Apple Worship

Bishop_CookePity Richard Dawkins. As if it were not hard enough to persuade the world not to worship a supernatural God, a large part of it seems to be enraptured by artificial ones. These man-made, virtual gods, intangible yet curiously powerful, are what we call brands.

If, as it has been popularly claimed by various recent studies, ‘brands are the new religion’, then Apple has probably come closer than most in generating a neo-religious sense of affiliation, devotion and expectation from its admirers. Its iconic products are displayed, like glorious artefacts, in glittering retail cathedrals throughout the world. The brand’s deification has come through the unswerving adoration and worship of its users, whose little white ear buds are worn with pride, like symbols of commitment. Apple does, after all, offer life changing experiences: iPod changed the way the world listened to music, iPhone revolutionised the global smart phone market while iPad carved-out a huge new category all of its own. Devoted followers watch, spellbound, as each new product launch reveals ‘incredible, ground-breaking innovations’ and ‘awesome performance enhancements’ before setting-off on their next pilgrimage, where they will wait in-line for hours to be among the first blessed with the latest product by the Apple priest or, rather, ‘Genius’. Of course, I am exaggerating, slightly, to make a point, but it can look strangely ritualistic to the uninitiated. The truth is, when a brand starts to emulate what we might traditional call ‘religion’, it transitions from being a product to a lifestyle choice and what it says about you matters more than what its products do for you. Are you in or out? Do you get it or not? Believer or agnostic? Have you ‘seen the light’?  AW_q1

As more established religions have found to their cost, problems can arise when faith is blind. When believers forget (or perhaps never really understood) what, or why, they believe; icons become more important than meanings and reasoned commitment gives way to unquestioning dogma. Then, when a crack appears in the brand’s seemingly infallible facade (say, an underwhelming product or a bad service experience), it would initially be met with denial from the believer (too much trust has been invested, there must be some mistake) countered by self-righteous glee from the unbeliever (always looking for an excuse to puncture the illusion). Unchecked rumours spread, discontentment gains momentum and denial turns into disillusionment. Thanks to the wonders of social media, that tipping point can come more quickly than ever. Apple’s recent Google Maps fiasco was a taste of such behavioural dynamics.

When a brand like Apple generates a devoted neo-religious following it might do well to learn from longstanding experts in the field. For example, if it were to ensure that its followers genuinely understood its credo and articles of faith (let us call them brand definition and guiding principles), they might be less likely to stray, disillusioned, when their brand’s omnipotence wobbles from time-to-time (which it inevitably will – it is, after all, only man-made pretender). We all need the arguments on which to base our rational judgements, even if they are merely to justify the irrational ones we have already made. We need to appreciate what a brand can and, more importantly, what it cannot do. This is, after all, the essence of what sets it apart and makes it unique from any of its potential competitors. Yet Apple currently offers nothing more than a vague allusion to ‘detail-orientation’, ‘creativity’ and ‘simplicity’ (which, incidentally, it buries it in the recruitment section of its global website). Maybe it thinks a formal declaration of principles would feel countercultural or unfashionably restrictive? Or maybe the universally-appealing spirit of Apple is so well understood it need not be articulated? My guess is that Apple has never really thought seriously about its brand strategy, let alone its status as a quasi world religion, because there appear to be some diverging theologies emerging, as attempts to define Apple’s core values seems leave experts floundering in contradiction. Some claim, for instance, that the essence of the Apple brand is “innovation”, others insist it is “usability”, some say it is about being “friendly and approachable” or “design-led”, still others suggest it is about being “the ultimate” even “indispensable”. No doubt some wag will claim that the essence of Apple is about being “Reassuring Expensive”, unfortunately that line has already been spent. While many of these perceptions may be correct, they cannot all be equally correct or we will be left with an vaguely-defined, amorphous catch-all – hardly the makings of a robust brand, let alone a lasting deity!
AW_q2But it was not always thus. There was a time when Apple boldly claimed to “Think Different” and its followers adored the vibrant, revolutionary, anti-establishment approach of the brand. Being an Apple-user (or, more particularly, a Mac-user) meant joining an alternative tribe of ‘enlightened’ geeks and designers, who cooed over the operating system, drooled over the aesthetics and would sooner have than swallowed their perspex mouse whole than regress back to ‘Windoze’. Their unwavering belief was based on a fundamental understanding of what Apple was about, and they understood it as intimately as its Californian creators. Today, though vastly out-numbered and out-spent by the majority of Apple-users, they remain the most committed and loyal followers. It is they who will still be there after a shinier new god has charmed away the newbies. Importantly, they know why they are there and, as long as Apple stays true to itself, they too will stay true.

But is Apple staying true to itself? If it were, you might think it would cherish and reward these committed, long-standing users and encourage them to evangelise the Apple brand (like a car owners’ club, a university alumni group or even a retail loyalty programme)? Unfortunately, Apple seems to have become so preoccupied with commercial expansion that it has forgotten the importance of maintaining brand values and customer advocacy. Despite its reticence in declaring what its brand actually stands for, it seems to have had no problem declaring who its brand should be targeting commercially, it is what it calls the ‘post-PC generation’. In other words, Apple now intends to focus on creating accessible devices for the masses, many of whom have never used a computer, and perhaps never will. There are, after all, considerably fewer geeks and designers than potential Apple-struck consumers in the world and fewer still willing to bear the fulsome price-tags and ever-shorter replacement cycles needed to keep the brand’s share price rolling heavenward. Even so, it is tantamount to announcing that anyone who owns a high-spec Mac is Apple history. Would it be so difficult to maintain a foothold in its former heartland while continuing its mission to domination global handheld devices? It seems that Apple’s inability to focus on more than a couple of tasks at once is becoming a major handicap (perhaps it needs a few more female leaders in Cupertino?).

