Keep It Simple: Lessons From 50 Brands On ‘The Edge’

March 15, 2013

For companies seeking to promote their brands, an onerous equation is emerging: The more complex new technologies become, the simpler brands must become.

This is an important takeaway from a new book by strategic brand consultant Allen P. Adamson, who notes that companies must learn to adapt quickly to new technologies–and that many are in danger of falling behind. “Many companies can’t tell their stories because their stories are too complicated,” Adamson told

An obvious success story in this regard is Apple, which has embraced and pioneered new technologies while using them to make Apple products easy to use. In his newest book, entitled “The Edge: 50 Tips from Brands that Lead,” Adamson describes how Apple–and 49 other companies–are laboring to keep their brands relevant in the face of increasing competition. He interviewed CMOs and CEOs at the companies and found that while there were some common denominators, all of the companies produced their own distinct branding strategies in their respective campaigns to remain relevant.

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“Apple keeps things simple,” Adamson said. “Look at the iPad; it sells itself so people think that can use it. Like all of Apple’s designs, it is open and approachable. You can give an iPad to a 6-month-old baby who can use it right away.”

But how will Apple continue to do without innovator Steve Jobs?

Adamson, who is a managing director at brand consulting firm Landor Associates, believes that Apple’s future will be “perfectly fine,” largely because Jobs had a strong vision for the company and forged it with Apple’s culture while coupling that with a perfect marriage of design and functionality. Of course, he added, the entire vision of the company depends on Apple’s commitment to delight its customers.

All companies want happy employees, but some need them more than others, according to Adamson, who pointed to Radio Shack and Starbucks as prime examples. Both companies have had to recently reinvent themselves and their brands. In the process, they were required to renew their relationships with their employees.

Radio Shack’s challenge was to shift its employees from being experts in traditional radio/TV products, such as parts, components, wires, and batteries, and to develop new expertise in digital products. In his book, Adamson quotes former Radio Shack CMO Lee Applbaum, who said the company is searching for a new generation of employees who are fascinated with today’s digital technology. Radio Shack research showed that prospective customers want “knowledgeable, geeky associates.”

“Radio Shack’s credibility as a technology expert happens in the stores,” Applbaum said. “Radio Shack wants to be seen as the trusted authority for today’s technology requirements, and it can’t happen if the people who work there don’t have a passion and commitment to tinkering and technology.” When it rebranded itself recently, Radio Shack remained true to its roots as an adviser of technology while moving forward with a new breed of digital technology-savvy employees.

Starbucks was faced with a different dilemma: The firm’s coffee houses in 55 countries had languished and needed updating. Starbucks CMO Annie Young-Scrivner said the company’s employees all seek to have a positive impact on customers and, when that happens, a positive ripple effect is ignited.

Starbucks has more than 22 million Facebook fans in the U.S. alone, as well as more than 1.5 million Twitter followers; the company has learned to exploit both social networking phenomenons. For instance, Starbucks uses its “My Starbucks Idea” site to build customer loyalty, which has produced more than 150,000 responses for products and services. Customers’ ideas and suggestions are evaluated by the company, and some products–like Starbucks Petites afternoon treats–have been launched as a result of the “My Starbucks Idea” research.

One company that has made a mission of listening to its customers is Dell; from its first days in founder Michael Dell’s college dormitory, Dell took custom orders for PCs. According to Dell senior vice president and CMO Karen Quintos, the company still listens closely to its customers, but it now also uses Facebook and Twitter.

Dell has formalized its social media listening post in a “Listening Command Center,” which it monitors closely, enabling the company to respond quickly to important customer developments, whether positive or negative. “We respond to these conversations through a program called DellCares,” Quintos said in Adamson’s book, noting that DellCares is overseen by Dell customer support and technology specialists. “Instead of just making notes and letting issues fester, this team is on top of addressing problems or questions promptly.”

Adamson said Facebook and, particularly, Twitter can function for all CMOs as early warning systems, enabling marketers to head off problems before they grow into full-blown disasters.

“The power of Facebook and Twitter is tied to the power of word-of-mouth,” Adamson said. “People still believe what their neighbors think. It’s like being at a party. You want to talk to your friends to find out what they think. Twitter is taking it to the next level–in just 140 characters.”

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