outcry over these other products’ respective closed-ness? Because when people buy products, they understand that the ecosystem supporting the product is by nature proprietary. More successful products develop large supporting ecosystems, as is the case with Apple’s mobile products. In the product frame, the app store is merely a huge library of accessories for the product. Many consumer products only enable licensed accessories to be used — just like the App Store only accepts approved apps.

Apple’s focus on product over technology also helps explain why they are perceived to be so design-centric. Compared to technology companies, Apple sure seems to put a lot of extra effort into design. However, if you compare Apple to any other product company, I would suspect that they apply very similar budgets and discipline around the design (and marketing) process. In fact, one could make the argument that the iPad has a lot in common with Gillette’s new ProGlide razor (another new product in 2010) in terms of how both are thought of, designed, developed and marketed.

In 2007, Apple Computer, Inc. changed its name to Apple, Inc. In a Design-centric firm like Apple, I imagine this name change was both a result of — as well as a driver for — clarity, focus and more finely-tuned offerings to enhance the lives of their customers through “better products.” This is a great example of strategic brand design in action.

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