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February 16, 2021

What eCommerce Brands Can Learn from Apple and Nike

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eBrandcast / What eCommerce Brands Can Learn from Apple and Nike

Today, we’re taking a short vacation from our usual focus on eCommerce brand to do a deep dive into the branding strategies of Apple and Nike. As 2 of the most recognizable, and well-loved brands in the world, there are branding lessons they can demonstrate better than anyone else. And as you’ll see, there’s nothing Apple and Nike are doing with their brands that you can’t put into practice yourself, right now. Even without the war chest of resources at their disposal.
The crux of their success is their ability to masterfully leverage customer emotions through branding. Although on the surface Apple and Nike appear to be very different companies, fundamentally, they both inspire fanatical devotion because they’ve built brands built on a deep empathy with customers. In today’s episode, we explore the specific branding strategies Apple and Nike are using to do this, and how you can too.

You'll Learn

The vital importance of doing core branding work

How Apple leverages the core identity of “simplicity” in everything they do

How Nike finds new ways to renew their motivational essence to meet the continually changing needs of customers

How to keep customers engaged long-term, without radical, laborious rebranding


Full Podcast Transcript

Hello Beings of Earth! I’m your host Neil Verma.
Welcome to eBrandCast, where we decode what branding truly is, so you can build a dominant eCom Brand.
We’re going to do something a little different today.
Usually, we prefer to tackle eCommerce and branding topics through the lens of smaller eCommerce brands.
There are a few reasons we do this.
First, because although branding is universal regardless of the company or product we’re talking about, the rules for eCommerce branding manifest differently online.
And in order to succeed, you’ll need the specific tools for the job, not a bunch of academic theory.
Second, while there are definitely major eCommerce brands that are earning huge valuations, like the Caspers and Warby-Parkers of the world, we tend to stay away from drooling over the practices of international legacy brands, like Coca-Cola, because they have a war chest of resources that probably aren’t at your disposal – at least not yet.
Focusing on smaller eCommerce brands isn’t just more practical, and it’s more motivational, because their success is within reach of where you are now, even if you’re just starting out with your first eCommerce venture.
In this episode, we’re going to take a small holiday from this approach, and explore some of the lessons eCommerce entrepreneurs can learn from Apple and Nike.
First, because they’re hugely successful for a reason.
Second, because at eBB, we’d argue that the difference that got both Apple and Nike into the stratosphere, wasn’t their vast resources or market share, but their branding.
It helps, too, that Apple and Nike do certain things with their branding better than anyone else.
But the good news is their best practices are all things you can do it, too.
Right now, as you’re listening to me, you have the resources the mobilize the same branding strategy that Apple and Nike have used to become, well, Apple and Nike.
Sound too good to be true?
It isn’t.
[[START CLIP 1]] Branding and advertising are closely related but they aren’t the same thing.
And many entrepreneurs assume that it’s having millions of marketing dollars to advertise, that builds a brand.
But branding isn’t an ad campaign, it’s the core identity of your company, and the relationship you’re able to build with your customers.
Sure, having a healthy marketing budget can help spread the word, and reach new customers, but you don’t need a penny to craft a meaningful brand.
What both Apple and Nike understand, is that the power of branding isn’t found in leveraging resources, it’s found in leveraging emotions.
One of the best lessons you can learn from Apple and Nike, is that it’s not enough just to know who your target audience is, or even to understand them.
The strongest brands are built on deep empathy for the customer.
As we walk through Apple and Nike’s branding strategies, you’ll see how this empathy is reflected in, and guides, every decision they make.
They have a core essence and set of values that resonate with their audience, and they then allow the customer’s feelings and perspective to shape the brand.
But even as the brand evolves with consumers, the core of the brand stays consistent, rooted in the passion and ambition that first created the brand.
This allows them to remain authentic, no matter how the brand evolves with the times, or what new dimensions it takes on.
They are always true to themselves, so no campaign feels like a gimmick or a cash grab.
This sets a strong foundation for long-term relationships with customers who aren’t just loyal, but fanatical about the brand. [[END CLIP 1]]
