Branding – Most Important But Usually Overlooked

Branding is one of the most important aspects of building a company (or persona) but it is so often overlooked.  Consider what Larry Popelka recently wrote:

Most consumers no longer shop for products. They shop for a company. With a plethora of product choices, it has become far too difficult and time-consuming to attempt to evaluate each offering. It is much easier to determine if the company you’re buying from shares your values and is likely to provide a good experience.

As a consumer, I most definitely agree with Larry.  How can you take the time to evaluate each product choice to determine the best quality, best price and most environmentally friendly?  You can’t, it’s impossible.   This is why Branding has become so important, it’s basically a short cut and a time saver to help us make buying decisions.

I touched on this in an earlier post positioning Apple vs Microsoft.  I focused mostly on how the leadership differences between Steve Jobs and Steve Ballmer is determining the direction of each company.  Yet, included in that equation is the respective brands they have built.

Apple – sleek, stylish, different, consumer friendly, trendy.

Microsoft – Techy, corporate, windows, software, stiff.

Although both are great (and hugely profitable) companies, the brands could not be any more different.  In the previous post I go to great lengths and in detail as to who is the better bet for the future.  It’s all about the Brand.

This can also apply when building a personal brand.  There are millions and millions of people in the work force, and quite frankly, they are all your competition.   When 100 people apply for a position or a board of directors is evaluating 5 executives looking for one to become the new CEO, personal branding and what each person is known for will be a huge influence and make the difference between receiving an offer or not.  This is one of the main reasons I have started to write and reach out to so many different people in the technology and startup communities.  I understand I must work just as hard to build my personal brand – what other people believe I am to be – as I am working to build a company brand.  I know it will be a difference maker sometime in the near future.

Lessons for founders and entrepreneurs:

  • Define your Brand; determine what you are and what you stand for as an executive and as a company
  • Describe it in detail but simplify the meaning for people so they will remember you
  • Align your Brand and your market positioning to connect with your target market
  • Connect your Brand with a deeper consumer purpose

Image courtesy of Flickr user NiallKennedy.

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Steve Ballmer’s Lack of Real Leadership

 This post was originally published on BusinessInsider.com.

Around 1975, Microsoft Corporation and Apple Inc. were created, kicking off what would become one of the most fascinating times in modern history.   During this period both have been significant players in the PC revolution, although recently as businesses they appear heading in opposite directions.

One is accelerating to new heights and one is stalling out like it forgot to refuel at the last gas station.  I think something abnormal is going on here and believe it’s more than the general “great products” vs “not so great products” argument.   Below is a view of the stock price of each company dating back to 1986.  Here is Microsoft:

(images courtesy of Yahoo Finance).

And below is a view of Apple, again viewed with a long lens dating back to 1986.  On thing to note is the scale on the right.

The last decade has seen Apple explode in value, culminating in them becoming the largest technology company in the world.  During the same time frame, Microsoft was dethroned by Apple and has pretty much remained stagnant.  Indeed, there is something peculiar going on here and anyone looking to build a consumer brand should listen closely.  The difference between Apple’s success and Microsoft’s lackluster performance can be summed up in one word – Leadership.  It takes more than smart employees, good technology and market dominance to deliver great financial results.   It also takes a Great Leader.

JobsSteve Jobs understands Leadership, Vision, Inspiration and Branding are vital to business success.  He gets it.  He understands how to position his Brand in the soul of a human being, amazingly interweaving his devices into peoples identity.  This is accomplished by casting a vision and allowing a tribe of followers to form around it.  He also understands: it is first about the vision and only then the resulting products can come in to reinforce the vision with the consumer.  Users of Apple products gladly follow when they realize the vision and resulting products make them feel better.

Jobs’ vision is one where the terms “Think Different”, “Beautiful Creation” and “It just Works” are used in description.  And although difficult to put into words as a consumer, you just feel it – viscerally.  It’s almost magical.   Jobs inspires with every word – not in a flakey, shallow and inauthentic manner – but a genuine manner.  I understand no one is perfect, but he definitely gets how to move people.

Steve Ballmer is flat out not an inspirational leader nor a visionary.

BallmerWith more than ten years at the helm of one of the largest companies in the world, Steve Ballmer has obviously done many things right.  One thing he cannot do is accurately describe the deeper purpose of Microsoft or any of their products.  When he tries, it doesn’t get anywhere close to touching the human soul.  He lacks the innate leadership quality of Inspiration.  He can run and jump, scream and yell, and do Monkey dances on stage all day long but this is not leadership.  Nor is it inspiration.  (Can you even imagine Steve Jobs doing this?)

