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The Pebble In Apple’s Shoes

Well, it’s another bright, beautiful March here in Silicon Valley, which can mean only one thing: It’s time to get all excited about another Apple announcement.

This time everyone is waiting impatiently for the unveiling. The Apple Watch will be front and center of course, but people are also feverishly gossiping about what the other announcements will be. Because, of course, it’s Apple, so everyone wants to be dazzled.

We have become used to this three-ring circus from the folks in Cupertino, but in the Watch, Apple has a complicated story to tell. And from a branding point of view, it’s fascinating to follow along to see just how much elasticity there really is in the Apple brand.

Think about it this way: First there was the iPod. This, from a branding point of view, was a dream product. It did one thing and one thing only, and it did it really, really well. So much better than anyone else that it literally became synonymous with the market, just like Coke and Band-Aid. It was elegant, incredibly consumer focused, and laser-sharp in its functionality.

Then came the product that redefined Apple, the iPhone, which today remains the engine that drives the Apple cash juggernaut. This was a phone first, but now the pitch was starting to generate additional messaging components. It became more complicated from a branding point of view as you added apps, then iTunes and now Apple Pay — more and more pieces of functionality but, at its core, it’s still a phone.

And now we have the Watch. Already, we have seen signs of the Apple brand starting to strain to accommodate the messaging around this product.

The first wave of advertisements has not been in tech publications, but in more fashion-oriented channels such as Vogue. This is not surprising, as Apple has been telegraphing a fashion story around the product for months. And although Apple has established its reputation for setting premium prices, the rumors have the upper-end Apple Watches carrying four-figure price tags.

So the question from a branding point of view becomes: Is Apple trying to tell too many stories with the Watch? We have gone from the laser-sharp, single intent of the iPod to a product that almost seems to be positioned as the everything for everyone, from sports apps to high-end fashion statements … quite a product range. One of the maxims of branding is that if you say one thing, the customer hears that one thing loud and clear. But if you try to say a bunch of things at the same time, the customer hears nothing.

And this brings us to Pebble. I know, putting the darling of Kickstarter in the same story with the $700 billion colossus that is Apple seems ludicrous.

But in this case, David may just have a chance against Goliath. Pebble also had a March announcement, which went out the door without any of the fanfare of an Apple announcement. The new watches were nice, but it was the story of the straps that was the interesting part.

Unlike Apple, whose entire ecosystem revolves around iTunes and apps, Pebble is going with a hardware-centric approach. With their SmartBand system, third-party developers can enhance and build on top of the Pebble with straps that have different capabilities. Want a heart monitor? Swap a strap. Need more battery power and tired of lugging around that recharger brick? Swap a strap. It’s a novel and interesting approach to building an ecosystem, and from a branding point of view much easier to tell.

The Pebble does one thing well. The straps will do one thing well. It becomes a far more direct approach to the consumer, and one that in a way feels more customer-centric than Apple trying to cram as much gee-whiz functionality in the Watch, whether you want it or not. It also has the benefit of letting Pebble neatly sidestep the whole “whose got more apps” battle that defines the phone world, since Pebble “apps” itself with hardware, not software.

In this day and age, what moves consumer electronics is not the product but the story. Beats got you into the studio with Dre. GoPro put you at the top of a mountain. And that story has to be easy to tell, simple to understand, and worthy of engagement. Is Pebble going to derail the Watch? Probably not, as Apple’s marketing machine will make sure units keep flying off the shelves. But it’s interesting that as we near the 15th anniversary of the iPod, Pebble may wind up running the original Apple playbook better than Apple.

Christopher Caen is a partner and chief brand strategist of Theory Associates, a strategic branding agency that creates demand for some of the world’s leading technology brands.  He can be reached at [email protected].