Committing to a core purpose and empathizing with your customers doesn’t cost anything other than your time and attention, and if I could distill the most important branding lesson from Apple and Nike this would be it.
Of course, deep empathy and a core commitment have other positive effects.
With a resonant core message that adapts with their customer’s changing needs, Apple and Nike remain beloved brands, because they continue to captivate their customers, and always have something relevant and genuinely interesting to say.
They never fall out of fashion or favor, but continue to drive the conversations around their brand, and give consumers new reasons to stay engaged.
Yet they never stray from their core purpose or essence, so these iterations don’t feel exploitative.
Both Apple, and especially Nike, let customers know that they stand for something greater than fancy technology and better running shoes, creating formidable bonds between customers and the brand that makes them impervious to the messaging and offers of competitors.
Finally, despite their status as mega-brands, Apple and Nike have both been able to keep their organizations nimble, so they’re ready to pivot quickly as markets and customer needs change.
There are also practical benefits, since eCommerce has sped up the pace of change in regard to sales channels and digital marketing techniques.
But because they have such a crystal-clear picture of their brand identity, and the needs of their customers, and everything in their organization is aligned with these values, agility is built in.
Once a brand has a core identity and a clear understanding of their target audience, knowing when customer needs shift, and having the insight to meet them, is instant.
Brands like Apple and Nike don’t need to face a crisis in order to keep up, although both of them have reinvented themselves along the way.
But, let’s get our heads out of the clouds, and take a closer look at exactly how Apple and Nike have leveraged the power of emotion to build two of the biggest, most beloved brands in the world.
Let’s start with Apple, one of the best examples of a brand built on a strong core identity.
Founded in 1976, Apple has been through several transformations.
Today, not only is Apple the most valuable brand in the world, it’s the most valuable brand in the history of the world.
The brand has a value of $205 billion.
We’re not talking about any of the factories, assets, or equipment of the company, either.
The brand itself is worth $205 billion.
Though perhaps most remarkable of all, although Apple first defined its market position as the free-thinking rebel of the consumer-electronics world in the mid-80’s, a time when it was far behind Microsoft, who were soon to launch their first Windows release, Apple has managed to retain its “Think Different” image, despite now being the undisputed market leader.
[[START CLIP 2]] After a 12 years absence from the company, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the mid-90s, the brand was struggling.
To get them back on track, Steve Jobs constantly asked the question: “What are we here to do?”
Apple was looking for a new vision, a clear identity that customers could latch on to.
Unsurprisingly, the seeds of their rebirth had already been planted.
They started by deepening their “Think Different” message of their iconic “1984” commercial, in a new ad.
It featured cultural and historical heroes like Martin Luther King Jr, Amelia Earhart, Picasso, and Alfred Hitchcock.
The ad praised those crazy enough to think they can change the world and who push humanity forward.
Where the “1984” ad aimed to differentiate Apple from their competitors, this new campaign suggested Apple saw themselves as one of these “crazy ones,” who are passionate about innovation and progress.
It was an emotional appeal, rather than a competitive play.
Now, if this had only been an ad campaign, Apple’s bid to make a comeback would have almost certainly failed miserably.
But like I said earlier, branding and marketing aren’t the same.
This ad was a herald of a new brand perspective under Jobs.
While the dedication to innovation had always been at the heart of Apple’s brand, Apple wanted to democratize progress.
To the question “What are we here to do?” Apple decided that while their innovative products were creating the future, they wanted those products to be so simple and intuitive to use, that anyone and everyone could be part of the future with them.
This wasn’t just an ad campaign; it came from a deep empathy for consumers.
Apple then realigned their company and brand, around the newly clarified essence of simplicity. [[END CLIP 2]]
It was the recognition that many consumers were frustrated with the steep learning curve of technology, and were intimidated by training videos and thick manuals.
[[START CLIP 3]] Apple’s simplicity started with putting the customer first, and designing technology and software that consumers would find approachable, and intuitive to use.
