It’s difficult to imagine a more inspirational branding success story than Apple. Founded by two college dropout buddies who borrowed the money to build their first computers based on good faith and a promise, Apple is now America’s first $700 billion company. Moreover, it is one of the most recognized, respected and iconic brands in the world.

Your small business may never achieve billion-dollar revenues – and you may not even want it to – but you do want your brand to be as trusted and vital to your customers as Apple is to practically the whole world. Fortunately, many of the brand-building lessons you can draw from Apple’s 40-year rise are as relevant to your small business as they are to a huge, multi-national corporation.

The benefits of branding for small businesses

In many ways, your small business brand is – or should be – no different from Apple’s. It should encompass everything the public knows and thinks about your company, including the level of customer service you deliver, your reputation, how you communicate with customers, and your “look.”

Your logo design and website design are intrinsic to your brand identity, and so is the signage outside every location, the uniform your employees wear, and how they address your customers. All these aspects of your business are as fundamental to building your brand identity as your marketing and advertising efforts are.

Successful small business branding means all these parts work together to create a cohesive, positive, engaging and useful identity in the minds of your customers. Without a strong and clear brand identity, even businesses with great products and excellent customer service will struggle to succeed.

Good branding yields countless benefits. It helps you win new customers and solidify your identity with current ones, supports your advertising and marketing goals, inspires your employees, increases your corporate recognition and builds financial value.

Identifying those successful branding qualities in Apple is easy. Small businesses can borrow many of Apple’s tactics to build their powerful brand identity.

Here are 10 lessons from Apple that you can apply to your small business branding efforts.

1. Leverage emotion to build brand identity.

Steve Jobs once said that “The chance to make a memory is the essence of brand marketing.” Good branding engages emotions, not just reason, and builds on that connection to create a memorable identity. Branding succeeds when it sparks a positive emotional resonance within consumers. Customers are far more likely to remember – and purchase – products and services that make them feel good.

Apple famously did this in the mid-1990s. The company’s popularity had waned; its brand recognition was low and its reputation poor. Under Jobs’ leadership, Apple launched an advertising campaign that featured heroes – both living and gone – whose passion and convictions had altered the world in a significant way. The heroes evoked an emotional response in the viewers, and the subtext of the ads made it clear that Apple was a company that was passionate about world-changing innovation.

2. Know who you are.

It’s difficult to establish a brand identity if you’re unsure what yours should be. Jobs said Apple’s branding addressed the question of “What are we here to do?” The answer to that question informed not only the company’s marketing and advertising, but every aspect of its corporate culture and its interactions with consumers.

What is your company’s mission? You must first define for yourself what your company wants to be, and then find ways to clearly and consistently communicate that identity to consumers. Define your story and use reliable marketing tools to share your story with consumers.

3. Consistency is key.

Do you remember “New Coke”? It faced many challenges, not the least among them was that the new product came in a new package that diverged sharply from the brand’s iconic script. Combined with the fact that virtually no one liked the taste of the new product, the lack of consistency in branding was one more nail in the coffin of New Coke.

Of course, if your visual brand identity isn’t working for you, it pays to engage in professional logo design and other rebranding tactics to find a better fit. But once you have an identity that meets your needs, it’s vital to stick with it. Changing your “look” or your approach too often undermines consumers’ understanding of who you are as a company.

In contrast, Apple consistently places a lower case “i” on new digital products – the iPhone, iPad, iPod, iWatch. This consistent application of a key branding component ensures that consumers can easily identify a new product as coming from Apple, even if they’ve not heard of it at all.

4. Differentiate yourself with real differences.

As a small business, you may be tempted to set yourself apart by undercutting your competitors’ prices. But that approach is not sustainable in the long term, nor does it do anything positive to improve your brand identity.

Instead, differentiate yourself as Apple did, through innovation, superior customer service, and marketing and advertising campaigns that engage consumers’ emotions. Apple’s success illustrates that people will pay a premium for products and services that offer substantive differences. Good branding means you ask a fair price for your product and services, and that you communicate to consumers the value suppositions that prove you deserve to get that price.

5. Find your niche and then take command of it.

Everyone is looking for that sweet spot where an unfilled need or desire leaves consumers primed to buy as soon as a good option presents itself. But identifying your niche isn’t enough. You must also take steps to ensure you emerge in consumers’ minds as the leading choice in your specialized area.

