To Thrive in Turbulent Times: Become a Tech Brand People Like

By Nirm Shanbhag

In 2012 the tech industry’s titans supplied dramatic tales of dizzying success and dismal failure: Apple’s astonishing rise to the top and BlackBerry’s race for the bottom; HTC’s jump forward versus Nokia’s slide; and, as ever, Google’s impressive growth. It all proves the old saying: If there’s one constant, it’s change. And in the tech industry, change is as tumultuous and plentiful as it gets.

Individually, each brand’s trajectory is worthy of a case study, but taken as a whole, they tell a far more interesting story about what it takes to stand out and gain ground in rapidly changing markets. On the surface, the winners in this year’s race — Apple, Google, Samsung, and Intel — are companies that have fought hard to find and maintain their relevance. Just as we asserted last year, those brands that found a way to matter in the hearts and minds of audiences also found ways into their wallets. Conversely, loss of brand value and market share hit hard for those who made missteps. HP suffered as its story shifted away from its products and towards its leadership turmoil. Nokia saw few results from its highly publicized partnership with Microsoft. But worst of all were those who simply refused to acknowledge that the world had changed. The most glaring example, of course, is BlackBerry, whose downward spiral shows just how quickly (and monumentally) the ground can shift in the world of technology.

Looking a little deeper, it becomes clear that the solution is not as simple as developing the right advertising campaign. The reality is that many of those who experienced brand success this year did so despite lukewarm campaigns. Others spent heavily to build up expectations, made promises they were ultimately unable to keep, and dropped as a result. Here is where we find the lesson for brand builders, marketing managers, and CEOs alike. In the technology sector, where today is so yesterday, the most important thing a company can do isn’t to find its story, it’s to live it.

For years, Apple has epitomized what happens when a brand goes from being a force that drives marketing to a force that drives the business. Volumes have been written about the many ways in which Apple’s brand comes to life, from industrial design to retail salesperson training. The presence of Apple comes through in everything they do. Having equipped the global consciousness with a clear understanding of what an Apple experience should entail, Apple has been able to rewrite the rules of consumer computing in markets that were once deemed untouchable to premium brands. China has opened its doors to Apple, with millions craving iPhones, MacBooks, and the wonders of iTunes. Brazil is speckled with retailers creating stores within stores that recreate the Apple experience for discerning customers. iPads pop up in airport lounges around India.

In the past 11 years, Apple has launched three products — the iPod, iPhone, and iPad — that have created brand new markets, stoking and fulfilling desires consumers didn’t even know they had. It has jump started and set a standard for the mobile era that others are now scrambling to follow. Yet nearly all experts agree that Apple’s brand, not so much its products, is the real key to its success. Apple is the archetypal emotional brand. It’s not just intimate with its customers, it is beloved. For many people, it embodies the very essence of imagination, design, and innovation. Apple has a story and a meaning; it lives that story and meaning, and lives it well.

Customers will settle for things that are brand basics in other sectors, like easy to- understand offerings and being rewarded for their loyalty.

At the other end of the spectrum lies BlackBerry, a company that defined the smartphone market just a decade ago. Today, the debate is whether we are about to witness a supernova or a quiet quelling of the flame. Earlier this summer, BlackBerry announced 5,000 layoff s, a huge quarterly loss, and that its next operating system, intended to be the linchpin of Research In Motion’s turnaround, would be delayed. Some investors now fear the company won’t be around long enough to launch the OS, which isn’t expected to hit the market until the first quarter of 2013.

Interestingly, RIM’s chief problem is the loss of its stronghold in the corporate market, which it once dominated. Rather than issuing company BlackBerries, many employers now have workers bring their own devices in to work, which are often iPhones and Android smartphones. With consumers free to choose and presented with more options than ever, BlackBerry should have perhaps put more thought into why people were opting for other brands when they had a choice in the matter.

Despite the fact that BlackBerry is a recognized brand, has an unquestionable heritage, and tens of millions of users worldwide, it suffers from the most fundamental of challenges. It’s been too slow to respond to market changes, but too eager to claim it had an actionable strategy. The link between what was expected and what was experienced broke down and not enough effort was made to rejuvenate the brand before the situation hit what now looks like the point of no return. What, we might ask, did BlackBerry ever mean to users? A free smartphone issued by employers? A brand’s value goes beyond commerce, convenience, and visibility. People have to actually care about it.

If Apple and BlackBerry represent the extremes of tech brand success and failure, what of those in the middle? Some, like Dell and Sony, have an opportunity to quickly turn the course if they can focus on leading through innovation and delivery, and communicating accomplishments in those areas. Others, like HP and Nokia, need to take decisive action, delivering leadership-worthy offerings that live up to their brands’ potential. Those who are in the midst of brand reinvention and reinvigoration — like Microsoft and Adobe — must ensure at all costs that they realize — at a minimum — and ideally accelerate, their respective transformations.

For those who are shepherding the world’s most valuable technology brands, the year ahead will pose a formidable challenge: pushing brand beyond marketing, and deep into the hands (and hearts) of audiences and users. It’s not always easy, but it can be done; and when it’s done well, it works wonders for a brand. Case in point: BlackBerry, and others, might find inspiration in recalling Apple’s financial tailspin during the mid- 1990s, when the company seemed in danger of going out of business. At the time, its brand and products were not the ones we know and love today. In a calculated and somewhat heroic rebranding effort, Apple abandoned its old rainbow-hued Apple logo in favor of a minimalist monochrome one, gave its computers a hip, modern look, and sought to establish a “heartfelt connection” with its customers. The rest, as they say, is history; and here they sit astride all but Coca-Cola in our Best Global Brands 2012 report.