Just how important is a part in Apple's brand story?

There's a reason competitors like to go up against Apple [AAPL]: that reason's not just about business, it's because they hope to become part of the company's story. That story is pre-eminent among consumer brands, and other less well-fabled firms hope competing with Cupertino will be enough to seize themselves a speaking part in the Apple movie.

Battle of the brands

Samsung, Google, Microsoft, SanDisk, Real Technology, Napster 2.0, Zune, Flip, Palm, Research In Motion -- all these brands have at one time attempted to stand up against Apple. When they do they have all (at one time or another) chosen to take a direct stance against their competitor. In most cases they failed.

Apple's story is its identity. It forms an integral element to the power of its brand. Others hope that by involving themselves within its story they can nurture their own fiction. This is why Samsung continues to try to innovate its own mythology by emulating, imitating or castigating the Apple story line. It's all about marketing -- though the best marketing also demands consistent integrity in order to be credible.

The company formed by the two Steve's (Wozniak and Jobs) has managed to become a credible story, that credibility is also why so many people relate so strongly to its brand. A recent Aesop survey across 1,530 people identified Apple as the UK's best storyteller, ahead of the biggest UK brands as well as major US brands including McDonald's and Coca-Cola.

Apple took the lead in seven of ten research categories including "brands considered to have a unique character or personality" and "brands with a clear sense of purpose or vision."

“This study looks at brands through the lens of narrative and its constituent parts,” said Ed Woodcock, strategy director at Aesop. “The questions are designed to find out which well-known brands demonstrate a ‘heroic’ sense of who they are, what they stand for – and by implication what they’re up against – and what their ultimate purpose is. When these elements come together consistently over time, consumers are more likely to figure that a brand has a great story."

Consistency, by design

That sense of identity is integral across Apple's public facade. Visit an Apple Retail outlet, unwrap some Apple packaging, take a look at its Website or use its software or hardware and it's easy to discern Apple's attempt to ensure every element of your experience of any part of the company in some way reflects the central tenets of the brand.

You are exposed to its story line first, and then you decide if you love it or loathe it.

The company's recent call to arms within the below ad reflects its continued effort to define its brand and story line. The ad is particularly important as it follows the relatively recent loss of company founder, savior, genius and figurehead, Steve Jobs -- though I also miss his sense of humor.

Ed Woodcock puts it this way:

“People relate to characters in a story. Every story needs a protagonist and likewise every brand story. Brands need character for people to relate to them. In most cases, the brand is the hero of its own story, and its personality comes through in the tone of voice of its communications. But a spokesperson or character can also help this process of personification, which explains why KFC (the Colonel) and Jack Daniels (they eponymous) have scored well in the study. Quite simply, when it comes to this question it’s easier to relate to a person than an abstract identity.”

Apple's recent ads reflects the company's continued shift from being an entity defined by a person (Steve Jobs) into one defined by its own abstract identity. It's a time of transition as its story enters a new chapter. My impression of these ads is that while these were well intentioned, they somehow lacked that touch of humor I expected in the Jobs' era.

Original Apple's?

"I think that since the demise of [Steve] Jobs people have been concerned about what will happen to the Apple brand. People have been anticipating something that will show that Apple is still original," brand expert Jonathan Gabay told CNN today.

The challenge of moving to a new chapter following the loss of a main protagonist is that doing so leaves a vacuum, and it's precisely this vacuum the latest batch of Apple's competitors hope to grab space within.

Samsung, for example, is building its own story line as Apple's arch-nemesis -- it seems to have achieved that position without yet managing to create its own consistent set of values, other than product diversity and relative affordability.

Having come so far in terms of defining this new identity for itself, the company must now decide on what its intrinsic identity might be. It needs to do this because it's inevitable that at some point the two brand stories will once again return to separate paths, when they do, Samsung needs an identity beyond that of being the anti-Apple -- it needs to stand for things, rather than against them.

"Creating a narrative helps people to see what a brand is about and share its goals. There is external storytelling, which is for customer benefit and can really give the brand a shape and a purpose in people’s brains. Once a brand and its story is understood it can create a real affinity between itself and the customer," says Woodcock.

Plot control

It's possible this is why Apple has avoided giving competing firms too much airtime within its own marketing efforts -- a few well-chosen criticisms during product launches have the effect of grudgingly conceding opponents do exist while limiting their space within Apple's precious brand story line.

Litigation between Apple and its enemies doesn't always go Apple's way, but does cast doubt on other people's integrity. Did Android device makers really copy Apple? In some courts they did, in others the answer is no. For most independent observers, the question remains.

You see, the nature of Apple as a company (which inspires near religious devotion among some) is intrinsically connected with its identity story. It is perhaps inevitable that as the company faces foes dedicated to seizing space within its story line following the passing of its founder that its identity should be in a state of flux. Some even say the company needs a fresh marketing vision.

Lee Clow, chairman of Media Arts Lab and director of media arts for TBWAWorldwide responds: “Apple is one of the great, pure brands in the world. It was built on world-changing genius and a passion for perfection. Apple created products that changed all of our lives. The fact that competitors now make similar products, many would argue not quite as good as the originals, only means Apple now has competition. OK. Competition is what makes products better, and great brands stronger. So Apple will continue to invent. And our job continues to be reminding the world why only Apple is Apple.”

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