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September 24th, 2013

Why iOS7 is Like Miley Cyrus for the Apple Brand
I still recall with a sense of nostalgia the first time I used the original Apple Macintosh in the hyper-advanced computer labs at Carnegie Mellon in 1984. Since then,for better or worse, Apple has been supporting my daily life quietly and consistently—and theniOS 7 happened. A jarring, unexpected and extreme system update, and not the usual actions from the computer brand I had come to trust. My own visceral reaction was far from the only one. Probably, one of the most honest came from a child in a widely circulated video on the Internet who was crying because his dad’s iPhone wasn’t working right.Apart from this toddler, industry watchers and iconographers all over America are appalled, and the comments are building.

As a branding expert, I always take a neutral stand when asked about a brand or a product. I often say,“My opinion doesn’t matter. What matters truly arethe consensus among business management, the markets, the public, the media and the employees—all of which form and inform the brand itself. It either works to serve, or it doesn’t.” That is because I am but one individual and I deeply trust my brand development process and the results I have delivered time and again over the last 25 years.

But I just could not react the same way to the launch of iOS 7, which suddenly repositioned the iPhone. Apple has been a mainstream trendsetter that always raised the tech bar while delivering flawlessly superior experiences, innovationsand aesthetics. However, now we have to contend with a brand that seems to have lost its way. With iOS 7, even simple things like icons feel rushed into development. It seems like the first sketch of the icons was thrown into the keynote.

I strongly feel that these negative reactions to the new iOS are justified. First, even if it was an improvement,iOS 7is now dramatically inconsistent with the desktop OS such that my own MacBook feels like an Apple product while my iPhone feels like a product from an entirely different company—albeit one famous for the Android. In fact, some industry watchers noted that Apple seemed to be imitating design ideas from rivals like Microsoft, BlackBerry and the former Palm’s WebOS. This is a clear step into the abyss—to imitate your own imitators. After all Apple was first.

Why did Apple carelessly drop this unnecessary shocker on its customers? Couldn’t it have taken a more organized direction and evolved the brand in a way to give consumers time to adapt to the changes?Brands that I have helped polish like Fidelity Investments and American Express followed a more organized process and as a result have stood the test of time. Premiere brands have carefully evolved over time to reflect new technology and media channels, but through careful and protective brand management the spirit or essence has remained intact. One company that got it wrong just a few years ago was Tropicana when it redesigned its iconic orange juice packaging. They underestimated the deep emotional bond consumers had formed with their own brand. So when they totally changed the design of the original packaging, consumers were furious. PepsiCo had to revert back to the old style of packaging and in the process lost millions. This clearly caught them by surprise. They wanted to change the brand but ended up messing with something sacred—our collective breakfasts.Apple has clearly committed the same error because they have messed with our beloved iPhone—which similarlynow feels unfamiliar, uncomfortable, less functional and strange, even.

This raises an important subject. Was Steve Jobs indeed the living, breathing embodiment of Apple’s brand? It always did appear that whenever Jobs left a business, thatbrandthen totally lost its meaning. Remember when he was fired from Apple and formed Pixar?We have all been waiting to see which way the company would go without his singular leadership. Sadly, the signs are not very encouraging.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not participating in Apple bashing becausethat really never really got anyone anywhere—at least not yet. However, wearing my branding hat, I am weighing in on this very sudden and dramatic change. Just like Miley Cyrus, whose infamoustwerking at MTV’s Video Music Awards shocked the world and instantly repositioned her brandfrom the Disney girl into someone new–Apple has performed an equally shocking action. Apple has essentially twerked the iPhone.And since Oxford famously updated its online dictionary to add the word in reference to dancing in the week following the VMA’s, I humbly suggest they expand the definition to include: a sudden, shocking maneuver; and, beyond tweak. The addition of that one little “r” and twerk then becomes the extreme of tweak. I like it, it is easy to remember, well known, and understandable, but let me return to the subject at hand.

Apple has consistently created a neutral, modern and universal experience that never got in the way of use. It was distinct and powerfully branded. You could appreciate it because it made your life better without overwhelming your awareness. This essence of the Apple experience is clearly at the core of branditself. So how did Apple miss the mark here?The twerking of the iPhone does get in our way. It feels shallower; less organized and even worse, for the first time, we are forced to stop our usual flow to look for the right text or button, ugh. It feels like something was lost in the change instead of gained, some (but not all) are even offended—similar to our beloved Disney girl Miley’s performance, we all asked ourselves, “Was that really necessary—really?” or “We understand that it is time to evolve, but could there have been a better way to accomplish this?”

To a long-time user, the new Apple iOS is simply shocking and does not appear to be helping the Apple brand, which is unfortunate. Simplistically, branding is about keeping a promise and building trust—and when a company suddenly alters a key driver of their own promise, there is tremendous risk because a brand is so much more than just a logo or even marketing. In Apple’s case the brand is about the promise of a premium, unrivaled, superior and seamless experience—until now.

It is one thing to resurrect a turn of the century brand to a new and modern position like Lippincott did with Samsung in the 80s. This is brand evolution, justified and easily understood. A long neglected brand can be shifted suddenly and very effectively in the public’s never ending gaze to become relevant and highly current again,similar to what Burberry has done so well over the last decade. Just like Miley Cyrus, Apple didn’t have the particular problem of neglect or currency so their their choices to twerk their own brands have created another potentially larger problem—a loss of trust created by shocking their loyal fans and the world.

And what now?I suggest to Apple, just like I would to Miley Cyrus post-twerking, that their best and most immediate move should be to get behind their scattered brand repositioning and get organized quickly. Both can do this through using strategic brand analysis, planning, development and management techniques that could turn the tide. Then they can harness the power and intent of their own brand revolutions that have somewhat gone awry into the new futures they intend to create in the first place.

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