There’s a great podcast series from Vox Media called Land of the Giants. Over the past few years, it has covered Google, Netflix, and Amazon. This year, Peter Kafka is talking about Apple, and in one of the early episodes, he recalls a speech Steve Jobs gave shortly after he returned to Apple in 1997. Jobs wasn’t even CEO at the time, but he was speaking to an employee town hall.
During it, he talked about making Apple a great brand. It was something he was passionate about as he talked about other great brands, one of them being Nike. I had forgotten about the quote, but it’s worth another look. Here’s what Jobs said:
Nike sells a commodity, they sell shoes. And yet when you think of Nike, you feel something different than a shoe company. In their ads, as you know, they don’t ever talk about the product, they don’t ever talk about their air soles, how they’re better than Reebok’s air soles. What’s Nike do in their advertising? They honor great athletes and they honor great athletics. That is what they are about.
Technically, Jobs used seven words to highlight it, saying “they don’t ever talk about the product,” but I think you can sum it up with just two: “no products.”
It’s strange to think of a marketing strategy built around those two words. It’s even more strange to think that Apple might want to copy that strategy, since it was also in the business of selling, you know, products.
Think about it: Nike sells shoes, one of the most basic commodities. It does it, however, by painting a picture of a desirable future. Its marketing never talks about the products, it talks about the people — the heroes and champions and everyday athletes who are striving to perform at their best.
Jobs wanted Apple to do the same. At the time he was speaking to Apple employees, the company was in a much different place. This was before the iPhone, before the iPad, and even before the iPod or iMac. Jobs had just returned to the company a decade after having been forced out, and Apple — by all accounts — had lost its way. It was losing the home PC battle badly and was running out of ideas and money. Its brand suffered as well.
Jobs’s words were aspirational. He wanted to paint the picture of a desirable future for the company, but in doing so, he pointed out one of the most powerful marketing strategies for connecting with customers. Ironically, it’s the same thing: aspiration. Jobs was painting Apple as an aspirational brand, just like Nike.
That was the core of the “Think Different” ad campaign. It celebrated the creatives, or, as the famous television ad called them, the “crazy ones.”
The ad was set to a series of images of visionaries and historic figures such as Gandhi, Richard Branson, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Einstein, and Amelia Earhart. (The version that aired on television was narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, but the version narrated by Jobs himself is worth a watch.)
The campaign defined what Apple wanted to be, without talking about the products at all. A series of photos features black and white photographs of many of the same iconic figures, with the Apple logo and “Think Different” tagline.
It wasn’t about products, it was aspirational. It was a celebration of people — the type of people Apple wanted to associate its brand with, and the type of people with whom its audience wanted to be associated.
That campaign transformed Apple from a company that had mostly made boring beige computers, into the company that would — in just a few months — introduce the iMac. At the time, the iMac wasn’t the best or most expensive computer you could buy, but it was the most aspirational.
It was only a few years after that that the company introduced the iPod, which transformed how we listen to music. Then, a few years later, the iPhone changed basically everything about how we interact with computers, and with each other. A year later, Apple launched the MacBook Air, which redefined how almost every laptop looks and feels. That’s still true today, some 13 years later.
Apple eventually moved beyond “Think Different,” but the strategy is the same. Ads for the iPod featured colorful silhouettes of dancing people with iconic white earbuds dangling from their ears. Ads for the iPhone feature people taking photos and capturing videos of the things they care about most.
Sure, those are products, but they are no less aspirational. My point is that Steve Jobs’s greatest idea was that Apple should be an aspirational company — something that remains true today. It all started with an unconventional, but brilliant, two-word strategy from Nike.