It would be ironic to see the cracks of disappointment appearing first among the enlightened and dedicated few who can actually see beyond Apple’s glossy modern facade. Regrettable? Yes. Unavoidable? Hardly. Could it be that Apple has become so hell-bent on chasing dollars that it has forgotten its spiritual values? Maybe its slogan “Think Different” (which, incidentally, it has not used for over ten years) should now be “Think Dollars”?

Still, the world’s richest company, led by the world best-paid directors, must surely know what it’s doing? Well you would think so, wouldn’t you? The trouble is, power can be intoxicating and before you know it you can start to believe that you really can make up your own rules and walk on water… the illusion of infallibility usually ends in tears though, as Sony, Palm, Nokia, Blackberry, et al. will bear witness.

In conclusion, few would argue that Apple has skilfully produced raft after raft of glorious products. Its brand has, consequently, been propelled to heady peaks that transcend anything that Apple might have planned. For all its product development skills, though, Apple seems to have little grip on the neo-religious zeal that has grown-up around its brand nor on the potential liability that it represents.AW_q3

With due respect to Prof. Dawkins, as long as Apple enjoys its current cult status, there seems little point in proclaiming that there is probably no God. And, with due respect to Apple, the day it actually believes it is God is the day its sense of reality has flown and its ignominious fall from grace begins.

Chocolate Bars and Law Firms

“We are proud of our professional reputation,
but we’re a law firm not a chocolate bar, we don’t have a brand”

ImageDoes this line of defence sound familiar? Such sentiments have often been used by lawyers against so-called ‘branding experts’. To be honest, it is entirely understandable given that lawyers are trained to distrust things that seem to be emotional, superficial and unquantifiable. Which is what brands are isn’t it?

Well, that really depends on who is defining them. In essence, a brand is simply ‘a promise of what to expect’. In most respects, we process them intellectually much as we do personalities (which is why, when a brand is personified, such as in the Apple versus PC commercials or with real life characters like Richard Branson or Paul Smith, they snap into focus much more easily). The way they present themselves to the world, via their appearance, their verbal communications and behavioural characteristics, promises certain expectations. When people pay little or no attention to the impressions they make on those around them they risk being misunderstood, overlooked, disliked or avoided. So it is with a brand whose impressions on its audiences are not being adequately managed.

ImageImagine, if you dare, the senior partner turning-up for a client meeting in the same suit he wore shortly after he became a partner in 1998 (the last time he thought seriously about his image), he fails to spot the client cringing at the frayed cuffs on his stripy shirt or his worn-out shoes or wincing at his bushy sideburns and bouffant 90’s hairstyle. His speech is peppered with hackneyed industry clichés and legalese, occasionally interspersed with contemporary comments, self-consciously delivered in an affected manner. Worse still, he has, unwittingly, developed a distracting tick which has become so familiar to those around him that only new acquaintances really notice it any more.

Ridiculous maybe, but how will you know whether your brand, or ‘corporate personality’ was creating a similarly out-of-touch impression if you are not managing it carefully? When was the last time you systematically reviewed your firm’s corporate personality, considered how well your firm communicates with its audiences, assessed how it is positioned in clients’ minds or evaluated the relevance of its tone of voice? Does it say ‘new’ things just for effect or do they sound natural and genuine? Has your brand developed some annoyed little habits? (mailings, events, perhaps even vernacular?) Is it possible that your brand might be lodged in a fading 1998 time warp? Remember, also, that your corporate personality lives, not in your business development department, but in the minds of your audiences.

ImageThe legal profession is characterised by a high level of personal interaction and every individual in the firm has a part to play in living the firm’s values and reinforcing the ‘promise of what to expect’.

Just as brands are like people, so people are like brands; their reputation goes before them, setting expectations which will, ideally, be born-out by first impressions and fulfilled as relationships grow.

Most successful lawyers tend to be conspicuously good at managing their own ‘personal’ brand, playing to their strengths to build client relationships. But, however conscious they are of their own personal values and characteristics, they tend to leave their firm’s values to evolve passively with little serious consideration. These values, good or bad, become embodied into the firm’s culture and, so, shape its de facto brand personality. For example, if you were told that, in the next room were three IP lawyers all offering predominantly similar services, one from Slaughter and May, one from Farrers and one from Olswang, how many seconds do you think it might take you to correctly identify who was from which firm? You might also hazard a guess as to which was likely to be the most and least expensive, the fastest turnaround, the nicest people to work with? The point being that each of these three firms has a distinctive corporate personality, or brand, which lives in the mind and defines our expectations of it and, by association, those who represent it.

ImageRecalling that imaginary partner for a moment, few would deny that his demeanour would compromise the reputation of just about any firm, even without any specific, quantifiable measures to prove it. Most would agree that he would fall short of the threshold for acceptable professional behaviour and still further short of the standards expected from a ‘prestigious and trusted law firm. It is an instinctive response to human behaviour, it just feels ‘wrong’. But what if the roles were reversed and the brand was the guilty party, compromising the professional reputation of the individuals representing it? Moreover, what if the discrepancy were less marked and needed to be studied more carefully to be appreciated?

