Apple’s brand may be simple, cool, and cohesive, but it wasn’t always that way. In 1976, Apple’s first ad for the Apple 1 played up features like “16-Pin 4K RAM chips” and “a fast (1 kilobaud) cassette interface.”
Imagine trying to sell a Mac that way today. Some of Apple’s latest ads don’t even pitch its computers directly, much less go into detail about their storage or processing capabilities.
“Apple has mastered the art of minimalism,” explains Christine Moorman, senior professor of business administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, “where product aesthetics, user interfaces, the brand logo, support functions, and even advertising are stripped down to the fundamentals.”
What changed? Technology evolved. Apple’s audience widened. The pace of society increased. Everything became more complex, so Apple did just the opposite: It simplified.
The Price of Product Success
Steve Jobs championed simplicity at a time when technology was making its way beyond offices into most Americans’ homes. Presciently, Jobs realized that Apple’s audience was expanding beyond educated business buyers, so Apple’s branding must as well.
Many promising tech companies find themselves in Apple’s situation. But according to Drew Neisser, founder and CEO of B2B agency Renegade, few understand what it means for their marketing.
“Most successful tech companies start out with a focused offering that fulfills an unmet need for a very specific audience,” says Neisser, whose strategic boutique specializes in helping tech companies simplify their brand story. “Once that offering gains a beachhead, there is a natural inclination to create products that expand the overall customer base.”
Worried that those new buyers won’t see the full value of their tech, the company adds services like training and consulting. Copycats join in. Soon, the business has multiple competitors, product lines, and target audiences — and no story to hold the entire brand together.
The Persona Paradox
Multiple personas might seem like a smart solution for a growing brand. So why do a few tech brands like Apple insist on marketing that appeals to a broad audience? They’ve learned to avoid what Neisser calls “the persona paradox.”
“Tech CMOs are under tremendous pressure to drive short-term revenue,” Neisser points out. “This leads them to create separate messaging for each of their target personas. The paradox is that more personas mean more confusion when the buying committee convenes.”
“The emphasis on personas also leads to complex messaging matrices of features and functions aligned in theory with the interests of that particular target,” explains Neisser. “But in practice, these end up just being words that don’t add up to a larger, more compelling story.”
Neisser recognizes that the individuals on the buying committee may have specific information needs, but these are best met through the creation of tools like ROI calculators, unbiased buyers guides, demos, relevant case studies, analyst reviews, and the like. “The key,” Neisser notes, “is that each tool reinforces the overall brand story and makes it easier for the buyer to make the right decision for their business.”
Especially in an age of thin attention spans, actions like these tools speak louder than words. But it’s just one word that Neisser bases his firm’s approach to tech marketing on: cats.
‘Cats’ Keeps it Simple
Renegade uses the acronym “cats” to build remarkably simple, yet profoundly effective, marketing programs for tech brands:
1. Courageous strategy
During this discovery phase, Renegade interviews key executives, customers, prospects, and analysts. It learns not just the company’s company’s vision, but what actually makes the brand unique. “It takes some courage to be distinctive, and even more to be unique,” Neisser points out, “but anything less simply won’t cut through.”
2. Artful ideation
By the end of the ideation stage, Renegade arrives at what Neisser calls a “purpose-driven story statement,” or a phrase of eight words or fewer that expresses the brand’s promise. For Cofense, a phishing detection company once called PhishMe, Renegade identified an action-oriented purpose that became both a rallying cry and a tagline: “Uniting humanity against phishing.”
3. Thoughtful execution
The best stories aren’t static. To bring them to life, Renegade prescribes a sequence of consistent actions that inspire employees, then engage customers, and, finally, attract prospects. In Cofense’s case, those actions included introducing its new story through a 90-second video anthem at its annual user conference, Submerge. It subsequently invited customers to explain how they were uniting their own employees against phishing.
4. Scientific method
Tech CMOs are no strangers to data, but Neisser cautions them not to take it too far. “Martech is not media,” he laughs. “It doesn’t build awareness, and it takes a lot of man-hours to maximize so take care not to overinvest in pursuit of more data points.”
Instead, Neisser encourages clients to use a few blended metrics to assess the success of their marketing activities against their three core targets: employees, customers, and prospects. Ideally, these metrics are established with the help and blessing of the CFO, lending credence to their value. Importantly, CMOs need to set aside at least 10% of their budgets for testing, helping to build a culture of experimentation.
That might sound like a lengthy process for a strategic boutique that prides itself on simple, purpose-driven marketing. But a thorough process may not — and in Neisser’s view, should not — translate to a complex brand.
Simple Touches Tell the Story
Successful tech firms pack a lot of information into single brand assets. Think about the logos of Amazon and Google: a smile and a multicolored “G.” Each reminds consumers not just of the company’s name, but also of its brand promise. Amazon customers are happy. Google users are diverse and capable.
Although Case Paper, which Renegade helped rebrand, isn’t a tech company, its logo takes a similar tack. To transition away from product-centric marketing, Renegade worked with the company to package its quirky sense of humor into all of its marketing starting with its logo. Placing the words “On the” just above the “Case” in “Case Paper” turned the logo into both a visual and verbal pun that invites viewers into the brand’s overall “on the case” story.
On paper and in the digital world, this efficient means of storytelling reflects shrinking attention spans. “There are challenges for brands because, whatever the media channel, advertisers are only getting a few seconds of attention,” argues Facebook Communications Planner Pete Buckley.
Whether tech brands are ready or not, the writing is on the wall: Simple brand stories cut through the noise. Today’s consumers simply don’t have time to figure out what chameleon brands actually stand for.
Steve Jobs saw it back in the ‘80s, and Apple’s success stems in no small part from his insight: In an age of busy buyers, complexity kills, and simplicity sells.