Apple is taking a beating, even while at its most victorious.
After the launch of the iPhone 4, a well-designed device with one easily-demonstrable flaw, the company is losing its famous control over the emphasis of press coverage. Apple is typically brilliant at walking the line between humility and pomposity, adjusting its tone to suit the current situation.
When Apple was suffering in the late 1990’s, it played to historic core values with campaigns like “Think Different,” but held on to the sliver of confident superiority that helps to sell its brand. Now that it’s on top of the world, it tends more toward a triumphant strut, with just a dash of idealism. Recent blunders paint the company as both arrogant and user-hostile, two attributes that incite pundits to attack without mercy.
Nobody likes a sore winner. Whatever the fight, struggle, ambition, the odds are good that judgement will be harshest on the one who emerges victorious. Anybody who ever received an A+ on an exam in grade-school, only to have the teacher publicly celebrate it among classmates, knows that success turns you into a target. Surviving that success requires careful management of one’s own image, as perceived by the audience that was most invested in the outcome.
Imagine you’ve just achieved something incredible. Bystanders will react with one of three reactions: praise, indifference, or scorn. You can ignore the majority, who don’t care a whit one way or another. Your fate will be decided by the passionate minority, so you must inspire fans to be more passionate and tireless than detractors. A small, energized core of supporters can outlast even a large, committed group of critics. At its best, Apple inspires passionate users to identify more with the company’s egalitarian rhetoric than with the billions of dollars that are flowing into the company’s bank accounts. (The billions are pretty inspirational to stockholders, however).
Apple makes fantastic products that are, by and large, defect free. In my opinion, they deserve to win. I applaud the company, and in particular, its employees. As the years go by, almost every part of the company seems to be improving. They routinely launch new products that stun and delight us with a combination of obviousness-in-hindsight, and that futuristic “Apple magic.” Kudos to them.
Apple is also brilliant at public relations. They produce beautiful, inspiring advertisements. Their web content strikes the balance of confidence and customer-centric humility. And their rank-and-file employees show off their passion for the company in email lists, internet fora, and on Twitter. But at the height of success, the fact that critics are gaining the upper hand is evidence that the company is failing to control its image.
Most of Apple’s recent PR gaffes trace back directly to Steve Jobs. His famous arrogance was exactly what the company needed while it restored itself to, and then surpassed, its former glory. During Apple’s recovery, detractors belittled and dismissed Apple as an “also-ran” company, suggesting they should give up and yield to the obvious victories of companies like Dell and Microsoft. But Jobs ignored the critics and spoke to the fans, inspiring us to stand by and loudly defend Apple.
Now that Apple is on top again, Jobs seems to be losing that knack for inspiring fans. He’s turning into a sore winner. He defensively chides his own customers for holding their iPhone 4 “the wrong way.” He tersely defends questionable Apple practices in one-liner email responses. He spins the truth in that barely plausible manner that used to be celebrated as the “reality distortion field,” but now comes off as purposefully dishonest and manipulative.
I believe Jobs is an idealist product visionary who wants the best for Apple and for its customers. But he’s lost his ability to manage his own image, and thus the image of the company. Apple’s PR department is in charge of manipulating how the company is perceived, but their efforts are being drowned out by the live-wire personality at the helm of the ship. Jobs needs to quiet down now and let cooler heads speak. No more arrogant, terse email replies. No more defensive press conferences. No more snarky interview quips. Just chill out and try to get your groove back.
At his best, Steve Jobs is a brilliant, inspirational spokesman for the company. At his worst, he is the pompous winner who begs to be taken down a notch. Jobs is the kid who, having been celebrated for the A+ exam grade, reacts by chiding his classmates: “You all are a bunch of idiots.” Fans lose their faith, detractors gain momentum. This guy’s in for a rough victory.
This entry was inspired by Michael Tsai’s Tone.