Unfortunately, however compelling the case may be, the legal sector has been one of the least receptive to the notion of brand management (unless, of course, it relates to the IP of a client organisation – whose chocolate bar brand, for example, requires legal protection). Perhaps it is because law firms have become used to working in a conservative, risk-averse, personality-led world that so many law firms still remain sceptical. And yet, it could be argued that there has never been a time when law firms have been in such acute need of clear branding to signify a clear, differentiated promise in the mind of a potential client. The legal marketplace has become uncomfortably competitive, winning business has become tougher and it is harder than ever to stand-out from other, similarly-eligible (and equally-hungry), firms jostling for attention. Mergers and acquisitions are accelerating and clients are increasingly calling the shots. How do they choose from the dizzying array of seemingly-identical offerings? Increasingly, by reputation, corporate personality, or, for want of a better word, brand. And the case for developing a more sophisticated approach to brand management is growing ever stronger. First, because quick, easy access to knowledge and legal databases are commoditising some legal services, making it easier for certain routine legal tasks to be simplified, eroding the competitive advantage traditionally held by the more reputable firms; this leaves price and brand as the key differentiators. Second, and more importantly, the introduction of the Legal Services Act has set the stage for non-legal brands to leverage their well-managed reputations and goodwill to offer legal services in direct competition with traditional law firms. Now, a client who currently uses, say, UBS, HSBC or Goldman Sachs, could, theoretically, buy legal and financial services from the same trusted brand. Similarly, brands like McKinsey, Coutts, Sotheby’s, Savills, and a host of other well-known brands acting in adjacent sectors, could start to steal the attention of future clients who might be tempted to trust their promises more those of a traditional law firm.

ImageHow to compete? Develop a great brand for your firm. Great brands depend on three factors: distinctiveness, relevance and consistency.

  1. If your brand is not distinctive it will not stand-out and be heard above the noise in an increasingly crowded marketplace. This is not easy in an environment where your intellectual product is relatively similar to your competitors’. It is the strength of the promise that you offer and the credibility with you you say it that will enable you to stand out (for want of a better cliché: ‘it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it, that gets results’. Just as Virgin and BA will both fly you from London to New York, in Boeing 747 aircraft, at similar times and in similar comfort, for similar amounts of money, each has a distinctive appeal which engages with a different type of customer)
  2. It goes without saying that if your brand is not genuinely relevant to the needs of your market it will fade into oblivion. Remember that being relevant means reflecting the changing needs of clients, what seems relevant today may not be tomorrow. For example, are you expected to be in tune with the latest technology (VoIP conferencing, cloud-based file sharing, presentations on tablets, etc.), do clients expect a more global perspective? (affiliates in global locations, familiarity with international legal practices) are you offering the right remuneration options? (fixed project fees, success-related contracts, or traditional hourly rates, etc.).
  3. Consistency is vital. Could you trust someone who kept contradicting themselves or regularly behaved out of character in certain environments? How then can a client be expected to remain loyal and committed if your firm’s communications speak with a different voice in different places? Might it not seem a little disconcerting if the look and feel of your website was at odds with your annual report and practice brochures, your receptionist sounded like she belonged with neither and the impression gained when arriving for a meeting at your offices was different again; meanwhile, your staff remain oblivious to any of it?

A great brand stands for something compelling and memorable and offers clear, differentiated reasons for choosing your firm. It generates loyalty, raises expectations and adds goodwill and intangible asset value to your firm.

Image

However weak or strong, distinctive or diffused, every law firm, like every chocolate bar, has a brand. The question is not whether it exists, but what are you doing to manage it? And if you are not managing it who is? Could your competitors by stealing your place in the client’s mind?


Finally, remember that brand reputations are relative; market leaders of today can look anachronistic when the rules change (remember how insuperable the Sony Walkman looked before the arrival of the iPod?). The rules for the legal market have changed.
The stage is set. May the best brands win.


Watch brands should be special and different

For years, a friend of mine dreamt of owning a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso – or, more specifically, a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Duo with dual time zones, stainless steel case and brown croc strap!

His dream, recently, became reality when he reached a ‘significant’ birthday. You can, I think, imagine the excitement when, after months of anticipation, he opened the luxurious display box for the first time. It was everything he had hoped for. He carefully lifts it out, sensing its weight in his hand, admires the perfection of its finish, then slips it proudly onto his wrist. For weeks he felt a frisson of pleasure every time it caught his eye. His wife later told me that it had reminded her of how she had felt, years earlier, when she put-on her engagement ring for the first time! Such is the allure of a luxury watch.

