Walk around Las Vegas’ Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and one thing starts to stand out — electronics manufacturers and distributors have fully embraced tablet computing.
Just a few years after Apple introduced its first iPad, it seems as if every single company has created a tablet. You can order them in any size you want, with any processing and memory capabilities and in a rainbow of colors, styles, and designs. If you stand quietly and listen carefully, you can feel Adam Smith’s concept of supply and demand at work while you hear the sound of prices dropping.

Why is it then that Apple’s iPad is still the top seller in the category at prices significantly higher than the competition? Certainly not because they were first in the category. Microsoft gets that honor, having released their first tablet computer way back at the turn of the century, at least ten years before Apple’s iPad.

My partner Roberto Schaps went to the restaurant show in Chicago. His quick report? Every manufacturer is selling the same thing. Rows and rows of vendors selling knives. Rows and rows of vendors showing cookware. And company after company – from originator Keurig to Kitchenaid, Nespresso, Hamilton Beach, Mr. Coffee, Cuisinart, and more — selling the same coffee machines that work with those little prepackaged coffee capsules.

From coffee pods to iPads, today’s globalized, computerized 24/7/365 manufacturing economy can produce anything consumers want in any style or quantity and at almost any quality or price range. So how can products stand out? Why would anyone buy one product over another when they’re all the same?

Please don’t tell me that the best product gets the nod. If that were true we’d have all embraced Betamax video over VHS, Apple’s original personal computers over PCs, and not a single boy band since the Jackson 5 would have ever sold a single song.

No, consumers are much more complicated and nuanced than that. Or as Dale Carnegie put it: “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion.” And creatures of emotion make decisions based on the warm and fuzzy way they feel about things, and justify those decisions with cold, hard facts.

Even customers who make their purchase decisions on the bloodless choice of lowest price are still often making an emotional decision. While low price purchases might be dictated by the reality of their budgets, they still use their purchase practice to tell the world who they are and pride themselves on having the acumen to find the best price and get the best deal. Think about how often you’ve complimented a friend on something they were wearing and they responded by telling you how cheaply they found it at Marshall’s or TJ Maxx.

What’s becoming truer and truer is that companies can no longer depend on the same old innovation and speed-to-market alone to stand out and reach their sales goals. Instead they must develop and cultivate a powerful brand that entices and nurtures the kinds of loyal consumers that will return time and time again to buy their products. And while company after company comes out with tablets of every shape and size, Apple’s rabid fan boys will still line up for each new release because they have to have not just the functionality of the new Apple release itself but the brand halo it bestows on them.

Of course functionality is critical. After all, the days of people lining up to buy beautiful but fragile Ferraris and Maseratis are long gone – today the cars work just as good as they look. But in a world of bumper-to-bumper traffic, radar controlled speed limits, and intersections governed by red light cameras, it should be clear that those cars continue to sell out for reasons that have little to do with their ability to get their affluent owners from point A to point B. It’s the autos’ brand, and how it makes the driver stand out, not its function, that continues to fuel record sales. And while manufacturers must never stop innovating lest they lose their competitive advantage, they must never stop developing their brand and cultivating their audience lest their buyers go somewhere else.

And so do you.