Steve Jobs is being mourned the world over, not just as a revolutionary inventor and talismanic chief executive officer, but also as an iconic personal brand and a globally-recognized leader who touched the lives of everyone, not simply the Apple fan or the tech community. Jobs is praised for his creative genius, for changing the way we communicate and interact and for turning Apple from a fruit into an international brand spoken in all languages across the globe. If we scour through the deluge of articles and blogs recently written in tribute to Jobs, we see recurring references to him as a visionary leader and dreamer, with one article even echoing George Bernard Shaw by labeling him “an entrepreneur who dreamed things that never were and asked ‘why not?’” Although the visionary aspect of Jobs’ legacy will continue to be studied and lauded for decades to come, what is even more striking was his uncanny ability to actually turn his visions into concrete reality through his unflagging persistence and passion. It is the combination of dreamer and achiever, a man of style and substance, which makes him stand out in history.
Clearly, these dualities are incarnated in Apple’s products that marry design with technology. But as experts in communication, what really makes us stop and think is how he also applied these dualities, combining content with form. For most companies, style, design and form are means to an end, which is to maximize sales of their products. But for Jobs, these assets had a different meaning. He understood that these dichotomies, dreamer and achiever, design and technology, content and form, were the key words that should lead his strategic thinking, as they would turn Apple into the successful company it is today.
To the point
On the product front the adjectives that come to mind are innovative, pioneering and revolutionary but also beautiful, easy to use, simple and sleek. Jobs revolutionized the technological industry, reinventing the concept of personal computing and rendering it accessible to all. This was done by turning computers into designs while creating a great experience for users.
Steve Jobs worked religiously on upholding both the content and form of Apple’s communication. He recognized that during times of tough competition and struggle over market share, strong and creative ideas are needed and original content is critical to attracting and retaining customers. Jobs learned this the hard way from his mistakes at Apple and NeXT Computer.
As such, when he rejoined Apple in 1997 he made sure to make communication his top priority. Jobs started by developing a new branding platform with two syllable words for consumer products: the iPod, iPhone, iMac and iPad. There have been many speculations as to what the letter “I” signifies, with different theories including Internet, innovation, inspiration and individual. Jobs personally oversaw the taglines used to market and promote Apple and its products, including iconic slogans such as “Think Different”, “iThink, therefore iMac” and “It’s small. It talks. And it’s in color.”
The effectiveness of Apple advertising can be summarized in two words: simplicity and clarity. You would be hard-pressed to find lengthy press releases announcing new developments. Instead they employed short and impactful messages devoid of technical jargon and sweeping numbers. This was applied throughout Apple’s many events, where presentations were punctuated with short sentences rather than bulleted PowerPoint documents, sometimes even resorting to imagery instead of words.
In fact, every Apple-related message was carefully written to convey the positioning of the company and allow customers to identify with its corporate culture based on innovation, passion and style. ‘Innovation’ because Steve Jobs’ purpose was not to sell products to customers, but rather experiences, something which translated into his messages. For Jobs, the iPod was “1,000 songs in your pocket”, the iPod Touch, “the funniest iPod ever” and the iPhone “the Internet in your pocket”. ‘Passion’ because Jobs believed that everyone should live to do something one loved and successfully achieve one’s dreams and as such would punctuate his sentences with words like ‘gorgeous’, ‘amazing’ and ‘fantastic’ when describing Apple products and services. ‘Style’ because Steve Jobs brought aesthetics to the heart of design, stating: “That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Another characteristic of Jobs’ communication was that he communicated solely about Apple, revealing little about himself. Nevertheless people dissected his messages in attempts to learn more about the man behind the logo. This was another carefully planned strategy to maintain an aura of mystery around him, not only reinforcing the perception of him as a visionary guru but also allowing each person to project his or her own ideas onto him and identify with him, with Apple and with its products. The video of his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford is a favorite on YouTube, which gave us a rare insight into the personal side of Steve Jobs, from Steve Jobs.
Hear what I say
As powerful as the substance and content is, it is only as impactful as the form or channel through which it is conveyed; in Jobs’ case that was his live performances. Jobs undoubtedly had talent and performance skills and knew how to leverage them. He made his live performances the most anticipated events in the tech year. The secrecy that surrounded his persona was extended to his products, creating anticipation among Apple fans who avidly waited for his performance. Each product launch was turned into a concert, whose rock star was Steve Jobs, a CEO full of energy and enthusiasm ready to introduce visionary products.
Among the more memorable moments were the envelope that was shown on the screen featuring the MacBook Air and Jobs reciting Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” lyrics wearing a bow tie as he unveiled the Mac in 1984. The key success factor of these seemingly spontaneous shows was the perfectly coordinated build-up and weeks of rehearsal, which made these announcements a hit and demonstrated Jobs’ obsession with details and perfection. These timely performances, each of which had a specific purpose, were preceded by small pre-planned leaks, circulating information to raise curiosity and create drama. That said, Apple also bet on old school advertising with $420 million spent in 2010 on billboards, TV and online ads, all of which followed the rule of simple and clear messaging, with young people dancing and holding iPods or using the iPhone and iPad.
When it comes down to it, there is no secret recipe for successful communication. The equation is simple: content and form go hand-in-hand and no part of the equation should be favored over the other. Unfortunately, it is not something that companies and brands in our part of the world seem to have understood, with many still betting on the ability of flashy slogans and costly campaigns to make up for a lack of substance and content to back it up. From real estate to telecom, we have seen a myriad of regional companies put up impressive campaigns and creative visuals which have left us wondering: what is the real message, what do they stand for, what are they promising and can they deliver on it? These questions have remained unanswered and these companies have floundered in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. It is clear that in communication as in everything else, it is all about style and substance. Steve Jobs certainly understood that, and he will be missed sorely, not only for revolutionizing the technology industry but for setting the bar so high that it will be tough for anyone to follow suit.