Like many people, I really like the emotional TV ads Apple is running showing average people getting fit and healthy, caring for their kids and so on. But it struck me that ‘average people’ is not what Apple is about. For years Steve Jobs positioned Apple as the brand for those who, quite literally, think different. He famously narrated the crazy ones Ad which said:
Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Now, look again at the current TV ads and you will see a lot of average people. What Steve knew was that we don’t aspire to be average. If Apple = average then it’s not a good outcome. He knew we aspire to stand out and perhaps even be exceptional. Now in a world where almost everyone has a smartphone and a big percentage have an iPhone, that does create a challenge. But I’d argue that Apple needs to get back to ‘Think Different’ instead of making Apple a warm and emotional brand that lacks edge. This is the brand Samsung has built and isn’t… well, different.
Apple will sell a boat load of iPhone 6s when they appear this fall. But I suspect they’ll sell a lot more if people view Apple as an aspirational brand rather than a household brand. But maybe I’m the one who’s crazy!
I recall a friend saying that what impressed him about Madonna was that she kept reinventing herself. In fact if she were a product then she’d be at about version 6.2 by my reckoning. In other words she has evolved herself from her roots as a brash, attention seeking pop star to become someone grown ups can enjoy. In business you tend not see people reinventing themselves in such obvious ways but it’s clear when you study the careers of the really successful that they too will go through a series of upgrades. Take Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, two of the most successful tech leaders in history. Bill Gates was a hard-nosed, often rude but brilliant leader at Microsoft. He, however, had enough vision to realize that he needed to get out of the company and use his talents and wealth for bigger and better challenges facing the world. His persona has softened as he deals with achieving goals that are more humanitarian in nature but is energy and brilliance remain very evident. Jobs meanwhile, has been the ultimate comeback kid. He founded Apple and made enough enemies to get fired. But he learned from his mistakes and has produced the text book turnaround story, making Apple the second most valuable company in the world behind Exxon.
So how do we know if we are stuck at version 1.3 or that we’ve managed to evolve to version 4.2? For that matter, how do we know if version 4.2 is any good and that we should have stuck with version 3.7? Sadly we don’t keep track of human evolution in the same way computer software engineers do but there are some obvious signs and here’s my stab at what they may be:
1. Are you still trying to solve the same business challenges you were when you started your career?
2. Are you still offering the same solutions to business challenges you were a year ago?
3. Has your (work) network remained pretty much constant for the last three years?
4. Are you in complete control of your job or are there significant parts that scare you?
5. Do you still have (give or take some grey hairs) the same hairstyle you had five years ago?
If you answered ‘yes’ to most, if not all of the above then you are likely in need of an upgrade. Why the hairstyle question? I admit it’s a little silly and I don’t really care what people look like but have you noticed how people suddenly get stuck with a certain look? You often see old men with the same hairstyle and dress sense they had twenty years earlier. For some it works but many it doesn’t. The way we look is just packaging but we all know that good packaging sells. Now of course there are products that reach an optimal version and shouldn’t be messed with. Take musicians such as Elton John. If you went to one of his concerts and he played nothing but new material you’d likely be disappointed. However, if he plays all his (old) hits then assuming you’re a fan you’d love it. In other words don’t mess with a great product. Most of us are not likely to be the next Elton John, however, and could likely use at least a minor, if not major, upgrade. So, it’s a new year, why not plot out a product road map for… you.
Steve Jobs has done an amazing turnaround at Apple since he retook the helm. Apple was in a death spiral it appeared; yet today they are the most valuable tech company in the world. For a while Apple was a bitter, twisted company that produced nice looking products that nobody but fanatics bought. Today, everyone but my mother has an iPod, iPhone, iMac or iPad. Some poor souls like me have all four. Apple, in short, is king of consumer tech right now. Will that last forever? I for one doubt it.
Right now Apple has a great team headed by a visionary leader. At some point that team will grow old, run out of energy and start to fragment. Apple’s future will be determined by the ability of the company to create a new generation of leaders. I know I’m stating the obvious when I say that but my point is that it is easy to assume that Apple has that problem nailed in the same way they have their product strategy right now. But do they?
When news of Steve’s illness was pushed on to the market, people speculated about who would take over from him. All of that speculation tended to focus on internal rather than external candidates. This makes a great deal of sense and is most likely what will happen. However, if they do go internal we can expect the losers of that battle to be at best disenfranchised and at worst leave. This will in turn lead to a weaker team at the top. Furthermore Apple is likely to have to live through a period where any new CEO is constantly being measured against Steve. That’s a hard act to follow. They’re not going to get standing ovations like he does when they walk on stage at the Moscone for product launches. The crowd isn’t going to laugh at the little jokes that are thrown in. In other words the ‘Steve factor’ will be lost and Apple will be just another good company, rather than a great one.
