By: Zach Sterman  | 

The Apple Revolution is Over

A long time ago Apple led a revolution. Steve Jobs inspired a movement and fueled Apple’s success with his vision of a company that was a rebellion against the ordinary; a bastion of innovation where people were implored to ‘Think Different.’ That revolution is now dead.

This is not to say that the company is falling apart. There is no question that Apple has achieved unprecedented success over the last 40-or-so years. Apple has now topped Forbes’ ranking of the world’s most valuable brands every year since the list’s outset in 2010. Just a few months ago CEO Tim Cook declared, “Fiscal 2015 was Apple’s most successful year ever, with revenue growing 28% to nearly $234 billion.” However, amidst rising competition, 2016 has revealed uncharacteristic signs of mortality for the previously untouchable tech giant. Just this past month it was reported that Apple had posted its first annual revenue decline in 15 years. This is not to say Apple is doomed, but it is to say that perhaps something has changed.

Reactions to this report lay blame to a couple of different factors. Some point to rising competition from companies such as Samsung (though they are currently working through problems of their own), while others point to stagnated innovation of products. Some claim economic factors such as an ostensibly tapped out smartphone market in China are at play as well.

Yet perhaps something exists beneath the surface of these different challenges that is contributing to what may be the beginning of Apple’s decline. Perhaps there is something more fundamental – something at the very root of Apple’s DNA – that has made Apple vulnerable. I would like to suggest that Apple’s marketing has lost its way. The powerful image Jobs so effectively cultivated in his time at Apple – the revolution I refer to in the title of this piece – has decayed and lost momentum, and the ill effects may be as significant as any of rising competition, changing markets, and the products themselves.

Attributing blame to Apple’s branding and marketing actually seems quite intuitive. After all, for every article I read that complains about Apple’s supposedly stagnated innovation, I find a response article that says Apple hasn’t changed and people should stop whining. People are seeing Apple in completely different ways. While some seem to see Apple as holding its ground, others see it as descending, which suggests inefficiency in the way the company is presenting itself.

What I have noticed is that it tends to be techies who staunchly defend Apple and basic consumers – such as myself – who find themselves disappointed. I do not know whether it is the techies or the basic consumers that are truly correct – perhaps there is truth to both. I am also unsure whether this recent decline in revenue is a flash in the pan or the beginning of a downward trend for Apple. However, what seems clear is that negative sentiment towards Apple is increasing and the company is struggling to maintain its previous rate of success in convincing consumers its products’ superiority. It lacks a unifying message.

Understanding these issues, let’s talk about Apple’s marketing of old. Remember, it was powerful branding and exceptional marketing that enabled Apple’s rise in the first place. In the words of former Apple CEO John Sculley, “People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company. It was the marketing company of the decade.”

Apple’s advertisements were not random or isolated. They were remarkably consistent, augmenting each other to establish a consistent brand image that carried a message. It was more than just product promotion. Apple appealed to the rabble-rousing nature of a young generation and focused its attention on the tech revolution going on around them. It seduced the wide-eyed youth who pine to be a part of something bigger than themselves. To consumers Apple became not a company, but a movement; or, as many would call it, a “cult.” It framed rebellion as the noble catalyst to change and innovation. Apple provided consumers with a cause that would inspire them, and would allow them to channel and express that inspiration through its products. It wasn’t just about owning the latest tech. It was about owning an Apple product.

One of the keys to its success was that Apple did not advertise by explaining why it was superior to its competitors. Instead it focused on storytelling. In Jobs’ own words, “Marketing is about values… We need to bring it back. The way to do that is not to talk about speeds and feats. It’s not to talk about MIPS and megahertz. It’s not to talk about why we are better than Windows… Apple is about something more than that. Apple, at the core - its core value - is that we believe people with passion can change the world for the better.”

