Strategic Branding

How Brands Decline

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • Brands are only as strong as current perceptions about them.
  • Seemingly small mistakes are magnified exponentially once users begin to see your competitors as real alternatives.
  • Advice to Apple in all this? Take us somewhere new. Show us the possibilities. Make perfection seem like child’s play.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Apple lately. Unfortunately, it’s not in the way I’m used to.

First, it was the whole iOS 6 Apple Maps debacle (I’m over Siri). I was hoping that a break with Google Maps would mean a product that would not just be amazing to use, but would just work. Instead, I have to remember to not upgrade my iOS to avoid the problem since maps are such a critical part of my mobile use.

The underlying thought process about Apple here is worth noting: “Hmmm...I like what you did before, but the stuff now...not so much.” I realize that it’s not fair to generalize from a specific product to a whole company, but unfortunately brand perception is not about fairness.

So instead of Apple leveraging it’s new maps release into glowing technical accolades that would help build (or at least maintain) the brand, its new map product highlights the possibility that Google may be the best long-term technical bet. And it’s a slippery slope from trusting Google with my core software (browser, email and search), to thinking that maybe I can trust them with other parts of my technology budget like hardware and devices.

Next, it was the “Dear Apple: I’m Leaving You” letter. Ed Conway’s letter was fun, succinct and brought to the foreground a lot of little things that were floating around my subconscious. None of them made me feel like Apple was the cutest girl at the prom.

And now within the last week, two other things happened.

First, I bought an Acer Chromebook for my wife since she’s not a power user and it didn’t make sense to spend five times the amount on a MacBook Air. This not only got me to take a deeper look at the Google ecosystem, but made me realize how far Google has come since 2009 when I first started using Google Docs. To my surprise, it not only just worked, but it had the type of simplicity and elegance that would historically be associated with a design-focused company like Apple. On top of all that, Google wasn’t just recycling design, it was creating its own design language (check out Chrome Web Labs and Jam). Google getting my attention with design? This was new.

The second big thing is that now that I’ve seen Google with fresh eyes, I’ve shifted my writing onto Google Docs, so that I have more flexibility, especially with Google Drive for Mac, and that probably means another Chromebook in the future for me just for writing. I always wanted a $100 laptop just for writing and now it’s here (almost). This is great because Word for Mac is not just a pain to open, but is getting increasingly cluttered with a bunch of stuff that I don’t need for simply gettings words on paper in some kind of coherent way.

Which brings me to the brand decline part.

The title of this article included “brand decline”, not “brand death”. I still love my Mac and iPhone 4S. They aren’t going away anytime soon.

But...

That simple three letter word is the real issue here.

At one point, Apple seemed to have all of the answers. It created products that seemed to be in a league all of their own. Considering other options wasn’t even a possibility. There was no “but” about it. (As I write this, I’m wondering how the use of my own past tense with Apple is actually changing my perceptions about the brand!)

But now there is a large “but” (ie: Apple's great but, maybe I should take a look at X...), at least for me (and I think for a lot of others as well). And that has huge long-term implications for Apple. None of them good.

The lesson here is that brands are only as strong as current perceptions about them. Seemingly small mistakes are magnified exponentially once users begin to see your competitors as real alternatives.

My advice to Apple in all this? Take us somewhere new. Show us the possibilities. Make perfection seem like child’s play. Bring in a leader who has a complimentary cult of personality that gets Apple back to its roots of rebellious genius.

Apple is dead. Long live Apple.

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