In the world of branding, it’s almost sacrilegious to question the authority and prowess of Apple. Signs of the brand’s superiority are everywhere:
- Apple is the world’s most valuable company.
- Apple’s recent quarterly revenues beat expectations and broke records.
- Apple is perennially dominant in various rankings of brand strength.
- Apple is one of very few brands with a logo so recognizable around the world that it seldom needs to use its name.
- Earlier this year, Apple had to halt sale of its iPhone 4S in China after large angry mobs gathered outside its stores awaiting the phone’s launch.
The list goes on, and to add some anecdotal evidence, I believe it’s safe to say that every branding professional has had a client say they want their company to be the Apple of [insert industry here]. (And most of us have heard this request enough to know the best answer, albeit a bit snarky: “Sure, as soon as you prove you’re the Steve Jobs of [insert industry here].”)
But beneath Apple’s brushed-silver sheen, I’ve started to wonder whether something isn’t rotten at the core—whether this megabrand has, in fact, peaked. It started when I read a statement made by the president of HTC at the Mobile Future Forward conference last September:
I brought my daughter back to college…and I talked to a few of the kids on her floor. And none of them has an iPhone because they told me: ‘My dad has an iPhone.’ There’s an interesting thing that’s going on in the market. The iPhone becomes a little less cool than it was. They were carrying HTCs. They were carrying Samsungs. They were even carrying some Chinese manufacturer’s devices…iPhones are not that cool anymore (italics mine). We here are using iPhones, but our kids don’t find them that cool anymore.
At first I thought he was just trying to upset the apple cart—nothing more than a desperate maneuver from an envious, second-rate contender. But the comment stayed with me, and the more I thought about it the more I saw other signs that Apple may have outstayed its welcome at the top of the heap.
No longer thinking different
Remember Apple’s 1984 ad? Widely considered one of the best ads of all time, it brilliantly positioned Macintosh and Apple as the antitheses of conformity—represented by IBM at the time. Then there was 1997’s “Think Different” campaign positioning the brand against Microsoft. The 2000s brought us iPod’s silhouetted dancers and the “I’m a Mac” campaign, both not so subtly implying that people who use Mac products are cool, creative, easygoing and fun, at least compared to Jon Hodgman’s nerdy “I’m a PC.”
But more recently, the tone (and target) of Apple’s ads has changed. Apple can no longer pose as a rebel defeating a dictatorship or one of the “crazy ones” that has “no respect for the status quo.” It is no longer a brand just for the cool kids, but for—according to a more recent iPad 2 ad—parents, musicians, doctors, CEOs, teachers, and children—in other words, Apple is now for anyone and everyone.
You might argue that this is a natural next step for Apple given its success, but to HTC’s point, it does make Apple seem decidedly less cool. And if we are witnessing Apple’s graceful transition from David to Goliath, the question must be asked: Who is the next David, and when will he strike?
Cracks in the armor
Apple is also not without its weaknesses. Like relentless paparazzi stalking a celebrity, competitors, advocacy groups and the media seem to be watching and waiting for an embarrassing slipup. There have been plenty. Last year alone, Apple was accused of patent infringement (including suits from HTC), use of “conflict minerals,” misleading customers about warranties, using child labour in China and more.
Lack of openness
Lastly, there’s the issue of Apple’s iOS, the operating system running on iPhones and iPads. While it seems likely that iOS and Google’s Android operating system will continue to vie for the top spot in the near future, the long-term trend favors Android, given a significant difference between the systems: openness. While iOS is closed to Apple products, Android runs on devices made by Motorola, HTC, LG, Samsung and Amazon. Apps designed to run on Android should be (but sadly, don’t always seem to be) available to all of those devices. The debate rages on, but you don’t have to be a Linux snob to see this as one more example of Apple’s new role as a closed-minded, inflexible Big Brother.
Is the end nigh?
As George Orwell and any Mayan can tell you, predicting the future is hard enough without having to get all the dates right (and let’s hope the Mayans are off by a bit). I’m not saying Apple is going belly up tomorrow, or to short the stock today. But I am predicting that we’re seeing the beginning of the end of its status at the top of the tech brand hierarchy. Maybe it’ll take 5 years. Maybe 10. But if history books and the recent demise of other iconic brands tell us anything, it’s that no party stays in power forever. How d’ya like them apples, Apple?
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