When this happens, the door will be wide open for rivals large and small. Right now Apple is all but impossible to beat in the consumer space. Sure there are some that hate them but they are a minority. That could change very quickly. Microsoft could fix its mobile strategy, RIM could design a BlackBerry that iPhone users would like or some new player could appear.
My point in all this is that innovation within a company is directly linked to its success but is also linked to the people that run that company. They are the ones that decide which products to sell to whom and at what price. They are the ones that create the markets, the excitement and so on. While some companies do a good job of creating a culture of innovation, even they know that it is what you do with that innovation that matters. Put another way, you will only keep on winning for as long as you have the best team. Today Apple has that team but there will come a time when they don’t. And come that day, others will take their chance.
I spent some time in the Palo Alto Apple store yesterday. My eldest daughter was playing with a raft of different products from laptops, to ipods and iphones and of course all the various accessories. Standing in the midst of the store I became aware of just how many products Apple is now selling and the list seems destined to grow. Now imagine the store as a metaphor for what the average consumer can associate with and you can easily see that as the product range expands their ability to maintain strong associations with products diminishes. Pretty soon Apple is meant to launch some kind of tablet which will take up yet more shelf or table space.
As someone that loves the quality of the Apple products and admires the brand, I worry that this ‘growth’ mentality could be a dangerous path. Some companies are able to run large product lines because their products are designed to reach different audience segments and we understand that as consumers. But Apple’s brand has been built around the idea that we all want all of their products and they’ve actually done a pretty good job of selling that brand. I for example have an iPod, iPhone, iMac, Apple TV and a MacBook Pro. I’ve also got countless Apple accessories and chargers. At some point though the list has to stop. As a consumer I don’t want yet more products. I want fewer that span the gamut. Apple in its recent incarnation (Steve 2.0) has done an amazing job of only launching products that are really needed. Few products seem to have struggled – the Apple TV and the Mac Air seem the notable exceptions, while the iMac iPod, iPhone and iTouch have been huge successes. If Steve was 100% well I wouldn’t raise these concerns. But we all know that Steve is not devoted to Apple in the way he was before his illness and that at some point he’ll take a huge step back. When that happens I worry that Apple will miss his iron grip on the company’s product strategy and that inferior products will be launched and Apple will be right back where it was before Steve returned.
Next time you are in an Apple store, try and imagine that they’ve launched four major new products and still have all the current product range. You will quickly start to wonder how they can fit everything in without making the stores much bigger. FYI rumors are rife that Apple is going to take a much bigger space in Palo Alto and open a new flagship store (click link). Does this suggest their solution to the product proliferation problem is simply to take on more space? I sincerely hope not.
Thanks to a tweet by Joe Kingsbury I picked up on a news story on Street Insider which claims that in the first four days since the iPhone went on sale in China a mere 5,000 have been sold. If that’s true it suggests that Apple’s largest potential market isn’t as in love with the device as western markets. Now if someone else were to market a smart phone that did become a hit in China, such as Nokia or Motorola, then perhaps Apple would start to feel the pressure in western markets before long.
The rumors and stories surrounding the health of Apple’s CEO are rife. Has he had a liver transplant? Has he already returned to work? All this shows how entwined he is with the success of the brand. The success of brands is often associated with an iconic leader. For years Bill Gates was Microsoft. Virgin is Richard Branson. And of course Ford was, well Ford. Of course companies are way bigger than one person and their success doesn’t rely on these iconic leaders, at least not on a day to day basis. These leaders are the people that do, however, set the vision, the tone and the values of the company. Jobs has set a culture of perfection. He has set out a product strategy and he has set out a vision. All of these will enable the business to be a success… for a while. If he does dial back, or even leave, it will affect the company. How quickly and to what extent remains to be seen. My guess is that Apple will do fine for a year or two without him at the helm but if his replacement cannot install his or her own brand of magic, Apple could well turn into just another consumer electronics company. That would be a sad day.
All of this uncertainty around Jobs’ health does create an opening for his rivals. Rivals could of course praise Steve and make it clear how great a job he has done at Apple and how amazing his vision is etc. They would do this to make people connect him even more with the brand, so that if he does have to step down, the loss would be seen as all the greater. I’m sure they wouldn’t do that kind of thing though. Would they?