Unfortunately for Ballmer, Microsoft is stuck between so many business markets it’s almost impossible to tie them together coherently to form a strong brand identity.  Without a unique purpose and vision, there is no brand identity.  The latest Microsoft slogan urges me to “Be What’s Next.”  I am not sure what that means… consumers need to be able to viscerally understand the brand and why they should be using it.  Like it or not, this responsibility rests on the leaders shoulders.  Ballmer has failed to communicate these fundamental aspects of Microsoft on a level that connects with everyday consumers.  He just doesn’t get it.

Is it any coincidence the maxim of Microsoft’s value as a company (January 2000) is pretty much the exact date Ballmer stepped into the CEO role?  And incidentally enough, the first real growth in Apple’s market cap appears not long after Steve Jobs arrives for his second coming as CEO in 1996.  The Leadership difference between these two men has made all the difference in respect to their company’s results.

Looking back at Microsoft’s stock price you can notice a time of incredible growth, back in the 90’s.  Who was the leader at this time in their history?  Iconic founder Bill Gates, an inspiring visionary in his own right was in charge at that time.  He inspired the world with the vision of “a computer on every desktop” during the emergence of the PC and Enterprise Revolutions (and thus the software running on them became a hot market).  Indeed Gates vision expanded the perspectives of all employees and rallied them to become the largest technology company in the world for many years.  But things have changed and today consumer devices are the rage.  What’s the overarching, game changing, ever growing Microsoft vision now?  I don’t see this type of world changing leadership and inspiration radiating out of Redmond any more (and I live 15 miles away).  Suffice it to say Apple saw this New World Order coming and Microsoft didn’t.

People follow leaders who embody a sense of purpose that inspires those around them.  Notice how consumers wait in lines for hours just to have a chance to own an “i-whatever”, the newest product that will touch their soul.  People give standing ovations and watch streaming online video during Steve Jobs inspiring  keynotes speeches.  All these happen for Apple because of Steve Jobs and his Leadership.  They create a mystic aurora which parlays towards the next round of  product announcements.

All this became very apparent to me recently as I observed the response to both companies announcements – Apple’s at their WWDC conference and Microsoft’s at the E3 conference.  The world huddled around their screens in anticipation of an announcement regarding Apple’s next mobile operating system, the iOS5.  In fact, there were no less than 37 individual posts covering Apple on SAI alone, Monday June 6th, the day of the announcement and.  Also 17 posts covering anything that is Apple appeared on Techcrunch.  Alternately, Microsoft’s announcements were an afterthought, an oh-by-the-way-this-happened byline with 3 posts that same day.  Succinctly put, no one really cared.

This unfortunate reality for Microsoft is directly tied back to Ballmer’s lack of Leadership, Vision and Inspiration.  People would have cared about Microsoft’s announcements had the products touched their souls with a deeper purpose.  Right now, go to Apple.com and Microsoft.com and see what I am talking about.  I am like most, finding it impossible to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes Apple… Apple.  All I can say is Steve Jobs knows something Steve Ballmer doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, we are talking about a great company in Microsoft, one that still does more than $60 billion in yearly revenue and employs some of the smartest and most talented people in the world.  They hold dominant positions in numerous markets.  But it pains me to write these words and acknowledge the reality of Microsoft’s future.  I am a Seattle resident and appreciate the value Microsoft has added not only to the world but specifically to Seattle.  We owe much of our regional economy to Microsoft.  They have done great things and the enterprise software ecosystem they created is quite amazing.

Yet, I see a company waning at a time when they really need to figure out their guiding purpose.  When I look at Apple, I feel secure they know where they are going.  When I glance across Lake Washington to figure out what Microsoft is doing, I am at a loss for words.  And this is scary for me.  I can only imagine what it’s like for the employees and the executives.

Lessons for us younger founders and entrepreneurs:

  • Find a deeper purpose to associate with your products and business
  • Cast your vision with simple, strong and relatable words
  • Become (or find) a leader who can connect with people and continually inspire them toward action

I don’t know who it will be but Microsoft is in desperate need of a Leader, an inspirational visionary who can turn this boat around – NOW.

Disclaimer: I have no personal connection with either Steve Jobs or Steve Ballmer and this is in no way personal towards either one of them.   My opinions are purely anecdotal and from observations as both an entrepreneur and consumer.

Look at Them Apples

Apple is just HUGE.  Just think about it for a second… iphones, ipods, ipads, macbooks, itunes, they are everywhere.  Apple is now said to be lager than Microsoft and Intel, combined.   Below is a view of Apple’s stock for the last few years, up and to the right.  This has just been amazing to watch.  When will it end?