Apple was one of the pioneers of personal computing. So was Microsoft and a host of other lesser-known companies that have come and gone in the past four decades. After early success commanding a good portion of its niche, the company lost its marketing mojo in the 1990s and its revenues suffered. Apple solved this problem in two ways. It focused its marketing on recreating its image as an industry-leading pioneer in personal computing, and it created new niches for itself, including in digital music and smartphones.

Today, virtually no one would describe Apple as a “niche” company. Indeed, its products now permeate nearly every aspect of American life.

6. Walk in the customer’s shoes.

Jobs was notoriously unimpressed with the concept of focus groups. Rather, he advocated for putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and thinking about what you would want from your company.

One of Apple’s strengths has always been its ability to design its own new products, but it has also successfully improved concepts taken from others, turning them into something superior and more relevant to consumers than the original concept. Jobs did this by envisioning what his product needed to solve for consumers and then asking himself what he would find useful, helpful or just plain cool if he were in the consumer’s shoes.

Of course, to do this well, you need to understand who your customers are and what they really need. Once you know exactly who you’re selling to, it’s easier to imagine yourself in their shoes and create innovative solutions that you believe would help you in their situations.

7. Surround yourself with talent and quality.

Who would turn down a job with Apple? Not many people. The company’s reputation as a top employer allows it to attract quality people, and the excellence of its staff translates into better products, services, and customer experiences.

The people you employ speak directly to the quality of your brand. Surround yourself with talented people who are committed to quality and are passionate about their jobs. Their professional image should feed and build your positive brand identity.

8. Lead, don’t just follow.

It’s natural for small businesses to compete with each other. But if you’re constantly following what someone else is doing, you’ll never get the chance to lead. That’s not to say you should ignore what the competition is up to. Apple never does.

The concept of the smartphone was around for several years before Apple entered the field. Instead of chasing behind what other smartphone makers were doing, Jobs’ team built on the basic concept, created its own operating system and added the first touchscreen. Apple didn’t create the concept of digital music, but it did create products and services that made digital music widely accessible to the general public.

Of course, you’ll always need to be aware of what competitors are doing, but the bulk of your energy and branding efforts should be focused on using your differentiating strengths to break new ground in your industry.

9. Build relationships with customers.

If there’s one thing small businesses will always be able to do better than big corporations, it’s to build relationships with customers. It’s far easier to get to know each other and create a lasting connection when you’re in direct contact – when a customer walks into your store, calls your office, comments on your company blog, gives feedback on your new website design, or responds to an email offer.

Apple’s relationship-building success has stemmed from its ability to interact with customers on a much more personal level than is typical of big companies. What’s more, it’s leveraged honesty in its branding to engender trust among consumers. When you buy an “i” anything, you have a good idea of what you’ll be getting, because Apple has consistently delivered products and services that fulfill its brand promise.

Elevating customer expectations and then living up to them is at the heart of brand-building relationships.

10. Don’t fear failure, fear losing that hunger.

Jobs’ career with Apple is a story of failures as well as successes. What failure could be more ignominious than being fired from the CEO position of a company you founded? Jobs didn’t dwell on failures. Instead, he focused on maintaining his hunger to succeed; that passion led him back to Apple and, in turn, helped Apple rebuild its amazing brand success.

Never forget your brand’s objective, and be willing to take calculated risks that can move you toward your goals. Rather than focusing your branding efforts on avoiding failure, emphasize the quest for success. Jobs advocated listening to your gut. It worked for him repeatedly; when the iPad first came out, consumers and critics were skeptical – until they actually used one. The iPad quickly became the fastest-growing Apple product in the company’s history.

Key takeaways from Apple’s success

Apple’s branding story continues to be written, and by all indications it promises to continue being impressive. Your company can write its own success story by borrowing some of Apple’s most effective branding tactics. Here’s a recap:

  • Build brand identity by creating emotion in consumers.
  • Define the identity you want to communicate.
  • Be consistent in how you communicate your brand.
  • Find substantive ways to differentiate yourself from the competition.
  • Identify and command your niche, or create new ones for yourself.
  • Imagine yourself in the customer’s shoes to better understand what they want/need.
  • Surround yourself with people and partners who display the kind of talent and quality you want associated with your brand.
  • Instead of chasing competitors, use your strengths to blaze new trails for your company.
  • Emphasize building relationships with customers.
  • Rather than focusing your efforts on avoiding failure, concentrate on creating success.

Although your small business will never match Apple’s marketing budget, these tactics mean you don’t have to. They cost little to implement. As Jobs said:

“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R & D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R & D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

© 2015 – 2018, Contributing Author. All rights reserved.

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