In some ways, Apple imitated the “fast fashion” world: they didn’t ‘invent’ much of the technology itself.
For instance, MP3 players existed well before the iPod came along, and touch screens were invented in the 1970s.
Apple didn’t invent the laptop computer or the smartphone, either – BlackBerrys, and the older PalmPilots, already fulfilled many of the functions of the original iPhone.
Instead, just as fast fashion brands seek to quickly mass produce affordable versions of trending runway looks, Apple’s real innovation has been its ability to take the cutting edge of technology, and integrate it into beautifully designed devices, that don’t take a degree in rocket science to be able to use.
The aesthetic design of the products was also influenced by simplicity.
Apple is known for devices that use a minimalist, elegant look.
There are no gaudy distractions, and the sleek design screams pure function.
This is another brand benefit of Apple, that their devices do exactly what they were built to do, they’re reliable.
Of course, the creative assets of the brand were overhauled.
Apple didn’t let go of its Apple logo, but they gave it a more modern, simple look by replacing the classic colored stripes, with a uniform silver metallic finish.
Apple also abandoned their color options on devices, which used to be a way to customize your Mac as a way to stand out and “Think Different” than the herd, for simple white and silver.
Everything within the brand was simplified.
They then infused the message of simplicity into their brand story.
In the 2000s, Apple ran their popular “I’m a PC, and I’m a Mac” commercials, which promoted Macs on the basis that they did more, with fewer steps, and less complications than a PC. [[END CLIP 3]]
Macs also come pre-loaded with more robust software than PCs, so it’s easier to start using your device right away for a variety of projects.
Another major selling point was that PCs were astronomically more likely to be infected by viruses, and malware.
Apple’s built-in security was another layer of simplicity on the otherwise intimidating world of technology.
Of course, Apple didn’t stop there.
Simplicity also informs every step of the consumer’s experience.
Apple streamlined the options they offered for every device, to a white/silver color option, and models with only a few functional differences.
This took the analysis paralysis out of a purchase decision.
All you need to know is what you want the device to do for you.
The purchase moment itself was also reshaped.
Apple purposefully laid out their retail stores to allow every customer to interact with their products hands-on, and experience for themselves how easy their devices are to operate.
All of their current products are on display where consumers can see, touch, and try the products without pressure, or needing an in-store associate to walk them through it.
They’re encouraged to explore and see how intuitive the products are for themselves.
They also eliminated checkout lines as there are no registers.
Instead, associates carry credit machines to speed up transactions, and help consumers anywhere in the store.
This more soft-sales environment, is exemplary of Apple’s customers empathy, and the simple and seamless experience they offer.
And despite de-emphasizing purchasing, Apple stores have twice the sales per square foot of any retailer in the world.
Operationally, focusing on the essence of simplicity gives Apple a real advantage.
Because simplicity informs every aspect of the brand, and customers have now come to expect a straightforward, intuitive experience, mistakes and missteps are easier to spot and fix.
For example, a customer experience problem Apple is navigating right now, is the need for too many dongles to get the same functionality.
The decision to get rid of all the ports on their laptops other than 2 USB-C ports, may have been too much simplicity.
One of the reasons this step has given customers so many headaches, including the death of the popular 3mm headphone jack on the iPhones, is because it feels so anti-Apple.
Hopefully Apple’s ability to empathize with its customers will help them course correct.
But Apple still offers a second-to-none customer experience.
Even after a great experience in their retail store, once the customer gets the product home, it works out of the box without any further setup.
If they have any other Apple services or devices, they all integrate seamlessly and effortlessly.
There’s no need for complex network setups or repetitive syncing.
It just works.
In the event something does go wrong with a product, in-person service is available in every Apple store, at the aptly named ‘Genius Bar.’
Instead of having to mail in their device, customers can bring it in and show a Genius in real-time what the problem is.
If it’s an issue that can be fixed on the spot, the customer has just saved a lot of time and effort, and if the product does need additional service, the process is already well underway.
Recently, Apple has also made booking an appointment at the Genius Bar quicker and easier.
