(Full disclosure: I worked for Apple on the original iMac launch, I have friends there whom I like and respect, and I am a customer. My observations aren't based on any insider knowledge, but rather constitute the musings of an old friend).
No matter what you read, Apple is in trouble. Big trouble, at least on the branding and marketing fronts.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Steve Jobs is a genius, and that he was singlehandedly responsible for Apple's second coming. He is living refutation of all the nonsense we've been told about management, innovation, and the elasticity of consumer branding. Jobs proved it all wrong; while his competitors zig-zagged their way through mergers, acquisitions, and wasted billions trying to tell consumers what it all meant, Apple focused on making cool computers...which meant delivering services as well as products that were uniquely different and functionally pleasing.
The Conventional Wisdom crowd always finds things to gripe about -- denigrating Jobs' ability to sell an idea by calling it a "reality distortion field," complaining that the products didn't perform, or suggesting that the company will ultimately fail because it doesn't squander money on social media like its competitors -- but the ultimate proof of Apple's success was always in how many products it sold, and how it has led most of the recent and best developments in consumer electronics.
Notice that all smartphones pretty much look like iPhones, or that the tablet PC market is really the iPad market trailed by a lot of wanna-bes? Its iTunes/iPod hold on digital entertainment content is somewhat battered but is still unbeaten. Windows still looks like an awful Mac OS knock-off, just like Dell and HP's insistence on putting colorful lids on their laptops were in deference to Apple's industrial design leadership. Its marketing also commanded its competitors to follow suit, moving Microsoft to even adopt Apple's creative for its own campaign.
So all the talk about the strong team Steve built around him neglects to mention that he was always in the middle, and that he drove the brand and marketing. There was no team without Steve; or, better put, it's a different team without him. They’re all likely smart and good people, but they're not Jobs, and it was Jobs who ran the show. This real story -- how his success blows up all the slides, flowcharts, and binders from Harvard or your management consulting firm of choice -- is going to be hard for the business establishment to swallow. They might deny it, or brush it off as an anomaly, but don't miss the point yourself.
Jobs was singlehandedly responsible for Apple's success, and that's why the company is in a lot of trouble from now on, at least on the communications front.
My guess is that the company’s inclination is going to be to try to tell the “Apple after Jobs” story, whether out of a sense of obligation, or an interest in stepping up to its own defense (or both), but I think that would be a branding mistake. Apple risks becoming just another consumer electronics company, so it needs to keep doing things different.
What would you tell it to do? Here are three thought-starters:
- Pull a Hari Seldon -- Remember the founder of the science of future history in Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy? Seldon could predict the future based on statistical analyses, so he recorded a series of educational/inspirational videos to be played at designated points over time (long after he died). Granted, the plot gets interesting when a mutant makes all his stats obsolete, but never mind; why couldn't Apple make a big deal about revealing that it has some multi-generational plan from Steve's brain, and that it intends to follow it. Then stop talking about its plans, its organization structure, its multivariate personalities, or whatever. The world will go insane trying to guess what’s next...which is exactly the way Jobs liked it.
- Recruit celebrity announcers -- One of Steve's many brilliant moves when he first came back to the helm in the late 1990s was to cancel all of Apple’s participation in industry trade shows. They make no sense in this day and age, and he saw the wisdom in keeping products secret until he was ready to sell them (most CE companies announce many months before they ship, which usually means that nobody cares when they finally get around to it). These Apple events will be tough without Jobs, and since he can't be replaced, why couldn't Apple start recruiting famous/unlikely people to do the announcing? It would get them lots of headlines while avoiding the Steve comparisons that already arise when his staffers try to do the MC job.
- Do nothing -- The best and most convincing thing Apple could do to show the world that nothing has changed now that Jobs isn't CEO is to avoid changing anything. Pretty simple strategy. Ignore requests for interviews just like it always did. Refuse to elaborate on issues or plans. Avoid industry events and the lists of questions from analysts. Continue to build great products and drop them on an unsuspecting public. Beat performance estimates. Surprise, surprise, and keep surprising, and when anybody asks about the company after Steve, give 'em a sanctioned shrug and tell them to look to the performance results for their answer.
What do you think?
(Image credit: the logo certainly stays the same)