Mark Ritson: A series of inconvenient branding truths

There is a stand-out fact in this year’s top 100 list of the most valuable global brands by BrandZ. It seems that the brands most likely to grow in future are those that embrace diversity in their executive leadership teams.

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Beth Brooke, global vice-president for Ernst & Young, who was quoted heavily in a Financial Times article on the list, noted that: “The undisputed conclusion from all the research is that having more women at the top improves financial performance.” The FT was quick to follow up with a list of “female friendly” boardrooms that were rocketing up the brand rankings.

But as I read the article my eye kept wandering to the actual Brandz Top 100 list because at the zenith of the league table is Apple. And that’s unfortunate because the world’s biggest company and most valuable brand exhibits not one whiff of diversity of any kind among its leadership team.

A single glance at Apple’s executive biographies immediately confirms that the company’s idea of diversity is having a couple of middle-class, white blokes from Britain in the boardroom. Their leadership bios look about as diverse as an Alabama country club circa 1961. And that’s inconvenient when so much of the current leadership theory is grounded on diversity being good for brands and for business. What a pity the world’s most successful company is so male and so white.

And so out of step with current thinking.

It does not stop with diversity. There is not a business leader anywhere who will decry the value and importance of a strong, focused corporate social responsibility approach. Here’s Marks & Spencer marketing director Steve Sharp, trotting out the widely held current thinking and taking it VERY seriously: “Increasingly people are looking behind what companies really stand for and using their spending power to back those they agree with. Companies will have to behave better if they’re going to attract customers because it’s becoming more and more important to people’s buying decisions.”

It’s a beautiful thought. It’s just such a shame that Apple, a company that openly ignores CSR best practice, continues to grow like the clappers despite its apparent reputation Achilles heel.

Last week, Professor Greg Unruh, the head of the Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management, wrote a blistering critique of Apple’s whole approach to CSR for Harvard Business School and predicted the company’s downfall unless it quickly got “serious and commit to a comprehensive CSR strategy”.

Of course, Professor Unruh has to predict the imminent demise of Apple unless it improves its CSR because he has been banging on about the centrality and importance of CSR for years. Having Apple sit atop the list of the world’s biggest and most successful companies must be excruciating for him.

It must be similarly painful for the social media acolytes out there. We’ve been deluged for years with bald exaggerations claiming you have to use social media for research, product design and marketing communications or face the unpleasant prospect of going out of business in the 21st century. Yet the world’s biggest brand and the undisputed leader in global consumer technologies does not bother with Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Despite the fact that on a monthly basis some terribly conflicted social media advocate tweets their admiration for Apple and their utter incomprehension at the fact it does no social media, the world’s biggest brand remains asocial.

And let’s not forget Apple’s inconvenient approach to market research and segmentation too. It doesn’t do any.

Steve Jobs repeatedly rejected all the stuff I spend my life doing with companies and occasionally discussed how Apple was successful not despite the fact it did no research, but because of it: “It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people,” he told Fortune magazine in 2008. “And it’s not about convincing people they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do. So you can’t go out and ask people, you know, what’s the next big thing. There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, ‘If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse’.”

Apple isn’t just remarkable for its size or growth or products. It’s also amazing because of its awkwardness. It takes the precepts and approaches that the rest of us deem essential and renders them unnecessary. The only rule that it does appear to follow assiduously, I suppose, is the only real rule of branding: to thine own self be true.

Or ‘Think Different’ as Apple would put it.

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