Now that the pixels have settled a bit on the iOS 7 release (which, despite some early detractors, is turning out to be one of the more successful releases in the company’s history), let’s look at what all this signifies about Apple as a brand, and what branding lessons we can take away from the industry and user chatter.
- Change is consistency. As Jony Ive put it in the iOS 7 video, the company has always held certain core beliefs about design: in a nutshell, “It’s the whole thing.” By staying true to basic principles about what experiences should be, companies are able to adapt in ways that meet new needs and possibilities, without changing–in fact, actually reinforcing–what the company is fundamentally about. With a rock-solid core, companies can more easily change to meet customer and market needs as they develop.
- Founders build the foundations. Successful brands outlast the founding leaders who played an essential role in creating them. In other words, brands become the incarnation of the ideas once represented by specific individuals in the company. By standing for certain foundational principles, successful leaders provide a model for their successors to move forward in a way that will be consistent with customers’ expectations about the future of the brand.
- Simplicity is complicated. Once again, to quote Ive, “True simplicity is about bringing order to complexity.” While this is a widely known truth about design and user experience, the same principle holds for developing and articulating a brand. To come to a place of clarity, relevance, and differentiation in the eyes of your customers requires a great deal of communication and coordination across many groups and stakeholders. Understanding that a clear messaging and branding system requires some complex footwork behind the scenes, helps set expectations that developing a brand is much more than cleaning up a logo or thinking up a snappy tagline or message.
- Adding is subtracting. Though the loss of the graphical ‘realism’ elements of the previous iOS was a bit of a visual shock to some (this author included!), once one engages with the interface, the advantages of the cleaner, uncluttered look quickly become clear. Likewise, in creating brand, identity, and messaging systems, consider what you can take out as much as what you put in. As Michelangelo once said about sculpting his famous David, “I simply took out everything that wasn’t David.”
- Leaders can follow. While it’s been pointed out that some new iOS 7 features, like the Notification and Control Centers, have analogues in competitor products, a company’s ability to successfully incorporate the best of what’s out there in service to their customers is a virtue, not a vice. Apple itself built its early GUI on the legacy of Xerox PARC’s work in the early 1970s, and there has been far more ‘inspiration’ back and forth in the industry than may meet the eye. A confident brand accepts that there is no monopoly on good ideas.
- New takes time. Many years have gone by without a major change to the look and feel of the iOS interface. And a lot of hard work and effort clearly went into the design experiences and new features in iOS 7. ‘New’ doesn’t happen overnight. To be progressive, thoughtful, and thorough in your approach to developing a new brand concept or positioning, the extra time upfront in getting the basics right always pays off in the end.
- The brand is the interface. In much the same way as a user interface, brand perception is created by the combination of many factors and activities: every piece matters. The entire gamut of activities that connect the company to its audiences, from products to marketing to sales, from investor relations to customer service, should be governed by basic brand principles to ensure a consistent and engaging brand experience.
To sum it up: in developing effective brands, just as with designing an interface, “it’s the whole thing.” Thinking systemically, staying true to core principles, adapting in an appropriate way to change, and investing in the effort, is good branding as well as good design.
Sean Ketchem, PhD, is a branding and content strategy consultant based in San Francisco. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.