For many years Apple was the geeks’ secret, whether the web geek or the design geek or the creative geek. It’s the computer brand they chose because it suited the stuff they were doing or it was cool or it was not Microsoft. The company went through ups and downs, nearly losing its way completely before resurging over the last few years. But it’s always been small, the underdog. And then came the iPod, the digital music player that is almost the generic, a term used to describe any player, the one that everyone wants. The iPod put the name Apple on the map with the masses, introduced them to the technology company and opened up the doors for them to increase sales of their other products.
The brand has had the reputation of just working, of being easy and stylish and cool. With Jobs’ hand in all parts of the process, high build quality, high quality user interfaces, the mysteriousness around the brand, led to the cult of the Mac, where a Mac is not a PC and it’s better than everything else. That brand promise is the main selling point in the mass advertising that is now being used to push the computers.
The brand promise came from the advertising, marketing and PR of the company, combined with the fact the products were different and perceived as better than other products on the market; in many cases they were better, although sometimes it was just the marketing and the image that carried them forward. From a marketing point of view, Apple are masters at the tease and at selling but in today’s connected world they could be seen as old-fashioned as they do all the things that get other companies get lambasted for. Everything is a controlled message, everything is advertising or PR, they are rarely seen reaching out and having a conversation with customers. This silence has worked to their favour, the gap was filled by brand fans. There’s no need to have a customer service department commenting on blogs and message boards when self-appointed brand evangelists are out there, ready to leap to the company’s defence. A mythology has grown up around the products and it can be repeated every time there is a problem without actually acknowledging there is a problem: the products are brilliant, Steve Jobs is a genius, if you have an issue it’s your fault, the products are brilliant. As marketers, the team behind this enthusiasm has to congratulate themselves, it’s every brand dream to have that passion. But unfortunately, it can blind people to the fact there are problems.
Is everything OK with Apple?
If I was to base my perception of Macs over what my friends have said or written over the last few months, the news is nothing but bad. I’ve read so much about hardware problems, battery life, hard drive failures all compounded by horror stories about upgrading to Leopard. If I was to buy a computer in the next few months based on those stories, it would not be a Mac, they sound like they are far too unreliable. Now, admittedly, the sample could be skewed, maybe as they are Mac users they write or speak far more about their problems than PC users, or everyone I know/read has a Mac and what I’m hearing is just a small sample and there is not really a problem. But what I’ve seen over the last year seems to have far worse than before, so I think there are problems with build and software quality.
The other factor that comes to play is the company’s corporate attitude to web-based fans and information. Apple recently settled a law-suit against Think Secret, a blog that tracked Apple news and was sued for publishing ‘trade secrets’. Ars Technica has a good review of the whole situation, also looking at other sites Apple has sued. You should also read Fake Steve Jobs take on the situation; the number of people who thought this was real indicates that some of the shine has gone off the company. The existence of Apple rumour sites and the fervor with which they are read is indicative of the cult of Apple and how nature abhors a vacuum (or should I say bloggers). Without a real stream of information from the company, prophets spring up to create their own mythology, to fill in the gaps and fuel the gossip mill. They’re always going to try and get the best information to fill the needs of their readers, which clashes with Apples need to control the message. Control can be seen with them allegedly censoring discussions on Help forums or how PR stepped in when a Channel 4 journalist went off message and asked a question about the iPhone.
I believe that as the brand pushed itself to become more mass market, as they move iPod buyers to computers or phones, we are going to see more and more instances of Apple going wrong, either poor products or poor marketing and customer service. To deal with this, I believe they have to change their marketing tactics now and look strongly at social media marketing before it is too late; Dell and Microsoft use these tools to help their image that has been tarnished over the years but were partly forced to by circumstances. How can Apple stamp their mark on the tools if they use them before they have to?
Are Apple using Social Media already?
To a certain extent Apple use some social media tools already. There are active support forums, but these focus on after-purchase issues, not really being targeted at potential purchasers. They dabble with Facebook, with the sponsored group Apple Students has over 400k members. You can buy products, see what is new on iTunes and join in the the discussion board, which is pretty lively. But there is little evidence of Apple being active in the group, it is still being treated as a marketing effort, with the conversation coming from fans not brand. I can find very little evidence of activity on the web beyond one way broadcast marketing. The company may be listening, evidence could be the rebate given to early iPhone buyers when they dropped the price, but even that was polished and controlled with little recognition for the early adopters who were being hit for being fans.
Should Apple change?
Yes, and here’s why.
- Apple are becoming mass. More and more people are buying the computers and other products who see them as a tool only, who are not buying because they have been a fan for years but because they have an iPod, have seen the ads and the computer has now entered their consideration set. The typical Mac purchaser is likely to move away from being a geek to someone who wants to use the web, email and office tools, just like they do the PC.
- The products are not perfect, they are having hardware and software issues but support is not as easy to come by as with a PC. You can take them to the store or you can look online, but your local computer techie won’t necessarily be able to cope. From what I’ve seen online it can quickly get technical, beyond the capability of many, so new types of support forums, blogs etc need to grow. Without something like this, negative coverage will grow.
- The customer is starting to become accustomed to the brand being out in the market place over and above the advertising and marketing. They are starting to see support people taking part in discussions and will expect it from more. Apple should be there setting standards, not ignoring it.
But will they change? I’m not expecting things to change in the near future. I think there will need to be sales slowdown or a huge backlash which means Apple will have to be reactive before they start, instead of taking the chance to be proactive. What do you think?