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The Whiteboard: Make your brand take the Apple test — and know the answers

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For a poetic, 60-second lesson in pure branding, take a closer look at the recent Apple commercial titled “Our signature.”

You may recall it begins with a woman on the subway with headphones, closing her eyes and smiling as she listens to a relaxing tune. The spot moves through images of people using their Apple products to enjoy their lives and particularly to enhance their interactions with one another.

The voiceover begins with:

This is it.

This is what matters.

The experience of a product.

About 50 years ago, an insightful professor at Harvard Business School, Theodore Levitt, quipped, "People don't want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter-inch holes." Apple knows this. It's what its products do, not what its products are, that matters more.

Of course, Apple has managed to transform portable music and how we buy it, take smartphones to new heights and consistently turn out the highest quality personal computers on the planet. Do you remember what it took to make a mixed tape before iPods came along? Hours and hours of painstaking effort. To make one for someone else as a gift was an act of love. Thanks to Apple, we can now do it in five minutes.

The VO continues:

How will it make someone feel?

Will it make life better?

Does it deserve to exist?

I don't think you could ask a better question about your company, your product or your brand than, "Does it deserve to exist?" And you can use the first two lines of the above clip to help answer that question.

A key to understanding any brand is to determine how it makes customers feel about themselves when they buy it. Brands are ultimately about self-esteem. We use brands that make us feel better about ourselves. Buy organic and feel healthy. Take the kids to Disney World and feel like a good parent. Use FedEx and feel like a smart businessperson.

Samsung and others have occasionally tried to mock Apple users for trying to be too cool or hip, as though that is what the brand is about. And while there may be some truth to that, the real core of the Apple brand is that it makes people feel like creative individuals who can express themselves uniquely through their Apple products.

Which leads me to the climatic moment of the spot and the lessons it teaches:

We spend a lot of time on a few great things

Until every idea we touch

Enhances each life it touches.

Very few brands could make a claim like this believable. But it's no coincidence that many great, successful brands can. In Jim Stengel's book "Grow," which is all about how the most powerful brands succeed, he asserts that all great brands are ultimately about improving people's lives in one way or another. He believes that Apple accomplishes this by pursuing the brand ideal of inspiring exploration, which is easily brought to mind if you have ever used any one of Apple's apps or programs, such as iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes or, well, iThink you iGet it.

To survive and flourish, a brand must convince some portion of the market that it's the best choice for whatever bit of life improvement the buyer is looking for.

The spot concludes with a rare, self-conscious statement from one of the most valuable brands in the world:

You may rarely look at it

But you'll always feel it.

This is our signature

(Super: Designed by Apple in California)

… and it means everything.

Honestly, this may be one of the most clever ways of implying "made in USA" that I can recall. Of course, it doesn't say it literally, and Apple's manufacturing is largely outsourced to China and other countries, but it gets across the idea that this is American ingenuity at work, just in case you were wondering.

Again, it's not about the product and who put the pieces together, it's about what the product does to enhance your life.

So take the Apple Test. Ask the same questions it does about your brand, whether it's consumer, business-to-business or nonprofit. Does it deserve to exist? How does it make someone feel? Does it enhance people's lives?

Great brands know the answers to these questions. And keeping it that way is what branding is all about.

David Taylor is president of Lancaster-based Taylor Brand Group, which specializes in brand development and marketing technology. Contact him via www.taylorbrandgroup.com.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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