Defining the brand. In two words or less.

Every agency has a focus on branding. Many have branding departments, proprietary techniques, copyrighted descriptors, and a lawyer or two on standby to protect their turf. I share the focus. But I also believe the most powerful branding tools on earth are the ones that will never be owned by anyone: simplicity, common sense and empathy.

As an agency creative director, I’ve helped create and nurture some of the most respected brands, including Apple, IBM, BMW and Intel. I know from experience, brands that connect best with their customers are rarely born of multimillion-dollar studies and legions of experts. More often, a memorable brand image comes from simple human understanding.

Most failed branding projects actually don’t miss the mark – they shoot way beyond the mark. Overspending often leads to overthinking, overanalysis and overreaching. The farther a project strays from simplicity, the more risky it gets.

Case study: The company that thought different.

In 1997, Apple was receiving its last rites in the press. Things could not have been bleaker. The end was near, whether it was going to come by takeover or bankruptcy. A succession of uninspiring CEOs had all failed to revive Apple following the departure of Steve Jobs. Then one uninspiring CEO stumbled into his most inspired move: he brought Steve back. Of course it didn’t work out quite as he planned, since Steve quickly took his job. But Steve brought with him the hope that the company desperately needed and the vision that only he could provide. The odds were stacked against Apple when he gave the agency its mission: “We need to re-introduce Apple to those who have forgotten what we stand for, and introduce Apple to everyone else. I want everyone to know what drives this company and I want to set the stage for the mind-blowing products we’ll start introducing next year.”

A simple idea
Steve’s charge to the agency was refreshingly optimistic. He felt that if we just told people what Apple was about, and Apple held up its end of the bargain by creating fantastic products, all the problems would go away. So we set about the task. In one sense, it wasn’t difficult to put a finger on what makes Apple unique. It’s a passion for creativity, design and simplicity. The hard part was finding a way to express this in the Apple way. It had to feel natural, honest and intelligent. Fortunately, when you explore a number of alternatives over a number of weeks, you can’t help but notice when a similar conclusion sneaks into all of them: Apple isn’t like other companies. It doesn’t follow the rules. And the essence of the company isn’t any more complicated than that. And so was born Think different.

A simple execution
Think different personifies what I believe to be the most effective process for arriving at a great brand statement. The idea came not from endless meetings, but from a deep creative exploration by people who genuinely cared. With the concept in focus, it was now just a matter of developing the campaign that could best deliver it. We went down many roads – with and without a human presence, with and without mice (yes, mice). The breakthrough came when we stepped back and realized that the spark driving Apple existed long before Apple. In fact, it existed long before electricity. The ability to think creatively is one of the great catalysts of civilization. So the logic seemed natural: why not show what kind of company Apple is by celebrating the people Apple admires? Let’s acknowledge the most remarkable people – past and present – who “change things” and “push the human race forward.” In a sense, these historical figures have something in common with Apple’s employees and Apple’s customers. They Think different.

Think different – epilogue
Think different performed beyond expectations. It reached into the past to capture the spirit of Apple when the company was founded – and it looked to the future to clear a path for Apple innovations yet to come. Only a simple idea could succeed so well on two different levels. Actually, make that four. Because not only did it resonate with Apple customers, it became a rallying cry for Apple employees (and a damn good t-shirt). Everyone in the company was asked to look at how they did their job and then think different. How could they do it better? What rules deserved to be broken? The introductory ads featuring historical figures became a favorite of teachers, who found them to be stimuli for learning. “Who is this person and what did he/she do that was so different?” The Think different campaign won just about every honor in the business, including the first Emmy ever awarded to a commercial. The advertising ran for five years, ultimately morphing into a product campaign that simultaneously delivered the brand message. Yet another example of thinking different.