Surely, such emotional, almost romantic, behaviour towards a piece of inanimate technology is irrational even absurd. Yet human nature has a habit of confounding our logic and better judgement when it comes to affairs of the heart; and choosing a luxury watch is nothing less. After all, how rational is it to willingly spend the cost of a home-full of modern technology on a mechanical watch that relies on an antiquated spring mechanism to tell the time (with, at best, tolerable accurately – provided you remember to keep wearing or winding it)? By way of illustration, my friend could have bought a new top-of-the-range laptop computer, an iPad, an iPhone, a large screen HD TV (with blu-ray and surround-sound, etc.) a Playstation for the kids and, best of all, had a nice new Seiko Kinetic watch every year for the rest of his life… and still had change from what he spent on his Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. Not strictly a fair comparison, perhaps, but remember that every single one of these purchases would, in truth, have told him the time with greater accuracy than his Jaeger-LeCoultre! Add the fact that your new mechanical timepiece will need to be professionally serviced every couple of years, at a cost roughly similar to that of having your car serviced, and you have a product whose emotional attraction would have to be pretty fantastic to overcome any rational analysis. Which, of course, it is. The truth is that our relationships with brands, particularly luxury brands, and the emotional promises they make, is, and always will be, illogical, irrational and inherently indulgent.

Curious, then, that most of the luxury watch brands talk to us, above all, about the latest technological breakthroughs in their ‘precision instruments’ – as if these were why we were buying them. Read any of the beautifully-produced booklets of the major brands and you enter a timeless ‘miniature engineering’ bubble wherein the watch manufacturer will enthuse about revolutionary new, prolonged power-reserves, or remarkable co-axial escapements, breakthroughs in blue-steel (or ‘space-age’ silicon) hairsprings or impenetrable new water-proofing techniques for even deeper diving (as if many owners would dive with an object of this value strapped to their wrist!) or, perhaps, the addition of the ultimate technical marvel, a tourbillon (never mind that it is a 200 year-old invention and of no real practical benefit today!). Of course, there is a romantic twist to the idea of a luxury watch embodying such exquisite mechanical engineering… executed by a team of mythical craftsmen working inside a surreal time warp in an enchanted valley deep in the heart of Switzerland!

It is, however, this unique craftsmanship, rather than any technological claims, that is so compelling. After all, if the most advanced innovations and supreme performance capabilities were paramount, most buyers would already have been tempted away by one of the new generations of genuinely-revolutionary Japanese luxury watch designs; yet relatively few have. Indeed, how many owners have ever even seen what lies within within the polished case of their luxury Swiss timepiece? And, of those who have (usually because their watch has an exhibition back), how many could describe what they were looking at and would know how to judge its excellence? With all due respect, most buyers of luxury watches would be unable to tell if a $50 Asian movement had been substituted for their legendary Swiss calibre (unless, and until, it failed, of course!). In essence, they invest in and trust the brand and the integrity of its promise more than any theoretical specifications. So, when Jaeger-LeCoultre describes its Reverso model as having a 21-jewel movement oscillating at 21,600 beats/hour, it will generally be read as the technical reassurance that the buyer wants to hear to justify their choice. It is of little consequence that higher specification movements may be offered, for less money, by other brands. What matters, above all, is that this beautiful timepiece is a genuine Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso with all the image associations, heritage and aspirations that this promises.


The brand promise, then, is paramount. To demonstrate this, imagine being shown two equally-attractive watches, both about the same price. The first offers a list of technical refinements, exotic materials and impressive-sounding claims, but it is from a brand you are not sure about. The retailer works hard to reassure you of its credentials, but it is hard to feel comfortable about spending this amount of money on a name that means relatively little to you. The second appears to offer comparatively few technical innovations, but it bears the name Rolex, Omega or, indeed, Jaeger-LeCoultre. It says all you need to know. Of course, the choice is rarely as stark as this. But any manufacturer with a weak, faded or unknown brand is unlikely to succeed by emphasising its technology without also focusing on, and projecting, a clear and engaging brand promise.

My friend was fortunate in having identified the marque and model that fitted his aspirations and which made a distinctive statement about his personal taste and style. But many (perhaps even the majority) of luxury watch buyers who do not have such a clear sense of what they are looking for. They are confronted with a dazzling array of brands, a few familiar names stand-out, but most simply blur into the background. What do they do? Predictably, they invest in a brand that they know feel they can trust: TAG Heuer, Omega, Breitling, Rolex, perhaps a Patek Philippe. It is hardly surprising, then, that these are consistently among the best-selling brands in their respective categories – particularly through outlets where customers are relatively unengaged with the world of luxury watches, such as airports and department stores.

So the challenge to watch brands is to invest more in developing a unique and truly differentiated brand promise, rather than simply focusing on technology then churning-out the usual cliché watch advertising (black background, wide-angle, close-up of watch with sports car or yacht in the background; or perhaps a celebrity face looking over your left shoulder into the middle distance with the watch prominently on view…) which simply becomes part of the ‘noise’ rather than truly resonating in a potential buyers mind. As if to prove how weak brand differentiation is in this market, there are now ‘watch matchmaker’ websites whose aim it is to capitalise on the confusion by profiling the watch-buyer’s lifestyle then uniting him or her with their supposed perfect horological partner! That such a service even exists is an indication that watch brands have some to go in developing distinctive, relevant and consistent brands that leave buyers in no doubt about what they stand for.

Can you imagine paying a ‘car matchmaker’ to help you choose a sports car (even if you can’t decide between a Porsche, Maserati or Aston Martin, it is unlikely to be because you don’t know what they are promising!).

Get it right and there will be many more keen, motivated and loyal watch buyers like my friend… who is, incidentally, already enthusiastically researching his next purchase, but don’t tell his wife!

Luxury Swiss Watches: Is innovation shifting from technology to brand?

