The untimely passing of Steve Jobs gives rise to a tantalizing question: how will this affect the Apple brand? Though comparisons with Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers and Henry Ford may be somewhat exaggerated, there is no doubt that Jobs was a visionary genius whose products did change the world we live in. From the Mac to the iPod to the iPad those products had a cultural impact the likes of which is the reserve of a very select number of brands. Jobs – Apple – changed the way we listen to music. His unique take on form and functionality changed what “computer” and “phone” meant.

So what now for the Apple brand? The question would apply to any brand which is intimately, almost inseparably tied to its founder, spokesperson and ultimate champion. It’s difficult to imagine Virgin without Richard Branson, just as it is to imagine Apple without Jobs. Branson is less autocratic and more comfortable delegating than was Jobs; yet in the years after his return to the company in 1997 Jobs built a talented, inspired team that has remained realtively stable. A team that shares Jobs’ vision. Despite the sudden absence of their leader it is unlikely that they will allow the Apple brand to flounder.

To be sure, Jobs’ departure from Apple in 1985 and its aftermath does highlight the potential threat to a brand when its guiding light disappears. In fact, the episode is reminiscent of what happened to Starbucks during Howard Schultz’ hiatus of 8 years from his position as CEO (returning to rescue the company in 2008). There are interesting parallels with the fashion industry. Consider, for example, the impact on the Versace brand of the tragic death of Gianni Versace.

The company – and brand – that Jobs leaves behind in 2011, though, is a very different proposition to that he walked away from in 1985. Provided that his successors can maintain the impressive track record of product innovation that Jobs demanded, and do justice to the man’s legacy, it is to be hoped that the Apple brand emerges only slightly bruised from this sad chapter in its own life story.