Thursday, October 06, 2011

Apple: A Second Generation Brand

Now that the other shoe has dropped and Steve Jobs is gone, we can expect the predictable onslaught of media rehash and overhype regarding Apple, Steve Jobs, Tim Cook and the future of the world as we know it. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked about "Apple without Steve Jobs."

So for those who still wonder, here's what I expect is going to happen to Apple, now that Steve Jobs is gone:

First, before anyone gets too hard on Apple's management heirs, let me begin by reaffirming my position that Apple's brand jumped the shark way before Steve Jobs' demise. In fact, in 2010's Apple Jumps The Shark, I pointed out exactly why the bloom was off Apple's rose. The seeds for Apple's descent were sown into Apple's long range plans.

From a strictly branding point of view, for example, Apple's lack of stated brand strategy allowed it to become a fashion brand, in which its primary brand value relies on its coolness as defined by its user public. And the using public, as we all know, is very fickle when it comes to defining what's cool.

Simply put, the more people embracing the brand, the less cool it becomes. And if all you've got is cool, that means you're on the clock -- it's only a matter of time until you're no longer cool.

This is not to take away from Apple's wonderful technology and design and all that other stuff over which media pundits gush like pre-pubescent schoolgirls. Sure, I like that stuff, too. I'm a Mac guy. But from a brand perspective, there's trouble in paradise.

Second, with the passing of Steve Jobs, Apple now becomes a Second Generation brand, with a Caretaker Manager at its helm. As I've written here previously, brands often follow the same trajectory of the Three Generations of Wealth: The first generation (its founder) creates it; the second generation (his heirs) spends it; the third generation (his disconnected drone grandchildren) loses it. As pointed out in Apple Jumps The Shark, the brand had already lost its vision somewhere around the time when Jobs had begun transferring authority to Tim Cook, his heir to the throne.

Far from its original rebellious roots, the brand has become fortressed, secretive and severe to the point of bullying its competitors - along with its users - in the marketplace.

Apple's increased rate of required upgrades, dependency on proprietary services and, perhaps worst of all, nudging its hardware and software toward "cloud usage" all speak to a ruthless corporate soul revealed as the baton was being passed to new leadership.

And then there's Tim Cook. Poor Tim Cook.

His is not an easy task. Forever being compared to Jobs, he immediately took his first misstep by introducing the iPhone 4S in a presentation far too similar to Jobs' format. Had he been more brand-aware, he would have taken steps to ensure "there's a new sheriff in town" and created his own personal style rather than remain tentative for fear of rocking Apple's stock price. By taking the Caretaker Manager's road, Cook has ensured himself a place under the microscope, doomed to the same fate suffered by Microsoft's Steve Ballmer when he took the reins from Bill Gates. And the longer Tim Cook allows the media to define him as Steve Jobs' Caretaker Manager, the worse it will be for everyone involved.

Yes, Apple will survive. No, it will not be the same brand.

Steve is gone. Get over it.