Identity Crisis

Back in 2006, a video was uploaded to YouTube which perfectly captured the stark contrast between Apple and Microsoft’s thinking on marketing and design.

The humorous clip takes Apple’s original iPod packaging through a Microsoft-ified restyle, presenting a very clear view of each company’s approach to product packaging.

It would be easy for us to assume that the video was produced by some Apple nut, but in fact it was created by Microsoft’s packaging department, in an attempt to educate their own marketers!

Many of us would agree that Apple’s packaging is inviting and beautifully simplistic (mirroring the brand). And in comparison, Microsoft’s is swamped with unnecessary detail and huge complexity. True. But I think there’s another important angle to explore here.

Everything communicates

There are many debates on what a “brand” actually is. Personally, one of my favourite definitions is by John Hegarty of BBH: “the most valuable piece of real estate in the world: a corner of someone’s mind”.

The fact is, your brand is nothing more than a set of impressions that live in the mind of your audience. Therefore, in order to make those impressions stick, your mission, message, image and experience all have to be consistent. It’s about knowing who you are and then meticulously ensuring that every interaction reinforces that belief. Great brands understand that everything communicates. From packaging to advertisements, products to employees, offices to websites, everything they say and everything they do serves as proof of what they believe.

I’d be willing to bet that if the logo was removed from a piece of Microsoft packaging, you would still know it was designed by Microsoft. The same goes for Apple. Regardless of which design is more appealing, we instinctively know which package belongs to which brand.

When it comes to building brands, I’ve always had a very simple mantra:

Consistency builds trust.
Trust builds loyalty.
Loyalty builds brands.

I once heard a fantastic quote which perfectly summarises the essence of brand building: “the mountains you climb will change, but the reasons you climb them never will”. Great brands have absolute clarity of their mission – aka, why they do what they do. Their products and services may alter, but the reason they develop them never will.

Many companies make the mistake of changing who they are to attract more sales. This is bit like changing your own personality to make new friends. The problem is, your old friends will start to question who you really are, and your new friends will soon find out that the person you are pretending to be isn’t actually you.

Brands like Apple, Harley Davidson, Innocent, and Nike are so valuable because they are consistent. They know who they are and they relentlessly stick to it. Nike has always celebrated the inner athlete inside us all. They believe that we can all achieve greatness if we put our minds to it. Sure they sell trainers, but what they represent in people’s minds runs so much deeper.

Compare this to K-Swiss. It’s hard to believe from this clip that the two ads are even from the same company. The tone is different, the style is different and more importantly, what they appear to stand for is completely different. This is a prime case in point of a brand trying to be what it thinks its audience wants, not who it truly is.

There could be all manner of reasons why these ads vary so dramatically. But there’s no getting away from the fact they make us question who K-Swiss actually is.

The company needed to do some soul searching before they created any further campaigns. They needed to understand who they really were, what they stood for, and what they represented in the minds of their audience. Branding is the art of managing impressions. The more inconsistent the impression, the weaker your brand.