It comes as no surprise to me, in a year that saw the launch of iPhone 4G and iPad, that Apple has become the world's most powerful brand, It topped the annual top 100 global brand power list, BrandZ, moving up from third place in 2009, with an 84% increase in its estimated value to $153bn ending Google's four year run at the top of the global brand power list. Yet the same report tells us on a "buzz" measure – taking in mentions on blogs, message boards and tweets – it comes fourth behind Google, Facebook and Microsoft.  A good performance, yes, but maybe not as stellar as we might expect. So does buzz matter less than we think?  Is the Apple success story more a salutory lesson in the importance of product innovation? Or is there something we’re missing here?

I get really frustrated at seeing buzz talked about purely in terms of mentions, as if it is analagous to media that can be weighed and measured. It reminds me of those neuromarketers who believe they can "reduce" emotional engagement  to a few squiggles on an EEG trace. Yes, of course buzz can be measured terms of volumes of tweets/ mentions etc,  but this is only part of the story. There’s more to buzz than how many times you get mentioned in social media. Why?

  1. Buzz is as much an emotional, non-rational phenomenon as an objective thing that we can weigh and measure. The key thing that any marketer dreams of creating is The Feeling that Something is Happening. In other words, the percepion or the feeling that a brand is being talked about is as important as the reality.
  2. There’s more to buzz than social media: there’s word of mouth at workplaces (the water cooler moment, anyone?) conversations in bars and mentions/ reports  in conventional media ( remember them?). And,beyond that, there’s the perception that (other) people are talking about it.

So when my company asked people, post launch, how much they felt iPhone 4G and iPad  were being talked about, it became clear that these are socially infectious phenomena up there with Facebook, Google, or even the dominant media event of the time – the World Cup. In short, these two Apple products engaged millions of people and inspired  them to spread the word on their behalf.  And, even more importantly, people believed that was how others felt too.  

Conquest’s work also suggests that Apple has some unusual characteristics which encourage people to spread the word on its behalf. Firstly, despite its size, Apple continues to over-index on being quirky (in a good sense). Secondly, it generates an intense tribalism amongst its users and a  strong sense of belonging – even amongst those who don’t hold its products.  In other words, people want to be part of it -  hence the queues round the block on the eve of the iPad2 launch.

But there's probably more still to Apple than quirkiness and tribalism. We only understand it if we recognise that, above all, it is a social phenomenon and that the key to it's success are the strong emotions - both individual and shared - that underpin it.  How do we discover these? The clues may be in the discourse -  just look at the way people talk and write about it. Here’s one example:

“Apple is not a company, it is a belief system…new products are unveiled at ‘prayer-meetings’ when Jobs himself appears, the Pentecostal fire descending on the heads of the faithful…the machines are not sold, they are bestowed.”

Of course, Apple is not a religion and (as far as I know) there’s no church where its followers worship. Yet it's tempting to conclude that Apple actually goes beyond (trannscends, even)  buzz and creates a social value which is closer to religious belief than to qualities we normally associate witth brands. It certainly seems to  inspire people in a way that makes comparison with religion or other belief systems seem credible rather than far-fetched. But unlike most religions, brands have short life-cycles. My guess is that Christianity, Islam and Buddhism will all still be around in 10 years, but who knows where Apple might be?