When we hear “made in Switzerland” a host of images spring to mind, among the most prominent is likely to be a classical Swiss watch. Not just any watch, a superior, high-quality, mechanical watch. Explore a little deeper and we enter a world of luxury, privilege and sophistication. Brands like Patek Philippe, Rolex, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Zenith shimmer alluringly in our minds.
A recent international survey ranked Switzerland highest in the world as a country of origin associated with quality (ahead of Japan and Germany). Another study showed that consumers all over the world strongly associated Swiss products with ”high quality”, “reliability” and “luxury”. But, curiously, the same people also rated Swiss poorly when it came to “price competitiveness” and “innovation”. For the luxury watch industry, “price competitiveness” hardly matters, after all pricing is always relative and when your competitors are also Swiss the collective impact can actually be quite positive as it reinforces the cost of entry and perceived prestige of ownership. But what about innovation? It seems that many iconic Swiss watch brands seem to regard innovation as a core strength, they proclaim it in their advertising, on their websites, in their brochures and through their spokespeople. Here, for example, are some quotes from three luxury watch brochures:
“…ground breaking technological development that provides better long-term accuracy”
“…a new chapter of horological history for a new millennium”
“…futuristic, daring, high-tech and cutting edge… superior technical solutions”

It would appear then that there is either a growing anomaly between what the industry wants its audiences to think and what their audiences actually believe, or the Swiss national brand no longer reflects the industry with which it has been intrinsically-linked for the last two-and-a-half centuries.
Interestingly, there was a time, a few generations ago, when there would have been no such discrepancy. Watches might be regarded as the first high-tech gadgets in history and Switzerland‘s burgeoning watch brands lead the world in technical innovation. The development curve for the mechanical watch design actually began in the 18th century and by 1800 most of the cleverest innovations (including the chronograph, the self-winding mechanism and, most notably, the tourbillon) had already been invented, with Breguet, the premium-priced technological leader, firmly positioned as the Apple of its generation. By the end of the 19th century most of the major watch brands had established themselves and their biggest challenge was to manufacture these high-tech gadgets in ever greater numbers and at more affordable prices to meet growing international demand. It was in so doing that Switzerland’s legendary watch-making was consolidated and, as its products reached wider audiences, they had a profound and lasting effect on the national reputation. It would not be unfair to say that for much of the last century the basic architecture of the mechanical watch has remained largely unchanged. There have, of course, been significant advances made in the manufacturing processes (finer tolerances providing more consistent quality) and in the application of new high-performance materials, but these are comparatively minor to the average consumer most of whom have long given-up on the Swiss watch for daily timekeeping anyway and for whom a Swiss watch is primarily a luxury accessory.

As if to prove the point, a recent advertisement for the Cartier Santos (the wristwatch created by Cartier for the early aviator Santos-Dumont) simply takes the headline: “Since 1904”. Ironically, you could purchase the same timepiece used by Santos-Dumont to time his record-breaking 21-second flight from the airport boutique before you jet-off on a 14 hour flight across the globe!

It was, of course, the arrival of the quartz watch in the 1970s that changed everything. In terms of scientific innovation the world had moved-on and, by rational analysis, the Swiss watch industry suddenly looked about as outmoded as the record player would look on the arrival of the CD a decade later. But, for similar reasons, its appeal was re-born. It was no longer a rational product to be assessed scientifically, rather it became a subjectively-satisfying product with which buyers connect emotionally, creatively, intuitively. The luxury Swiss watch was reborn as an exquisite, hand-crafted indulgence whose functional capabilities are patently not the primary motivation for purchase. It is, today, a lovingly-crafted piece of functioning jewellery, an object of fascination and desire.

From a scientific/technological perspective, it is fair to say that the gadget innovation baton has now been seized by Japan and the USA (the national brands that rank highest in public perception for ‘innovation’). Products like Seiko’s revolutionary ‘Eco-drive‘ and ‘Ananto‘ and Citizen’s ‘Kinetic‘ models have accelerated the performance expectations of the wristwatch into a new dimension. But then, their customers’ motivations are as different from the Swiss luxury watch buyer as those of the latest Panasonic digital audio system’s are from the specialist hi-fi chosen by the audiophile buyer.

As with any market, it is vital that the brand owners understand their customers’ motivation. Clarity of positioning is essential and, with the best will in the world, no amount of window dressing about cutting edge technology is going to sell a piece of precious time-keeping jewellery even to the most technically-minded customer. While even the very finest Swiss watch mechanisms have now been eclipsed by newer technologies, this is immaterial to the appeal of the brands whose beautifully crafted products and breathtaking intricacy continue to enchant their privileged owners.

It is the brand promise and pride of ownership that will increasingly enable Swiss luxury watch brands to stand-out and thrive in the luxury marketplace. Their ability to deliver a distinctive, relevant and consistent experience will maintain their appeal and customer loyalty over time. It may well be that the key to future success in the luxury watch business will be ever less associated with the mechanism and ‘technology’ within the watch and increasingly with the sense of style, finish, quality of materials and personality that the watch exemplifies as a luxury accessory.

