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Memes as a way of branding?

Bondi Blue, Graphite Gray, Flower Power, Tangerine, Dalmation Blue – the different colors and patterns that Apple Inc. has put in our desktops, pockets, palms and in its worldwide stores make its gadgets looks like candies. Yum!

For a sweet freak like me, the initial attraction to the iMac was the candy colored casings.

But for years, the closest I came to it (or any other Apple product) was in the Media and Design department of the Bangalore based startup where I started my career. The head of this team, a long-haired- rock musician-by-night-visual-designer-by-day persona loved his Mac as much as the music he scored. He embodied the typical Mac user of the late 90s – different, unique, conceptual, creative, opinionated and aesthetical. Every multimedia presentation, product design, new UI and logo created by his team was unveiled to an eclectic group of envious corporate wannabes in this, one and only Mac, in the office. The rest of us in the team had until then, only worked and surfed in a Windows enabled environment. We couldn’t take our eyes off the squeaky clean yet beautiful machine, and it’s impressive GUI.

Such was the rarity of the Apple Macintosh computers (at least in India) in the late 90s. It had a snob value, a cool factor and a cult appeal. The Mac, the Lisa and the iMac were all rolled out and distributed with the powerful ‘Think Different’ tagline, which in itself meant that it was targeted at those who dared to stand above the crowd (or at least wanted to). Amongst those of us who did want to think differently, the price tag was a huge deterrent to board the Apple bandwagon. The Mac users scattered around the world were Apple evangelists (and Microsoft naysayers), but their numbers were so small that they didn’t mobilize the kind of feverish mass fan following that Steve Jobs (and thereby Apple) has had in the last decade or so.

And for decades Apple attracted and retained mostly mavericks.

This image of Apple and its users continued until the company diversified into digital portable music and media tablets. But product diversification and technological innovation apart, one of the key reasons that Apple moved from being a niche brand to a mass market brand was Steve’s memes.

A meme is basically a self propagating unit of social imitation. It can be a concept, a phrase, an image or behavior that is copied from person to person. Steve Jobs has cleverly used his public appearances and the internet itself as a medium to hurl memes at the public. For example, the Stanford Commencement speech which is so viral on the net, strikes a note of motivation and encouragement not just in the cap-and-gown wearing college graduates assembled that day, but in every human who listened to/read it later on the net. The essence of most of Steve’s memes is probably what most of our parents, teachers and mentors tell us in our formative years, like: Don’t let Bozo’s get you down; As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it; Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. But Steve Jobs, being the showman, the rabble rouser, visionary, technopreneur, story teller par excellence that he was, struck a chord with his memes not just in Apple’s headquarters and target audience, but with common folks around the world – common folks who often did not even own a Apple product. Because the message in these memes was to motivate and promote individuality and excellence – two aspects that most human beings strive for lifelong – they served to connect Apple with the crowds. The company and brand slowly moved from being just niche to having a mass market appeal.

Though I am not sure if it was intended to be that way, looking at things retrospectively, Steve’s memes have helped Apple cross the chasm, from niche to mass market; they have helped broaden Apple’s target market. These memes made Apple as a company more relevant and coveted by common people, who weren’t moneyed (and convinced) enough to invest in a Mactintosh or the colour coated iMacs, but now felt a visceral connection to try and test one or more of Apple’s products to experience the brand. The more Steve Jobs hurled memes the more people bought its products as a way of subscribing to the Founder’s views (the company’s ideology).

Maybe these memes even have a significant role to play in the way Apple has touched the lives of millions worldwide.

Behind every international buzz, digital mourning and media tribute paid to Steve upon his passing lay a meme that people remembered, loved or bonded with :-)
(do you have a favorite one?)

I think that, just as much as its technology, innovation and design superiority helped Apple build the brand, the memes that Steve Jobs has shared with the world has helped Apple cross the chasm – the chasm between the mavericks and the masses. His memes provided the link between being great and being loved – for both Apple and himself.