Ten Apple Traits Every Small Company Should Emulate

Illustration:  Bruce Crilly

With the recent resignation of Steve Jobs, I began contemplating the company he built more than 30 years ago with a Woz and a dream. Apple Computer, which recently (briefly) overtook Exxon/Mobil as the world’s most valuable company, has had its share of ups and downs. Just a little over a decade ago, they were teetering on the edge of irrelevance, losing ground to new manufacturing and software entrants. Today, however, the company has a total value close to $350 Billion, legions of loyal evangelists and, despite Jobs’ recent announcement, a very bright future under new CEO Tim Cook as the sitting-architect-in-residence of modern computing and electronics.

They didn’t get there by accident. At Apple, Inc., there is a culture of progress, and businesses at the micro level can learn a lot by examining Apple’s behavior. Sure, most of us may never get to their size or influence, but that doesn’t mean small and midsize businesses – in virtually any category – can’t wield the same traits and characteristics and, hopefully, realize similar successes.

Here, the top 10 fundamental traits of Apple that any small and midsize company can emulate:

1. Embrace Innovation. Apple has embraced innovation in virtually every aspect of their business. Not just in the products they develop, but in how they manufacture them, ship them, sell them, update them, service them and finally obviate them with new and improved models. Embrace technology, look for avenues to optimize performance from your team, and adopt a culture of “what can we do next, what can we do better?” at your company to emulate this enviable trait.

2. Anticipate (and even create) Consumer Needs. One thing Apple does very well is think ahead, and think deep into the hearts and minds of their consumers. No one ever thought that they needed a telephone, AND an Internet browser, AND an email client AND an iPod AND an app player, all in one simple device. But when Apple created iPhone, everyone suddenly NEEDED one. Why just give your customer base what it wants, when you can give them more than that, or better yet, something they don’t know they want yet? It’s a great way to bond to consumers and, in strategic terms, to immediately dominate the category in which you operate.

3. Form Smart/Strong partnerships. Apple has done this in many different ways. From manufacturing partners to content partners to the legendary App Store developer partners. Sure, they may dictate the terms of how things will go, but they leverage the talents and abilities of innovative companies that operate well outside of Cupertino. Look around in and outside your category – who can your business partner with to emulate this trait that helps you to grow or helps you improve in some way?

4. Never Forget Your Entrepreneurial Spirit. It’s a classic story: Jobs and Woz in a Silicon Valley garage, building machines from scratch, selling on credit, scrounging for parts and never wavering on their dream to build something new, something special. And that spirit is still evident in every new product launch with Jobs smiling, bragging and still trying to out-geek every geek out there. Sometimes, in our businesses, we tend to forget why we started, how much we love what we do, how good we have it and more. Maybe it’s time to re-kindle that passionate spark?

5. Push Into New Categories. At one point, Apple only offered two core products: a slick operating system and the machines it ran on. Then, about a decade ago, they had an idea to use their skills and optimize their DNA to create a different kind of device that played music. The iPod pushed Apple into a new category (music/entertainment,) that then exploded into the iTunes revolution, that gave way to even more categories (movies, telephones, tablets, etc.) The key here is that even with iPhone and iPad, they have never strayed too terribly far from their core capabilities: intuitive operating systems, running on elegantly designed devices. Think about it. What’s driving your business? And how can you use your skills/your team/your assembly line/your supply chain to push into a new category…or two…or four?

6. Embrace New Channels for Your Business. It’s hard to believe, but for a while, you could only get Apple products (and they were basically only computers) from “authorized resellers” who were few and far between. But Apple realized that retail was a viable channel, especially since their product offering was now appealing to a more mass audience. By embracing retail, they also created new opportunities to expose more people to Apple’s core line of devices and software. Think about your business: can you sell through an intermediary? Can you create a direct dialogue with your core audience? Can you segment or discover a new audience altogether? It might be a viable opportunity to create new revenues without much more overhead.

7. Have a “Cool Factor.” One of the most defining characteristics of Apple is that their products are simply cool. The devices are cool-looking, they play or display cool content (like music and movies and apps and games,) and through a combination of factors (like smart partners – see #3 above – and elegant design; see #8 below,) the company has managed to basically de-position all or most competitors as stodgy, or clunky, or un-hip, or simply, (despite a strategic partnership) as “Windows.”

8. Commitment to Design. One of the key players at Apple is Jonathan Ive, Senior VP of Industrial Design. His influence on clean, elegant, sometimes teeny-weeny product design at Apple has given the entire company a new complexion. While other computing companies are still trying to figure out the “liquid” look for their laptops, Apple presses forward on countless innovations, including the all-in-one desktop computer, the “flywheel” on iPods, the “anti-flip” telephone device, the “it feels so easy in my hand” iPad, the famous “earbuds,” and on and on. A recent article in The New York Times outlined several of the 313 patents Apple has filed for, and one of them is for the iPhone packaging. (Seriously, the packaging is patented.) Even if your company isn’t in the devices business, have a designer look at your business from top to bottom and see if you can’t match your company DNA to an aesthetic and interactive sensibility that elevates the experience of doing business with you.

9. Simple, Effective, and Consistent Advertising. Throughout Apple’s history, advertising has played a central role to how the company promotes its products and disseminates product feature information. And with its (almost unheard of) longstanding relationship with TBWA/Chiat Day, there has been a driving force of simple, features-based, single-concept advertising. From the moment Apple introduced itself to the world with the Ridley Scott-directed
through the “Think Different” campaign of the mid 1990’s to the “Hello, I’m a Mac” spots of recent years, Apple and their agency have always kept it simple and pithy. Any company can learn a lot about how to promote just on the basis of Apple’s advertising track record. Not just what they do, but that they do so much in so many channels (print, radio, tv, outdoor, direct, institutional, one-to-one, etc.) with such consistency.

10. Make Brand Matter. Of all the items listed above, or perhaps as the sum of all items listed above, the most important of all is that Apple has had a very strong commitment to their brand. The products stand for something that is tied to the ethos of the company and its founders. The collective perception of most people around the world is that Apple IS cool, and that’s not by accident. “Designed by Apple in California” is more than just a copyright line, it’s nearly a profession of faith. NONE of this is happenstance or coincidence. It’s been a carefully scripted, scrupulously architected vision of what the company wants to MEAN to its consumers, its competitors and its out-of-category passersby. Of all things, use this as a compass for your company, and work to create a relationship with your consumers that transcends what you do and what you sell. It will carry your business across virtually any obstacle, any economic condition, any CEO resignation. Think Different.

Article first published on Technorati.