Three thoughts on Apple and insanely great brand leadership

It’s hard to think about brand leadership without thinking about Apple, now neck-and-neck with ExxonMobil as the world’s biggest company by market cap.

Last week, Apple was top of mind for many of us, with two major pieces of reporting: the UK release of Adam Lashinsky’s book, Inside Apple, which describes in part-admiring, part-unmerciful detail Apple’s tough organizational culture, and the New York Times’s excellent investigation into conditions in Apple’s supplier factories in China.

This last piece spurred CEO Tim Cook to email his 63,000 employees as follows: “Some people are questioning Apple’s values today… Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us.”

The meaning of brand leadership

I don’t doubt the sincerity and hard work of Apple’s supplier responsibility team – see, for example, Apple’s increasing disclosure and auditing efforts – or of Cook’s words.

But reading the two pieces side by side, it’s heartbreakingly clear to this Apple lover that two of the things that help Apple to make “insanely great products” – its culture of secrecy (designed to maximize pre-release buzz and to keep its teams razor-focused), and its unsparing operational excellence (that is: ability to make heavy demands on suppliers) – have heavy human costs.

Without deeper changes in how business is done, even the most stringent auditing and inspections will have limited impact. As one expert we spoke with said about the systemic challenge of labor conditions in global supply chains, “Eighty percent of problems are due to brand demands.”

For such changes, we’ll need patience, courage and muscle. And that’s what Apple has: while these challenges are certainly not unique to Apple, Apple may be unique in its global influence on manufacturers and its hold on consumers.

I offer three thoughts for Apple (written on a well-loved MacBook Pro) – and, by extension, for all brands – on brand leadership into the 21st century.

Thought #1: Delight your customers – and your stakeholders

“Apple obsesses over user experience, not revenue maximization,” says one former Apple executive quoted in Inside Apple. Apple does this even when the short-term costs are higher, leading to tremendous longer-term financial rewards.

What if Apple applied this long-term thinking to the “stakeholder experience”? There’s growing anecdotal evidence connecting better working conditions with quality and stronger supplier relationships. And as competition for skilled Chinese labor increases, will Chinese workers remain willing to be woken at midnight with a biscuit and a cup of tea to start assembling iPhones?

Thought #2: Engage in brand activism

Should a brand have a “point of view” on sustainability – in other words, should it nudge consumers towards better behaviors? Or should it take a quieter stance, providing choice but leaving it up to the consumer?

We need more brand activism.

Brands can’t and shouldn’t take the place of civil society. But we’re in a world where brands are what get noticed.

“The act of making people think about these issues is a revolutionary act, because no one is talking about it,” says Mike Daisey, playwright and performer of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. That “revolutionary act” was a crucial contribution of pioneering labels such as Fairtrade and Energy Star. But as such movements struggle to get noticed amidst the noise, it’s time for brands to take up the cause as well.

Greenpeace used Apple’s social capital to great effect with its 2006 “Green My Apple” campaign. Imagine what Apple could do with its consumer love – and buyer clout – to spur system-wide action on factory labor conditions.

Thought #3: Think drive – not demand

Starting at last June’s Sustainable Brands conference, SustainAbility conducted research on the value and challenges that businesses experience in using sustainability certification and labeling. We proposed that businesses start by asking how to define, deliver, demonstrate and create demand for better sustainability outcomes, rather than rushing to decide “which certification or label?”

This last D – demand – is the nut we all want to crack. How do we get customers to reward companies for the sustainability investments they’ve made? Is green marketing dead, or are we just getting started?

Much as I like the alliteration of the 4Ds, I now think “demand” is too narrow. In economics, demand equals purchasing behavior. But many sustainable practices are a public good, and we’ll be disappointed if we expect their communication to translate invariably or directly into B2C sales. Instead, brands may reap demand-side rewards in the form of brand loyalty, brand equity, or trust.

At our report launch, Rob Cameron, the then-chief executive of Fairtrade International, proposed we add a fifth D to the 4Ds: Drive. This got an immediate “Yes!” from the businesses and NGOs in the room. For it captures beautifully the notion that progress will come from the power of unreasonable people (and companies, and governments) with the courage and stamina to play a long-term game with long-term rewards.

That’s brand leadership. It’s not just about Apple – but today, there’s no one better positioned than Apple to deliver.

Patrin Watanatada is a director at UK-based consultancy and think-tank Sustainability. This article originally appeared on Sustainable Brands website.

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