Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Apple Jumps the Shark

If you're as antique as I am, you can measure a great deal of your life by phases in which the "demise of Apple Computers was assured." There was the Two-guys-in-a-garage phase. There was the Their-market-share-is-shrinking phase, followed by the John-Scully-In-Steve-Jobs-Out phase, which handed off new definitions of failure to the How-much-faster-can-Gil-Amelio-destroy-it phase. It got so bad that at one point, sitting in a meeting with Regis McKenna, a celebrated Silicon Valley public relations man, I listened to him tell of how he advised Steve Jobs to simply license the Apple logo instead of running a company.

Of course, that was in the early 1990's. A lot has changed since, and most to Apple's benefit. Apple stock is way up. Its success is astounding. New products and services have revolutionized entire industries. Even non-tech people know and use iPods, iPhones, iTunes and maybe even iPads, not to mention a whole line of Apple desktop and laptop computers.

It's been a great ride for Apple. The happy band of rebels that take pride in "Thinking Different" have achieved success in just about every arena they've entered. Not to be overlooked, every one of those victories came the added-but-rarely-verbalized pleasure of sticking it to Microsoft.

But now we come to the point where Apple may have jumped the shark.

Every upstart brand, from rock bands to retailers, goes through it: Beginning as an underdog, the little David takes on the well-entrenched Goliaths. The early adopters -- half out of pure contrarianism and half because they just want to be cool -- bless the new brand with eager acceptance. They evangelize the new brand while castigating the huge, old, evil ones. Within a short time, their followings swell, usually embraced by throngs of young kids whose own agenda of pubescent rebellion fits snugly into the brand's.

Riding the Culture of Cool, the brand gains critical mass and begins to attract the attention of market makers and venture funds, who stoke the financial coals into a real, fire-breathing revenue machine. As the brand gets bigger, it generates more influence. Sales skyrocket. The brand goes mainstream. Everyone is happy.

And then, something happens. Imperceptibly, at first. But it's there nonetheless.

One day, at corporate headquarters, memos begin appearing dictating the rules of corporate culture. Lawsuits begin emanating from the legal department, defensive at first, but very soon pre-emptive, as the brand stakes its claim on its entrepreneurial turf. The brand then begins to lose its sense of self, feeding on a generation of cultural inbreeding which gradually mutates from camaraderie into full-blown paranoia, if not downright xenophobia. In its final stages, megalomania sets in, with the brand completely intoxicated with its own sense of power, success -- and hubris.

It can happen to anyone -- especially those without a clear and concise brand strategy. It happened to Microsoft. It happened to Yahoo. It's happened to Google. And if you watch carefully, you can see it happening to Apple.

You think Apple has a successful brand? You're right. You think Apple has a good brand? You're wrong. To this day, Apple has no articulation of their brand strategy. Yes, they're stock is at an all-time high. But gone are the days of the happy band of rebels. These days, Apple -- the brand associated with creativity and freedom -- arbitrarily decides which of its iPhone apps are morally offensive or inappropriate. Its mind set has become one of a fortressed company.

Think I'm wrong? Does the name Michael Jackson ring a bell?

To be sure, Apple's brand is not going away any time soon. To be just as sure, Apple's brand has jumped the shark, It's only a matter of time until the next David loads his slingshot.