Brand decoding: The Apple story

An extract from Jonah Berger's book 'Contagious'

Published 7 years ago on Dec 23, 2016 3 minutes Read

Ken Segall was Steve Jobs’s right hand man. For twelve years, Ken worked as creative director at Jobs’s ad agency. He started with Apple’s account in the early 1980s. When Jobs was fired and started NeXT Computer, Ken moved to be part of the project. And when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, Ken came along as well. Ken worked on the “Think Different” campaign, was on the team that developed the “Crazy Ones” ad, and started the iCraze by naming Apple’s bulbous all-in-one egglooking desktop the iMac.

During those later years, Ken’s team would sit down with Jobs every two weeks. It was a status meeting of sorts. Ken’s team would share everything they were working on advertising-wise: promising ideas, new copy, and potential layouts. Jobs would do the same. He would update Ken’s team on how Apple was doing, which products were selling, and whether anything new was coming down the pipeline that they might need a campaign for.

One week, Jobs approached Ken’s team with a conundrum. Jobs was obsessed with the absolute best possible user experience. He always put the customer first. Customers shelled out all that money; they should be treated right. So Apple carried this mantra into all aspects of product design. From opening the box to calling for tech support. Ever notice the slow delay when you first pull the cover off the box of your new iPhone? That’s because Apple has been hard at work designing that experience to provide the perfect feeling of luxury and heft.

The conundrum concerned the design of the new PowerBook G4. The laptop was going to be a marvel of technology and design. Its titanium body was revolutionary—stronger than steel yet lighter than aluminum. And, at less than one inch thick, it would be one of the thinnest laptops ever.

But Jobs wasn’t concerned about the laptop’s strength or weight. He was concerned about the direction of the logo.

The cover of PowerBook laptops always had a small apple with a bite taken out of the side. Consistent with their user focus, Apple wanted the logo to look right to the owner of the computer. This was particularly important given the frequency with which laptops are opened and closed. People stuff the laptops in their backpacks or bags only to pull them out later and start working. And when you pull the laptop out it’s hard to know which way is up. Which side has the latch and so should face toward you when you set the laptop down on a desk or table?

Jobs wanted this experience to be as fluid as possible, so he used the logo as a compass. It faced the user when the computer was closed so that the user could easily orient the laptop when he set it down.

But the problem came when a person opened the laptop. Once the users had found a seat at the coffee shop and sat down with their macchiato, they would open their computer to start working. And once they opened the laptop the logo would flip. To everyone around them the logo would be upside down.

Jobs was a big believer in branding, and seeing all those upside-down logos wasn’t a great feeling. He was even worried it might be hurting the brand.

So Jobs asked Ken’s team a question. Which is more important—to have the logo look right to the customers before they opened their PowerBook, or to make it look right to the rest of the world when the laptop was in use?

As you can see the next time you glance at an Apple laptop, Ken and Jobs reversed their long-held beliefs and flipped the logo. The reason? Observability. Jobs realized that seeing others do something makes people more likely to do it themselves.

But the key word here is “seeing.” If it’s hard to see what others are doing, it’s hard to imitate it. Making something more observable makes it easier to imitate. Thus a key factor in driving products to catch on is public visibility. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.