Although it might sound like contentious sacrilege today, is there really any reason why we should not, in future, see a luxury Swiss watch brand with a Seiko ‘Ananta’ or Citizen ‘Kinetic’ mechanism concealed within its stylish gold case? Just as Aston Martin has been dipping its toe in the water with its Cygnet concept car (a genuine Aston Martin luxury experience beneath which is a mechanically unmodified Toyota iQ city car), perhaps the future direction for all luxury brands will be to define, own and express their own authentic, emotional brand experience. Then, to determine the best way to deliver this via the most appropriate technologies currently available. This is, after all, the business model used so successfully by Apple Corporation – spiritual successors of those pioneering 18th century trailblazers, Breguet.

Watch Your Brand | 1

An extravagance that defies logic…

Is there any other product quite as enigmatic as a luxury watch?

As the world gritted its teeth in the face of economic recession in 2009, demand for high-end luxury watches confounded the pessimists and remained defiantly robust. Admittedly fewer pieces were sold, but there was a marked shift towards the more illustrious and expensive prestige brand models. The desire to own a fine luxury watch not only continues undiminished but its purchase has become even more momentous – it might be even be justified as a secure investment in uncertain times. We should, however, be under no illusion that the real motivation is invariably emotional rather than rational, i.e. “rather than seeing my money as a figure in a deposit account earning very little return, I can see it as the exquisite timepiece that I have always dreamt of”. So, when the heightened allure of a fine watch, as a luxurious escape from the grind of daily life, starts looking like an eminently sensible investment, the rational objections dissolve enabling the emotional desire to be consummated.

The fact is, an expensive watch is a personal indulgence by any reckoning, an exquisite object of desire that is often hard to justify. After all, for less than the cost of each of the regular services you’re going to need on that new mechanical masterpiece you could buy yourself a new, top-of-the-range Apple iPod (think of it as a super-accurate quartz timepiece with a free music player attached). Perhaps it is its irrational extravagance that makes it such a delicious object of desire. There are, it seems, few possessions that can generate such emotional gratification and pride of ownership.

“To be considered a success in life…”, says French advertising guru, Jacques Séguéla, “…you must own your first Rolex by the age of fifty”. The legendary brand name, or that of a similarly evocative brand possibly more to our taste, and the expectation that it signifies is a promise to which we aspire and which we know will be recognised.

Continue reading “Watch Your Brand | 1”

Watch Your Brand | 2

Intimate appeal, some brands have it…

With a multitude of luxury watch brands to choose from, some more memorable than others, but each with its own particular style, heritage and personality, how do we choose the watch brand that is right for us?

From the pages of glossy magazines to the wrists of heros, these brands compete for our attention; they show-off their credentials on ritzy websites and jostle for precedence in the jeweller’s window.

So what is it that enables some brands, collections or designs to capture our imagination and finally convince us above all others?

First we need to recognise that a watch is, quite an intimate possession, it is, quite literally, attached to us and accompanies us practically everywhere we go. It becomes an extension of ourselves and, by implication, our personality. It communicates our taste, attitude and lifestyle, or more accurately, different ‘phases’ of our lifestyle: for example, a smart dress watch might express our social evening phase, a chunky sports watch for the leisure phase and, perhaps, something more businesslike for the professional phase of our life? Our choice of fine watch is as personally-expressive as our choice of scent, clothing or the car that we drive. In fact it is arguably a more authentic indication of our genuine personality than any of these because it is typically chosen with a lifetime in mind – rather than a season, or a few years at most.

So, given how personal an expression our choice of luxury watch is, what the criteria by which we judge which one is right for us? Research has shown that the various criteria (mostly subconscious) can be distilled into the following three decision-making themes:

  1. Product design: “Do I like how it looks”
  2. Brand image: “Do I like what it says about me”
  3. Personal engagement: “Do I want to own it?”

Ironically for watch manufacturers the most important of these three components is also the hardest to measure and the least well-understood – brand image. Brand image is the intangible promise that lives in the minds of everyone with any awareness of the brand. It encapsulates everything we know about the brand, its attributes personality and values as well as the people, events and things we associate with it. We are all influenced, perhaps more than we realise, by the emotional package of elements that make-up a given brand, as well as our impressions of others who choose it (many Audi drivers may impressed by the design, comfort and performance of BMWs but they will not buy one because being a “BMW driver” does not match their self-image!). We also develop, in our subconscious, a sense of relative brand worth. As with all brand values this is dynamic and can rise and fall over time.
Although it is often slow to build it can be quick to fall, because while it might take many years to nurture and build a brand’s reputation, this can be lost very quickly when something undermines the trust we place in it.

The luxury watch consumer, like those of any other sector, is continually absorbing information and subconsciously using it to shape and refine the brand images that exist in their mind. Because brands are memorised and recalled in much the same way that we think about people, we find ourselves attracted to some more than others. So, when we go about selecting the brand that best matches our own personal values it is rather like finding a partner and falling in love.

The story begins with a growing awareness of the options available which leads to a heightened sense of those brands with which we feel feel a natural empathy and, more particularly, the products designs of those brands which best express our values.

This can take time and will draw on a number of cues in the journey from ‘awareness’ through ‘preference’ to ‘commitment’.

It is a courtship that might begin with a repertoire of possible suitors which are steadily honed down until we settle on the one that best fits our self-image and then that is the only that one will do!

