A Conversation with the Mastermind of the “i” Behind Apple Branding
Many people, especially young technology and online geeks, know Ken Segall as the author of the bestselling book Insanely Simple and the author of the fabulous technology-marketing blog, “Ken Segall’s Observatory” (www.kensegall.com/blog). However, Ken has another life as one of the nation’s top advertising and branding minds, having worked with clients such as NeXt, IBM, Dell, Intel and JC Penney. Then there is Apple — from which Segall draws his premise for Insanely Simple. As part of Apple’s famous advertising and branding juggernaut, Ken masterminded the “i” branding in Apple’s product names, beginning with the iMac computers in 1999. Then came the iPod, iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto, iPad … you get the picture.
Segall’s perspectives on Apple’s success, the late Steve Jobs and branding are fresh, insightful and sometimes surprising in this exclusive conversation with The Legacy Series.
LEGACY SERIES: Ken, why do you feel that Apple’s streamlined approach to product development made such a big splash at a time when the rest of the marketplace seemed more specialized and complex than ever?
KEN SEGALL: You’ve actually answered part of the question. The world is a very complicated place, so it’s only natural that simplicity stands out as it does. Apple puts major effort into distilling its products to the essence, so in most cases they have an intuitive nature — even though they are performing some very sophisticated functions. This same drive to achieve simplicity is present throughout all of Apple’s behaviors, including its advertising and retail operations. It’s in human nature to prefer a simpler approach, and Apple is mindful of this in everything it does.
LS: Do you think it is a product of academia, or the corporate world, that we are often urged to shy away from simplicity and embrace complexity?
KS: I don’t think we’re urged to shy away from simplicity. The problem is that complexity comes at us from so many directions, and we’re typically not trained very well to recognize and resist it — especially in the corporate world. Every successful company institutionalizes processes so it is able to repeat its successes year after year. This is necessary, as new people are forever coming and going. However, over time, these processes take on a life of their own. They become more important than the ideas that flow through them, and that’s when things start to get complicated. Not to mention frustrating. What’s interesting is that small companies and startups don’t usually have problems like this. What made Apple so successful is that it had a leader who insisted on hanging onto his startup values, even as the company became a global power.
LS: Could you review the 10 elements of simplicity that Steve Jobs espoused — and how what might seem obvious now was anything but when he first integrated them into Apple’s operations?
KS: One of the interesting things about simplicity is that it seems so natural that you don’t always notice it. The point of my book is that Steve had a way of looking at a wide range of things through this lens of simplicity. He’d make product design decisions this way, as well as advertising decisions, financial decisions, manufacturing decisions, and so on. There came a point when I realized that I was witnessing a pattern of sorts, that Steve was relentless about adhering to this notion of simplicity, and it guided his judgment in so many different ways. I felt it even more when I found myself working with companies that did not have a champion of simplicity like Steve. In those places, processes were far more complicated, projects took longer and cost significantly more, while achieving inferior results.
LS: You started the “i” naming series for Apple products. What did you have in mind when coming up with this naming concept? Did you ever imagine the branding goliath it would become?
KS: Naming iMac was just another job on the table at the time. I thought it was a neat opportunity, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it would turn into what it did. Steve just wanted a cool name for the computer he was betting the company on. We did note that the “i” was a foundational element and could be used in future products. Keep in mind that in those days (1998-99), Apple didn’t make any consumer devices; it just made computers. So it was way outside the scope of our thinking to believe that the “i” would become such a critical part of Apple’s product naming framework.
LS: What were some of your most enjoyable experiences while putting together and writing Insanely Simple? What do you hear most from readers when you make appearances or give talks about the book?
KS: To get all the material for the book together, I poured through tons of documents. Though it wasn’t all that long ago, you know the way it works — you come upon things that you had completely forgotten about, and they bring back some terrific memories. (Maybe a few painful ones as well.) Those memories spurred me to get in touch with various people to help fill in the gaps. So what I thought would be a relatively straightforward exercise in solitary writing became a journey of rediscovery.
LS: What was one of many great moments you experienced while working with Apple? Or another client?
KS: Every product launch at Apple was a favorite moment, and they got progressively better because the products got that much better. Most advertising people see their work debut on television and never get to experience a live audience reaction to it. Working on Apple was different. At every product launch, Steve would show the commercial(s) after he revealed the product — and 5,000 in the venue would applaud and scream (assuming that the commercials were worthy!). So we had the pleasure of a “live performance” of our ads during the big debut. Outside of Apple, I had a great experience recently with JC Penney, working with a great bunch of people creating the Ellen DeGeneres campaign that ran on this year’s Oscars. I had never had a single commercial run on the Oscars, and here we were creating five of them. It was a fantastic production involving two weeks of shooting on the Universal vStudios back lots in L.A. Using more than 200 extras, we created entire worlds for this campaign, including ancient Rome and a dangerous Old West town. Pure fun.
LS: What surprises or impresses you the most when you give presentations, discussions at book signings, or other public engagements?
KS: I’m always struck by the degree to which people are interested in the story of Apple and Steve Jobs. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Apple is fascinating to people in virtually every industry because so many people own Apple products, and have followed Steve’s story over the years. So even though I may be speaking to organizations in industries that have absolutely nothing to do with technology, people are always eager to find out more about how Apple works, and how they might be able to adopt some of Apple’s principles in their own organizations. And of course, there are always people in the audience who just want to know: “What was it like to work with Steve?” It reminds me of how fortunate I am to actually know the answer to that question. Steve truly is a historic figure.