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Is Your Brand The Charm Or The Bracelet?

“We want to be Apple.”

There is no sentence we fear more in our business than this. It’s our version of “Make the logo bigger.” As a branding agency that specializes in tech, we hear this often from companies wanting to hire us. And we need to sit them down and tell them the horrible truth that we can’t make them Apple. That is not to say we can’t make them a huge success and someday become a powerful brand like Apple, but we can’t make you into Apple.

What we can do, and what we have a responsibility to do, is make you exactly what you are: you. It’s all a branding agency can do, regardless of what they might tell you. And this really is the hard work, digging through your DNA, your company’s reason for being, and why you exist in the world. The good news is that it’s always in there, it’s just sometimes easier for us to find it than it is for you. Forest and trees and all that jazz after all.

Which brings us back to companies that want to be Apple. Now, it’s disconcerting to see people trying to ride the coattails of another brand to help them become something bigger. However, these are small companies trying to bash their way into a market with 800-pound gorillas as far as the eye can see, so that moment of not being confident in your own brand is understandable.

However, we have seen the large tech companies recently fall into the same trap, of trying to capture the magic of another brand instead of focusing on what drives their own brand. It’s kind of a branding bandage, and often it is personified in a hire that is initially heralded as the beginning of a brand new day (pardon the pun).

For instance, just this weekend Samsung landed Unilever’s Marc Mathieu, who will be replacing outgoing chief marketing officer (CMO) Todd Pendleton, the man who convinced the Korean giant that they could actually take swings at Apple and land some hits. This is right on the heels of Spotify grabbing GAP CMO Seth Farbman based on his fashion and retail experience.

But of course, if you are going to try and drag the fashion coattails over to a technology brand, no company has bet the ranch the way that Apple has. The last few years they have been busy grabbing folks with fashion experience, with the poster child for this effort being ex-Burberrys CEO Angela Ahrendts. Ahrendts was specifically tapped to lead the launch of the Apple Watch, and to reposition it as a fashion item as much as a technology device.

This month we will see the fruits of all these efforts as the Watch finally rolls into an Apple Store near you. But regardless of how Ahrendts and her strategy play out, the most interesting part will not be how many Watches sell, but what happens to people’s relationship with the Apple brand as a result.

The question is when is this addition of external DNA appropriate, and when is it actually damaging to your brand? Most people, when they think brand, they think of your external face to the world. But most of that is what we would call tactical expressions of your brand: your logo, your name, and your packaging. All of these are part of the conversation you as a brand have with your audience. But they are not what holds your brand together.

Think of this as a charm bracelet. The Apple computers, iPhones and iPods are very different products, ones that very easily could have come from different companies. If you saw these “charms” lying on a table they would not immediately make sense as a group. But brand is the bracelet that they all refer back to, the element that ties everything together. The charms succeed in being different because they are bound together by the bracelet. Otherwise you just have a bunch of weird stuff lying on a table.

Adding new DNA, such as hiring a new CMO, can be either the charm or the bracelet. A new charm can add depth, emotion and direct the brand in a new direction that is still consistent with the core DNA. Or it can be the bracelet, completely changing the relationship of the charms to each other, and to the audience. The latter is far more dangerous, and can backfire as a company moves away from what they are inside, and attempt to copy something outside.

You can only be you. But once you figure that out, a well-positioned brand will create consistency across your company. And that consistency becomes a “hidden ROI” in your company, as everything else you do reflects back on it, and is emphasized and heightened by it.

So when it comes time to add new brand DNA to your company, ask yourself one thing: Is it the charm or the bracelet? If it’s the latter, you may just have walked away from being you.

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].