Apple’s commitment to a brand essence and mission that serves their customers, doesn’t just create the feeling of consistency and dependability, it helps Apple leverage the emotions of customers, and form a deeper emotional bond.
As Steve Jobs famously explained, “The ability to make a memory is the essence of branding.
Good branding strikes an emotional chord and goes well beyond reasoning and logic.”
Simplicity guides Apple’s decisions, but it creates the feeling of inclusion with its customers.
Consumers feel like they’re getting the leading edge of innovation, and a promise of superior quality, but they also feel part of a tribe.
Apple’s mission to help consumers feel included, has led to fanatical loyalty
You’re either an Apple person or you’re not, and not many Apple customers are willing to settle for anything else.
There’s no question, Apple has achieved remarkable success and with it, many advantages other brands simply don’t have, but it all started with a clear answer to Steve Jobs’s question: “What are we here to do?”
Answering this question with the customer’s needs and experience in mind, and then staying true to that essence, is something any brand can do no matter how big or small.
Finding new ways to express your brands core in order to meet your customer’s changing needs, is something Nike does exceptionally well.
From their inception in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports, Nike has always been focused on the needs of athletes.
In fact, the company was founded by Phil Knight, and his track and field coach Bill Bowerman, with the mission of making better, more comfortable running shoes for track athletes.
Early on, they marketed their shoes directly to runners at track and field events, and eventually sponsored Olympic athletes, positioning themselves as the top choice for high performing competitors.
This was working well for them, but by the mid-80s, other athletic brands, like Reebok, had entered the market.
Reebok was experiencing surging sales after targeting women with a new shoe model, builT specifically for aerobics.
Nike realized they also needed to diversify their audience.
Up until then, they had managed to build a solid reputation with professional, and mostly male athletes.
But, they saw an opportunity to appeal to a wider circle of customers, by appealing to regular people who were into fitness.
The problem wasn’t with their products, it was with their communication.
Nike had just spent $5 million on a TV ad campaign, called ‘Revolution,’ which featured both a male and female athlete working out on the track, and in the gym.
[[START CLIP 4]] Scott Bedbury, Nike’s Chief of Advertising at the time, reiterated that while the company should be “proud of [its] heritage,”
he also urged the company to realize, “the appeal of ‘Hayward Field’ is narrow, and potentially alienating to those who are not great athletes.”
Although he believed the Revolution ads, had captured the intrinsic rewards of sports and fitness, they wanted to make this message more accessible.
Nike hired the agency Wieden + Kennedy to work on the new messaging.
In the research process, they found that professional and college athletes only accounted for a population of about one million people, and they wanted to resonate with everyone.
The insight came from Bill Bowerman, who proclaimed that everyone who has a body is a potential athlete.
This combined with another problem Nike was facing.
Socially, obesity and procrastination were a widespread obstacle in the way of many people and their fitness goals.
One of the reasons Nike advertised to professionals, was because they knew these were the people who reliably buy fitness gear.
It was here that the iconic “Just Do It” tagline and campaign were born.
Nike realized that they were limiting themselves by focusing on selling a product, which naturally only spoke to pro and serious athletes, and by selling an image, which only athletes could relate to.
Instead, with “Just Do It,” Nike focused on selling the idea that everyone has the power to reach their goals, and become an athlete in their own right.
They sold motivation and determination; the missing piece that made Nike relevant to the average consumer.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how successful the campaign was.
Nike’s sales surged from $877 million to $9.3 billion. [[END CLIP 4]]
The tagline and their iconic Swoosh logo both even have a home in the Smithsonian National Museum.
Just like Apple who appealed with a message of inclusion, Nike dramatically widened the audience that resonated with their brand, by tapping into the right emotion.
[[START CLIP 5]] But Nike has continued to succeed, because they have found a way to stay true to their core mission, despite drastic shifts in consumer trends and behavior.
While Nike has continued to sponsor and support professional athletes, their messaging have variously put the spotlight on non-traditional athletes, like Sophia Boutella, a dancer,
