The Apple Effect.

2009/08/05 at 15:44 Leave a comment

Styles and trends are cyclical- an idea of which people in most industries are hardly ignorant. Palettes, silhouettes, values, social initiatives, often linked to each other and, of course, to economic conditions, the single most important decision-making factor in the average working class life.

Tough times often expose quality over trend- finding consumers making choices on what will serve them best, rather than what will make them edgier, cooler, appear more “in the know.” There is a trend towards simplicity, discarding the cool gadgets and bells and whistles that may be fun (a perfectly valid value proposition), but less essential.

This goes beyond products to packaging, a simplified design, less colors, smoother/ simpler fonts, most likely some of these decisions based on costing, a factor of which the average consumer is unaware. That little foil logo? The complicated die-cut, the textural aspects… Saving the manufacturer tiny amounts per unit, but adding up when it comes to the bottom line.

There has been a general trend towards more “generic” packaging- sterile, simplified, spare. The kind we used to think of as representing the generic or house brand. From HBA to high end consumer products and services, companies were scaling back the ‘flair’ and focusing on the absolute essentials.

This time, however, I think we can attribute this trend more to what I call “The Apple Effect” than to the recession, especially since the current was heading in that direction before US banks collapsed and forced us to get back to basics.

First came the iPod. And it was white. White! Who releases a daily use consumer product that will be touched and pawed and thrown into bags in white? Apple. And it was genius. Totally distinct, recognizable even from the snake of the wire and the tiny ear buds. As this became iconic, variations popped up- first a couple of colors and then a whole rainbow. As each new format or next generation product was released, the palettes were limited- white, maybe black, possibly a partner-inspired black with red tinge (a la U2).

What quickly followed were the skins- in all colors. Instinctively to protect the white casing, but also to make each owner feel individual, expressive. By this time of course, multiple colors became part of Apple’s regular offerings, but the ‘damage’ had been done and the iconic brand had been imprinted. White/ Black- no packaging bursts or call outs or design extras. Let the product speak for itself, though the actual catalog had moved on.

Other companies followed suit to various degrees- how could they not? Here’s a company that has an excellent product, but not entirely unique. The iPhone has basic features free flip phones had three years ago- picture texts, cut and paste (recently rectified) and a ton of absolutely useless apps. But, it’s cool. Or perceived to be so. People had waited in line for this, signed exorbitant contracts they would have considered ludicrous in any other situation, and just when the cracks in their faith began to appear, here comes the next generation. With cut and paste! And back into line they went, resigning these contracts, with early upgrade fees in the hundreds of dollars… with very little grumbling.

The other perception was that everyone had one. In the US, Blackberry sales outnumber those of the iPhone. Most likely because they are primarily are bought for and by businesses, with good reason. They’re more practical. But they have much the same “cool” stuff iPhones do, it’s just not the value proposition focused on in sales, marketing or advertising.

A perfect example of a good idea not being translatable is the Tropicana Orange Juice debacle. From a NY Times article on the outcry against the changed packaging comes the following explanation:

Some of those commenting described the new packaging as “ugly” or “stupid,” and resembling “a generic bargain brand” or a “store brand.”

“Do any of these package-design people actually shop for orange juice?” the writer of one e-mail message asked rhetorically. “Because I do, and the new cartons stink.”

Others described the redesign as making it more difficult to distinguish among the varieties of Tropicana or differentiate Tropicana from other orange juices.

Clearly CPG goods can fall prey to the “generic” association more than most categories of product, but it’s a good lesson to be learned. In their desire to be more relevant, Tropicana execs forgot their core consumer and discarded their icon and along with that, the core equity of the brand- the orange with the straw coming out of it- fresh juice, straight from the orange. The new packaging had a glass of orange juice. That in no way allows Tropicana to visually express its freshness and purity, which is what the brand is built on.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is HBA/ pharmacy. There is an inherent consumer affinity for clean packaging and POS for health and beauty aids, vitamins and supplements and pharmaceuticals. Again, it relates directly to the equity of the products and what is important to consumers when it comes to these products. For instance, Boots Pharmacy retail outlets are white- walls, shelving, upscale store brand packaging. But because of the products and what they promise, that cleanliness is comforting. I’d be happy as a clam to camp out in Boots overnight. It’s sterile- in the best sense of the word. Like an operating room (as opposed to Kalahari salt flats). HBA should be sterile. It’s for our health.

So what’s the point? The point is that the success of Apple’s branding has seduced many a brand to follow suit, mixing up simplicity and classic with generic and white which quite often just looks dirty. White is hard to maintain in a retail space and unless it’s maintained immaculately, it doesn’t survive. Apple’s own packaging and retail environments are often black with white accents. A perfect translation of the ultimate simplicity, with realistic durability of both physical space, POS and packaging.

There are so many ways to strip down the extras- for costing, branding and classicism, but duplicating the Apple aesthetic without breaking it down into its deliberate, specific and equity related parts can result in disaster- consumer revolt in the case of Tropicana/ PepsiCo or getting lost in the pack, becoming generic and perceived as a “me, too,” follower brand.

We can become so fixated on our competition and what they’ve done right that we, understandably, want to duplicate that success. But this business is not a monkey-see, monkey-do industry. We need to ask the hard questions of why and how. The cleanliness and purity belie a complicated and deliberate strategy- certainly one that is not one size fits all, though that is the outward message it portrays.

We often speak of brand DNA, and there are very real parallels in the world of genetics and their expression that I won’t touch upon here. But it’s a good thing to keep in mind when trying to replicate the success of another- sometimes the simplest ideas belie extremely complicated systems.

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Entry filed under: branding, color, consumer goods, culture, DNA, equity, linkedin, marketing, replication, retail.

District 9 movie marketing- will the political/ cultural allegories resonate?* Color bringing brands back to life…

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