Saturday, August 02, 2014

Apple + Beats = Not So Good

A lot of people enjoy a lot of different hobbies.  Some like to play tennis.  Others go fishing.  Some jump out of airplanes.  I am, to coin a phrase, a bit more down to earth.  One of my main sources of leisure time joy is exposing poseurs.  I can't help it.  It's a personality flaw that, by some stroke of luck, I've been able to turn into a career.

Being a branding guy, I meet a lot of people who give themselves away by immediately citing Apple as a premium example of "great branding."  I listen patiently and then, very carefully, explain to them why Apple is anything but a great brand.

Actually, it's a failing brand.

Make no mistake, Apple is a very successful brand.  They make a ton of money.  They can boast legions of rabid evangelists lining up at their retail stores to blindly purchase the latest versions of pointless technology.  I have no argument with that.  Hey, more power to them.  But that's not why I feel Apple's best days are behind them.  

If you've been reading this blog over the last few years, you know that I've been watching Apple arc from underdog to King of the Hill to Second Generation Brand Headed Into the Meat Grinder (you can read them all by searching this blog for article titles containing the word "Apple").  I've called out Apple for being more of a fashion brand than a legitimate brand, much more akin to Abercrombie & Fitch than Federal Express.  And now, with their acquisition of Beats, it seems they've sealed that fate.

Here's why:

1. Fashion brands get hot and die cold.  What was once hip, slick and rebellious is now mainstream.  When your grandmother has an iPhone, it just isn't as cool any more. You start looking for the Next Big Thing.

2.  There was a time where Apple users sniffed at PC users as Neanderthals handcuffed to Microsoft.  That was when Microsoft was the only other game in town.  Today, thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices, there are plenty of other platforms with lots more to offer than Apple.  Android, in particular, comes to mind, but there are lots more systems, with lots more apps from lots more brands.  The time has come where Apple users want to switch out but feel trapped by having invested so much into Apple's fortressed, domineering domain.

3.  If you add points #1 and #2, you get to point #3, where users find themselves waking from the dream and asking why they're paying premium prices for Apple devices and systems that may be as good, but not better than, its competitors.  That bell you hear is the death knell of fashion brands as the public realizes its overpaying for under-delivery.  

4.  Apple has migrated from a productivity platform to an entertainment platform.  This is serious.  Back when Apple took its productivity seriously, we'd hear all kinds of technical achievements over competitive platforms.  Macs would smack down IBM mainframes and leave PC-based systems in the dust with an elegant ease.  You don't hear those stories any more, because Apple's focus has, like so much of America, been dumbed down to cater to the self-interest of the average Joe, whose primary needs revolve around music, videos, social media and mostly other non-productive tasks.  When it comes to pandering to the public's narcissism, Apple is tough to beat.

5.  Apple has become a stagnant brand.  As I've written here previously, there are Three Generations of Wealth:  The first one earns it; the second one spends it; the third one loses it.  Now that Steve Jobs is essentially a long-forgotten ghost, Apple is a second generation brand that has abandoned its fundamental vision.   Its management mistakes driving revenue at any cost with the much more complex task of driving revenue while maintaining the brand integrity and leadership that brought it to prominence.   Tim Cook et al are simply grasping at the lowest hanging fruit in order to generate the easiest money they can find.  That's what Second Generation brands do.  It's also what drives them into the ground.  It's why once-great brands like Maytag (which no longer builds its own washing machines, but essentially licenses its brand name on inferior, outsourced products) has swan dived from its previous premium perch into the cesspool of also-rans.

Now we find that Apple, for the first time, is also violating one of its long-held tenets:  Retaining the Beats brand identity.  Whereas there was a time when every product (built or bought) become an Apple brand, this is no longer the case -- and it's very telling:  By retaining the Beats name, Apple admits its own brand is not as strong as, or quite possibly weaker than, Beats.  Which means that the cracks in the Apple armor are beginning to show.

But hey, don't take my word for it.  All you fanboys can keep believing, if you like.  There are still millions of Beatles fans who don't want to accept John Lennon's announcement of the band's demise.  Decades later, they still can't believe it.  But believe it you must:

"The dream is over."