You can't be like Apple; you can only be like you.

Everybody wants to be like Apple (see Virginia Postrel's Want to Be Like Apple? Lose the Bafflegab ). But what distinguishes Apple is that it has never tried to be like anybody else. Virginia gives some examples of aspiring Apple imitators:

Everybody, it seems, wants to be like Apple Inc. Google Inc. (GOOG) is buying Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc., many observers say, so it can integrate hardware and software to be like Apple (and to enlarge its patent pool).

Last week, Joel Ewanick, the global chief marketing officer at General Motors, declared that it's time to clearly differentiate our brand and align closer to a true global brand like Apple. -- Translation: We want to be like Apple.

What lies at the core of Apple's magical rise to dominance is something that cannot be imitated. Apple has a corporate soul that is authentic to it and is unique. Apple's soul is an expression of Steve Job's soul and the purpose for which he believes he was put in the world. Apple's strategic choices are all aligned with its corporate soul, and its culture is built on it. Everything Apple does is developed from within itself for the benefit of the very clearly defined set of customers it designs its product for. It doesn't try to be all things to all people. But in satisfying the needs of the people it does serve, it reaches much deeper into their intangible needs and cravings than any other computer manufacturer in the world does. As such it touches on a universal need and lures customers from far beyond its target market.

Any company can have its own corporate soul and use to for success, but they can't hijack someone else's corporate soul. Above all, corporate soul must be authentic.

For a company to have corporate soul it needs a founder or leader who knows exactly for what purpose he or she was put into the world, and forges their organization into a vehicle through which express that purpose. Purpose is always about making a valuable contribution to others, the value of the contribution depending on three factors:

  • Its uniqueness (at least in some way).
  • The depth of the need it satisfies. (This need is usually something deeper than a need for the tangible commodity the company produces.)
  • The efficiency with which it produces and delivers.

Apple does much more for its customers than provide them with phones and computers. It consistently provides its customers with new, previously unimagined technology experiences. It turns technology from a productivity tool into an integrated piece of modern life. It facilitates an almost emotional relationship between individuals and their technology. (People use emotional terms to describe their relationships with their Apple products in ways that customers of other companies do not.) All of this is what Steve Jobs is all about at a deep soul level; it is authentic and that is why it is unique. This is his life, not just his work. Apple's contribution to its customers qualifies on all three factors of value-add: It is unique, it satisfies a deep intangible need and Apple delivers it efficiently.

So those who want to "be like Apple", instead of looking over their shoulders at what their competitors are doing, should go deep inside themselves. They should figure out what they have been put here for, what unique talents and capabilities they have that could be valuable to others, who the people are that could most benefit from those talents and capabilities, what energizes them and what they are passionate about. Then they should work out what deep needs of those people they could satisfy were they to fulfill their purpose. Then build efficient businesses to deliver on nothing but that.

Strategy is its most valuable when it is, unorthodoxly, examined from the inside out.

For more on corporate soul, how to discover it and how to use it strategically, place your order for Lead By Greatness.

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