Continue reading “Watch Your Brand | 2”

Watch Your Brand | 3

Start with the brand, the rest will follow…

With brand image being so important, it is easy to see why watch manufacturers spend such enormous sums on advertising and sports sponsorship. Unfortunately, too many Swiss watch manufacturers, for all their brilliance in creating, manufacturing and selling exquisite watches, have yet to truly master the discipline of strategic brand management. Consequently, most marketing programmes fall into the “just another watch campaign” category (i.e. a backdrop of some aspirational imagery with a yacht, powerboat, sports car, aircraft, etc., a bland English headline, intelligible to all international audiences, a standard ‘ten-to-two’ shot of the watch, some technical credentials and a line about how long we have been making watches…), alternatively, the brand logo might simply appear as the ‘official time keeper’ at some sports event (which, as everyone knows, amounts to little more than ‘name-drop’ publicity). With the greatest of respect to these esteemed firms and their advertising agencies, how many watch advertisements can you recall and describe right now? Leaving aside the exceptional “You never actually own…” campaign from Patek Philippe, few of us can manage more than a couple of others at best. Now, how clearly could you describe the different watch brand personalities? Probably not very accurately – other than to highlight the prestige of big names.
Now try the same test with cars, drinks or clothing brands and notice the difference. In the luxury watch industry, it is as if marketing expenditure is regarded as a necessary ‘cost of entry’ to the luxury brand marketplace and, provided the anecdotal feedback from the trade and the retail distribution is satisfactory (corroborated, hopefully, by the eventual sales of the watches), that is enough. For the average consumer (as opposed to the avid watch geeks), the challenge of differentiating between the many alternative brands means that the most dominant, consistent brands stand-out even more strongly. The retailer can redress the balance somewhat by presenting the case for the others, but, by that stage in the process, many consumers’ minds will already have been made-up. A glance at the correlation between brand strength and sales trends across most markets will demonstrate this.

Effective brand management is also key to mastering the other two decision-making themes: ‘product design’ and ‘personal engagement’. First, with respect to product design, a clearly-articulated sense of the brand’s values, personality and vision will enable a well-defined creative brief to be prepared which can save time and eliminate confusion. All too often new designs rely on the instinct and imagination of the creative studio to anticipate and create what it believes customers will find attractive, within the context of their own personal interpretation of what the brand stands for. Any doubt will generally resolved by erring on the side of caution rather than risk alarming distributors or end customers. So, when a new consumer trend emerges (such as the demand for sports watches with black cases and rubber straps – as pioneered by brands such as Hublot and Bell&Ross), many high-end manufacturers will literally spend years trying to decide whether or not it is appropriate for them stick with the familiar or embrace the trend. A clearly-defined and well-articulated brand, on the other hand, makes it quick and easy to determine whether such an approach was ‘on’ or ‘off’ brand. The third theme, ‘personal engagement’, refers to the final process of actually bonding with the product by handling it, trying it on, evaluating its quality, determining the choice of finish or colour options then, ultimately, assessing its value for money and after sales support, before making the commitment. Once again, a well planned brand strategy will inform and direct each element at every stage in the customer journey so that all touch-points project the same consistent values – from quality of the bracelet (the clasp, like the car door handle, is the first tactile interaction with the product and needs to be “on brand”) to the design of the presentation box, and from the working of the warranty to the price-point that clinches the deal.

There probably is no other product quite as enigmatic as a luxury watch. Nor is there a market quite as enigmatic, nor a strategic brand marketing challenge quite as ripe for change.

Continue reading “Watch Your Brand | 3”

Trust me, I’m a Bank Manager

bank-managerThere was a time when the bank was one of the pillars of the establishment. Together with the church, the military, the civil service and, at least in the UK,  the royal family and even (for much of the 20th century) the BBC. The bank was a dependable institution and the bank manager was as safe as houses – now he is about as safe as house prices!

Whatever happened? Is it any wonder that our society has become so disoriented and lacking confidence when its very foundations have been undermined?

We have, in short, been let down by those we used to trust. Trust is a precious commodity because there is a personal cost involved – we make ourselves vulnerable by depending on someone or something else. Any breach of trust, therefore, can leave us feeling angry, betrayed and disillusioned.

But we humans, however we dislike the idea, remain as dependent as ever on surrounding ourselves with things in which we can place our trust. As Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ demonstrates, we need to feel a sense of security and wellbeing and crave things that can be depended upon to live up to their promise. These used to be the pillars of the establishment, now these have been replaced by what we might popularly call ‘brands’.
From Apple to Omega, Manchester United to Virgin Atlantic, Swatch to BMW, Hermés to Tumi, our lives are not only dependent on trusted brands, but often defined by them. They advertise our values, even our beliefs. They are our personally-chosen pillars of our own individual establishment. If they let us down, we have the power to dump them, if they make us feel good we wear then and share them (we can ‘wear’ a BMW or a Mac simply by being consciously seen with them in public!).

Look at it this way, if you were a committed Mac aficionado and Apple did banking, wouldn’t you open an account? I bet you can already imagine what to expect when you walk through the door? The values, the attitude the service, the white space, the Financial Genius Bar and a gloriously tactile satin aluminium credit card? And how much you would (secretly) love to be seen using that card… If, for any reason, Apple doesn’t happen to float your metaphorical boat, substitute a brand that does and rewind to the beginning of the paragraph. I think you get the picture; we’re living in an individualised new world in which we are personally empowered to choose and maintain our own micro pillars, ones on which we can depend and which reflect our own lifestyle, values, vision and outlook.