as well as an overweight teenager in their “Find Your Greatness” campaign.
That campaign pushed Nike’s message of inclusive athleticism, and proclaimed that “greatness is wherever somebody is trying to find it.”
More recently, leveraging the power of social media, Nike has committed to empowering female athletes with their #empower campaign.
In fact, part of Nike’s staying power has precisely been their ability to adapt their message to new channels.
Nike is one of the most active and followed brand on social media networks, like Twitter and Instagram.
And following the innovation and success of many eCommerce startups, Nike is reaching out to millennial and Gen Z consumers, with a greater direct-to-consumer model, which is now worth nearly 30% of their overall business.
This model not only offers them better margins, D2C gives them 62% profit versus 38% through traditional retail.
It also helps them bond with their audience, because they’re providing the shopping experience younger consumers have come to expect.
Likewise, they’ve also transformed their retail stores into destinations that focus on storytelling, and creating an experience, rather than displaying their products.
They’re listening to their customers and making sure they show up wherever they are.
But perhaps the most important lesson Nike can offer eCommerce entrepreneurs, is that their message has continued to resonate with consumers, in varying contexts and channels, because Nike has been willing to stand up for their values.
Both Nike and Apple leverage the consumer’s emotions, but this shouldn’t be confused with manipulation.
In particular, Nike’s value of determination and perseverance has helped them continually refresh their appeal. [[END CLIP 5]]
For instance, long known for their partnerships with high-profile professional athletes, Nike made a bold stance by standing by Tiger Woods, through the fallout of revelations stemming from his personal life.
Likewise, Nike also publicly stood by Serena Williams following a controversy regarding her outfit at a tennis tournament.
The president of the French Tennis Federation took offence to her skin-tight catsuit, and even called her out by name, suggesting they’d change the dress-code rules going forward.
Despite the fact Williams chose a catsuit, because it limits the risk of blood clots.
Nike responded with a ‘Just Do It’ ad featuring Williams, and the line, “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.”
Then in 2018, for the 30th anniversary of the ‘Just Do It’ campaign, Nike evolved, and renewed the meaning of their tagline, by featuring NFL player Colin Kaepernick in the emotional ad.
Kaepernick famously started a controversary by kneeling during the national anthem at games, in protest of systemic racism and discrimination by law enforcement toward African-Americans.
Not only did the fallout reach the White House, Kaepernick recently settled a lawsuit against the NFL accusing the league of colluding, in order to shut him out of a job in retaliation.
Nike’s choice was brave, not only was it a gamble in terms of the market reaction, Nike is also one of the NFL’s biggest sponsors, and produces all of its player jerseys.
Standing behind Kaepernick, and choosing their 30th anniversary to do it, was a powerful message that they are devoted to athletes and all the causes that motivate them, not just the love of a sport.
‘Just Do It’ is no longer just about getting off the couch to go for a run, but being willing to stay true to your values.
Nike may have been looking to appeal to millennials and Gen Z with a focus on eCommerce, but they captured their emotions, and refreshed ‘Just Do It,’ for another generation, by tapping into the broader social consciousness of younger generations.
It may have been a gamble, and Nike knew they’d likely lose some of their customer base, but by September, only a month following the campaign’s launch, their stock reached an all-time high.
You might not have access to high-profile stars, or the advertising reach, of a Nike or Apple, but the core lesson of Nike’s success is something you can do right now.
With the right emotional core behind your brand, the ability to continually renew the meaning of your brand with new generations, and new audiences, is only limited by your ability to put yourself in your customers’ shoes.
Nike realized their message was motivational, but alienating.
And with nothing more than a new context to their core message, they grew to one of the biggest brands in the world.
They have continued to stay relevant by allowing their core to evolve, without abandoning its essential meaning, and staying in touch with the customer’s point of view.
Do you have a clear answer to Steve Jobs’ question, “What are you in business to do?”
Are you communicating your values and standing up for them as clearly as Nike?
You don’t need a war chest of resources in order to put these lessons into action, just time, self-awareness, and commitment.
In other words… Just do it!
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