Hero Brands, Part II – The difference between “hero” and “zero.”

November 10, 2009

In my last blog entry I noted that some brands have taken on a certain leadership role in society. They have become today’s heroes – supplanting individual luminaries in that role – and as a society we’ve become very comfortable with the idea of turning to them for invention and innovation. What does this mean for businesses today? It’s both an opportunity and a potential trap. Reaching the brand status of an Apple or a Google is certainly a worthy goal, but first we must ask what makes one brand a “hero” and another a “zero.” To become a hero, a company has to do much more than just call itself “innovative” and in fact has to do more than innovate in some quiet or pedestrian way. It has to deliver something that is not only clever and cool, but which becomes indispensable. Something the customer can’t live without. Ideally, something game-changing. More important than delivering a must-have product or service, to become accepted as a hero a company has to look beyond its actual products and consider the true nature of business. The companies that have attained hero status have realized that what they do isn’t the important thing. It’s the ultimate result that matters: how they change their customers’ lives for the better. And that’s a much bigger idea than just building better mousetraps. Again, Apple is a good example. Thinking of Apple as a technology company misses what has made it a hero brand. Apple is a lifestyle company. The technology is secondary. It is just a means to an end. All of Apple’s branding activity shows this, from the ads to the Apple Store environment to the way its products work together. Apple’s vision is of a digital lifestyle, and it is quite clear that the company has remained tightly focused on that vision.


Without both must-have products and clarity of vision, a brand will have a very hard time becoming a hero. Apple’s arch nemesis, Microsoft, is a good example. Microsoft has products we can’t live without, yet it can’t seem to get past its image of being a stodgy brand that just doesn’t “get it” no matter what it does, because it fails to understand the real needs and desires of its customers. Microsoft products are essential, but few would say they really make the user’s life easier or better. Even Microsoft supporters routinely gripe about its products.


Take Office. Microsoft essentially owns the office application market, despite years of effort to unseat it. Woe to the software developer who produces a product that isn’t MS Office-compatible. Microsoft continues to develop Office. But while a “hero” brand would keep its vision clear and pay attention to what will make the user’s life better, Microsoft just won’t leave well enough alone. Here at BrandLogic, for example, everyone despises the interface in the latest version of Office for Windows. The old one didn’t need fixing, and the new one doesn’t help us do anything better. It just gets in the way. The change was so drastic that it actually hurt our productivity. It’s a classic example of innovation for its own sake: the kind of innovation that damages the brand instead of helping it. It’s that second element – the vision and the ability to see beyond what the company does – that is the real difference between Apple and Microsoft. A vision statement for the Apple brand might read: “Creating a digital lifestyle through technology products,” while one for Microsoft might read “Creating technology products that enable a digital lifestyle.” Same words, but a fundamentally different approach to the brand. Both companies have brilliant people working for them. Both produce really cool, innovative products. But while Apple puts its products and technology after its vision, Microsoft doesn’t. The crew from Redmond keeps on pumping out product after product, each innovative in itself, but there’s no coherent picture. The result is that Apple is a hero brand, and Microsoft is a zero. We expect Apple to hit it out of the park every time, and we expect Microsoft to do something that will annoy us every time. What’s your view?

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