Apple’s first landmark success in establishing these values came in the form of a Super Bowl ad in 1984. The ad depicted an Orwellian, gray dystopia, which represented boring computer companies, and a heroine – the Macintosh – who tears down the walls of conformity around her. The ad ends with the words, “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’” The ad was historically successful and laid the foundation for Apple’s brand image.

Jobs left the company shortly thereafter, but returned in 1997 with the desire to return Apple’s marketing to where it had left off in 1984. Almost immediately, Apple launched a campaign with the tagline “Think Different” through a commercial – made by the same agency a “1984” - known as “Crazy Ones.” The commercial shows images of great innovators and leaders, such as Einstein and Gandhi, as a narrator begins “Here’s to the crazy ones…” The ad later says, “While some may see them as the ‘crazy ones,’ we see genius.” The narration ends with the line “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do,” followed by the Apple logo atop the words “Think Different.”

Apple maintained and continued to build this message of innovation and non-conformity throughout its success in the 2000’s. This was just as true of subsequent ad campaigns – such as the famous iPod silhouette (2004) and Mac vs. PC (2006) commercials – as it was of Jobs’ physical representation of the company. Jobs popularized the keynote – a presentation of new, upcoming products to a media audience – and was the iconic face of Apple. He became known for his signature casual attire – jeans and a turtleneck shirt – when he represented his company’s brand on stage. His style and behavior was congruent with the image he was creating for his company. Under Jobs’ lead Apple was a master of storytelling and created a brand image that was cool, innovative, and exciting, and this was an extension of his personality. Jobs’ true savvy was in his creative flare, and not in his tech or business acumen.

His successor, Tim Cook, is quite different. The Wall Street Journal once described Cook as,  “…a seasoned businessman and arguably a better manager than Jobs. He was organized, prepared and more realistic about the burdens of running a company of Apple’s size. But no one could beat Jobs at being Jobs – especially Cook, his polar opposite.” Replacing Jobs with Cook has in many ways deflated the exciting image Jobs had cultivated. In the words of Ann-Christine Diaz of Advertising Age, “Apple has been trying to find its voice in advertising and marketing since the passing of founder Steve Jobs in 2012.”

In the same 2014 article Diaz goes on to say that Cook has since shaken up Apple’s marketing methods. Rather than going to external ad agencies, “amid criticisms that it has failed to innovate, Apple is increasingly taking marketing into its own hands. It’s madly building an internal agency that it’s telling recruits will eventually number 1,000…” Further, Diaz cites an email uncovered from Apple Senior-VP Global Marketing Phil Schiller in which Schiller admits that Samsung’s advertising was on a roll, while Apple’s had stagnated.

To be fair to Cook, this shakeup within Apple’s marketing may be part of a natural progression in the lifecycle of any company. Niche branding – such as Apple had done under Jobs - becomes increasingly difficult as a company grows and goes from being an outsider to the standard. In a way the brand of ‘rebels’ had a built in expiration. Yet the ability to differentiate not just products, but also its values and its voice – that is how Apple spoke to its consumers.

Today marketing of Apple’s innovations seem to appeal to the tech junkie more than they do the casual consumer. Under Cook’s leadership Apple seems to increasingly speak the language of MIPS and megahertz – the language Jobs passionately rejected in 1997 – rather than the stirring, universal language that made the brand so unique. Recently Apple’s keynotes tend to emphasize improved modems and pixels, rather than passion and flare as they did under Jobs. If there is a problem, it is perhaps less in the products themselves and more in the loss of Apple’s unique identity – its foremost differentiating factor.

When Steve Jobs returned to a struggling Apple in 1997, he recognized the need to revitalize its message. At that time Jobs noted that Apple needed to “get back to the basics.” He said, “Even a great brand needs investment and caring if it is going to retain its relevance and vitality, and the Apple brand has clearly suffered from neglect in this area in the last number of years.” Jobs’ words seem prescient as history repeats. Once again, in his absence, Apple’s brand has lost its way; only this time he can’t be the one to reset its course.