The point here is not to lure popular brands into banking, rather to encourage banking brands to become popular brands. They ought to be working harder than ever to project the values that will generate trust and earn our critically-needed customer commitment and advocacy; instead, most of them still seem to be behaving like self-obsessed nincompoops. Balance the column inches on controversial bonus payments, payoffs and management incompetence against those on innovation, new initiatives or customer service strategies.

I’m guessing that if Apple did banking, the words: “trust me, I’m a bank manager” could, before long, take on an altogether more compelling tone!

genius

Will Apple Crumble?

apple-logoApple is a very special brand. Like Virgin, Nike and Coca Cola, it has transcended its category and become a way of life. To its followers, the delicious anticipation of unpacking any new product from that emporium of ‘cool’ (be it an ipod, a desktop computer or anything in-between) never fails to elicit an admiring grin, as they marvel at how clever, how beautiful and how elegant it all is. How did they think of that? Have you seen this? Even humble power adaptors are lovingly-peeled of their shiny, protective skins before their ornamental beauty succumbs to function. Wave after wave of ultra-desirable products have been longed-for, lusted-over then voraciously consumed by millions of Apple fans all over the world. apple_cinema_displayYou only have to watch an Apple-user flush with pride, as they slip their MacBook onto their lap on the train home, to see how the brand ignites passion – the Apple logo on the back of the screen glows as confidently as they do! Like any exclusive club, there is a joining fee and followers have always been prepared to pay a premium for the privilege of owning Apple products and for the status they confer.

Although the Apple universe has grown massively over recent years, it still something of a niche brand in the personal computer marketplace. So, after years of developing passionately-inspired products for the creatively-enlightened, Apple recently decided that seducing the dedicated was no longer enough. Buoyed by inroads into the lucrative corporate world with its Blackberry-bashing iphone and ambidextrous Macs (running Windows on one hand and Mac OS X on the other), Apple, evidently, believes that it is finally ready for the big time. The lucrative business market is beckoning and it is too tempting to resist.

And so the latest generation of ‘imac’ desktop models arrived with their smart and serious new look featuring a high-tech satin silver finish with neat black details, a theme that continued with the MacBook Air (the almost-impossibly thin executive toy that has become the ‘must have’ object-of-envy in business class lounges from LAX to LHR). Now it is the turn of the mainstream ‘MacBook’ laptop range – perhaps the most important product of all. The MacBook (which is successor to the iconic iBooks and PowerBooks) is, quite simply, the coolest computer on campus and, therefore, the laptop on which future generations of Mac users are weaned. In redesigning it Apple is redefining the look of the popular Mac and reasserting the essential values of the brand.

pro_mouse

So, it has boldly broken with the past and has left behind the visual language of naïve glossy white moldings, sexy perspex mice, rubbery blacks and tactile finishes that used to characterise Apple’s funky ‘design studio’ image. These have, perhaps inevitably, given way a contemporary formula of satin silver and black – albeit as nicely executed as you would expect from Apple. This executive makeover will, no doubt, prove attractive to corporate customers who can now buy laptops that combine Apple usability with boardroom-friendly styling. The specs tick all the boxes and the prices are reasonable enough when you take all the latest features into account. All of which is satisfyingly rational, but disturbingly un-Apple.

The worry is that, in chasing after the big corporate markets Apple risks ‘going native’ and allowing its uniqueness to be diluted. The creative style and risqué edginess that have always set Apple products apart, engendering it with an emotionally-charged ‘love-it-or-loath-it’ allure, is now under threat. The latest products simply look and feel too sensible and ‘grown-up’ to bear the Apple logo. The new styling might be clean and elegant with some fine detailing, but look sideways at any of the new laptops and you could be looking at a Sony Vaio, Compaq Presario or one of many other worthy but forgettable business tools. The risk is that they could, ultimately, become dependent on ‘spec and price’ shoot-outs with the big PC brands to maintain and grow market share in the commercial quagmire of the business computer market. Can anyone imagine the big guys rolling-over and allowing Apple to come and steal their most profitable sales without a putting-up an aggressive fight the like of which no Mac has seen before?

Has Apple been so blinded by ambition that it risks losing its soul, the very soul that has always set it apart? Frankly, when Apple buyers are reduced to choosing a new Mac on spec and price, the magic will have been lost and the brand reduced to a deflated effigy of its former glory. Apple faces a stark choice, it can follow the money and trade on residual Apple-ness while it lasts; or it can take careful stock of its brand values, work hard to nourish and nurture the special difference that sets it apart and develop the kinds of new products that will continue to thrill and delight its emotionally-driven, opinion-forming, cool-seeking customers.

Apple’s phenomenally-potent brand appeal, based on exciting and alluring products, has always been its secret weapon. It has sustained it for years, even when the products were, on occasion, technically below par. Today, as it squares-up to face the industry Goliath’s, Apple needs to be certain that its secret weapon is up to scratch or the battle will be shorter and the end of the story less victorious than it had planned.

MacBook, Vaio, Satellite

Obama – the power of the brand!

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

People often buy a brand with their heart, before rationalising the product with their head. As this snippet shows, Obama has a great brand promise – even when the product is relatively unknown. Now that America has made its purchase decision we must trust that the product will deliver against the brand promise – if only because the resulting customer satisfaction and loyalty will keep Sarah Palin on the shelf!

Listen here to the power of the Obama brand!