The more competitive the market, the more essential a strong brand becomes. The team at Apple, which recently landed the No. 2 spot on Inc.'s 2017 list of the most valuable brands, knows this better than anyone.

Apple doesn't need to remind people of its status. When you see a smartphone, it's either an iPhone or a competitor's model. An actual apple, with a bite taken out of the side, reminds people of an international technology company. Even the simple color combination of dark grey on off-white inspires thoughts of black turtlenecks and innovative technology.

The most difficult part of achieving that level of branding success? Consistency. Through major restructures, new product releases, the death of its revered CEO, and shifting consumer interests, Apple has endured. What's the secret?

Fortunately, Apple's branding success doesn't start with the billions of dollars it has in the bank. That success depends on four critical strategies, which brands of any size can replicate.

1. Keep the Right Customers Front and Center

The whims of the masses shift quickly, but the whims of target demographics aren't so easily swayed. When trending topics in the news indicate a shift in public opinion, don't assume your target customer is part of the movement. Instead, reach out to the members of your audience to learn what they think about the issues.

Customers who feel included are more loyal than those who feel as though their brand relationships begin and end with transactions. Take Apple's "Shot on iPhone" campaign, which showcased the talents of regular people using their Apple products. Apple got recognition for its cameras, while customers felt like part of a greater whole.

If customer responses to brand outreach indicate a real shift in expectations, don't follow -- take the lead. Use that feedback to design and execute a branding campaign that listens to customers and shows them what the future holds.

2. Create Alternative (On-Brand) Offerings

Shifting consumer tastes mean higher expectations, and higher expectations demand new -- or at least revitalized -- products and services.

Before shifting production to match some new fad, though, consider the ramifications of delivering something that doesn't reflect your brand. Consumers already know who you are, and any deviation from central branding is more likely to confuse current audiences than attract new ones.
AB Mauri, a baking technology company known for products like Fleischmann's Yeast, provides a shining example of how to create alternative offerings without abandoning the core product. As consumers began wanting more non-GMO products, AB Mauri took note. Company leaders developed and marketed a new line of non-GMO products to address this concern while adapting to new and changing customer needs.

3. Provide a Brand Guide to Company Sales Reps -- and Everyone Else, Too

Marketers and PR professionals know how to talk to people outside the company, but what about the rest of your team? Salespeople and customer service representatives might not deal with the media, but they still represent the brand, which means they should know the right way to talk about it.

Develop a branding guide that covers the bases of every department. Tell salespeople how to communicate the values of the company to current and potential customers. Educate product designers and programmers on what the brand stands for so every product shines in its fulfillment of the company's mission. When dealing with consultants, provide field-specific information to ensure that even third-party communications maintain the brand's image.

Solomon Thimothy, founder and CEO of OneIMS, relates how coaching employees on brand standards has helped his company. His team regularly discusses core values to ensure everyone knows how the company should position itself in the market. Understanding the company's core values is key to ensuring team members make the best decisions in their day-to-day interactions with customers.

4. Regularly Review and Revise Messaging

Reactive companies struggle to retain an identity. Proactive companies create innovations that make competitors nervous.

Don't wait for rising social pressures or evolving customer demands to dictate a brand shift. Instead, schedule annual updates to review and change the branding plan. Cover components like logos, taglines, products, customer touchpoints, and anything else that could change over the course of a year.

Keep these reviews to one per year. More frequently, and you risk making changes for the sake of change. Less frequently, and you could miss the boat on important trends. Don't become a slave to the schedule -- respond to truly major shifts quickly -- but let the process guide you throughout normal evolutions.

Apple has maintained a consistent, effective brand presence for decades by listening to its customers and innovating before people knew what they wanted. Not every business can own the next iPhone, but by following these strategies, any company can maintain its brand image in the face of evolving consumer demands.