Apple: The ‘Mitt Romney’ of Corporations

| Hidden Dimensions

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less." -- C.S. Lewis

Fighting the good fight is a noble thing to do for a corporation. Americans love the underdog. And so, after Apple's successful apology to Chinese customers, does Apple have an opportunity to improve its image in the U.S.?

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There are worthy things for a corporation to do besides make money. They can fight the good fight for its customers, and that often has a technical theme. Plus, they can exhibit some social responsibility -- giving back to the home country.

There is a delicate mix of all these things in any corporation, and the presentation, as a whole, of that mix determines how we feel about a company. For example, during the old days of the PC Wars, when Apple was the underdog, the corporate Rocky Balboa, fighting the giant Microsoft, we rooted for the little (tough) guy.

The Fall of 2012

This double entendre heading is meant to suggest a confluence of events in late 2012. Competitors were certainly catching up with Apple in the important tablet battleground. But there was also a political context. In the presidential election, there was a stark choice between what was perceived as the detached and very wealthy and those who were struggling, buffeted by large corporations, banks, and politicians exerting their will on Americans. The struggle for financial survival and personal freedom for many Americans was in full force in that election. What Americans rejected in the 2012 presidential election was selfish service to self and friends, whether by wealthy individuals or corporations.

Along comes Apple, dominating in every area. At the top of its game. Unassailable. Making products that are the very, very best, but also very expensive. Apple flaunts an obscene amount of money in cash holdings overseas, immune from taxation. Apple is not only rich but traditionally perceived as arrogant.

It just looked bad.

Now, all this is not to say that Apple is not making fine products. They are. Apple was ranked highest in customer satisfaction amongst smartphone makers on March 21 for the 9th time in a row by J.D. Power and Associates.

Right after Tim Cook assumed the CEO position, he introduced a charitable giving program in which Apple matches employee contributions. I personally applauded that several times.

These defenses are applicable, but they may not have offset the more general view perceived by the media last year. It's like the case of the beloved employee who's greatly respected, donates to charity, but misses his sales quota. He's laid off anyway.

It's possible to argue that, taken as a whole, the image of Apple in the past few months has been of a company that is no longer the David fighting Goliath. The only focus is making the very best and (sometimes) the most expensive products, and that's all the stockholders should care about. And in that bold profile lies the quicksand of a malaise, a concern that Apple is no longer really, really on our side, the underdogs.

The subconscious connection between wealth, wealthy corporations and the struggles of the everyday American bubbled to the surface in 2012, and the media, attuned to such things, picked up on it. It may have led to much of the Apple bashing in the past few months.

The Chinese Inspiration

Recently, the traditional Apple approach of aloofness and elitism rose up to bite Apple in China. Astutely, smartly, Apple figured out what was going on with the Chinese culture and responded accordingly. See: "Apple Takes Chinese Approach & Apologizes for Warranty Practices." Right away, one has to wonder what the impact if this event will have on Apple, Tim Cook and the executive team.

For example, what practices has Apple been engaging in, as the underdog of years past, that are no longer applicable? Is there a way to shift the focus of the corporation so that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts again? Can that be achieved by a different branding of the company? Is the more humble approach used with China a signpost that it may also be time for the Top Dog Apple to strategically alter its relationship as well to American customers? Partners? The Media? Finally, what constitutes the good fight now?

We know that Apple tries to look out for our privacy. Even so they've dropped the ball there with some inattention to data services. We know that Apple makes solid products that last, but there remains some uneasiness about Apple's headlong rush for cash that is, for some reason, unable nowadays to have us gasping for breath at the beauty, elegance and usability of its two operating systems. These are things to fight for.

The Chinese affair with Apple is a portent, an inspiration and fabulous opportunity for Apple to size up its public image and its approach to customers once again. We Americans love the heroism of companies fighting the good fight for us, not, conspicuously, themselves.

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Teaser image via Shutterstock.

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Comments

palenoue

You know nothing of Mitt Romney, do you?  If you had even 10% of a clue about Romney you’d never compare Apple to him.  Two completely different mindsets, histories and supporters.  I am overwhelmed by your ignorance.

webjprgm

I agree the analogy makes the article title a head-scratcher.  The author meant to compare a single attribute of Romney to Apple, namely that Romney is a wealthy, privileged favorite son who is not the underdog but rather is out of touch with ordinary people. Apple is now wealthy, powerful, and, as implied by this article, out of touch with the ordinary underdog.

People root for the small guys.  When you get big you are now the person to beat (for your competitors) and get no sympathy (from your customers).  Apple is now potentially in this position.

Personally I still feel the Mac is an underdog.  I carry that mindset over to the iPhone, but I felt like it didn’t apply there until more recently with the huge number of Android phones.  Those phones make me feel like my Apple castle is under attack again and I’m back to defending it.  But it still surprises me when I hear a long-time Windows user discussing whether he should get not just an iPhone but also switch to a Mac too.  If everyone thinks that way then firstly I don’t have to put any effort into helping Apple and secondly I’m no longer special for “seeing the light” as one of a few Mac users.

I’d rather be special.  I’d rather be defending my beloved underdog.  But at the same time I don’t want Apple to fail because then I have nothing, so I cheer when they do well.

Thomas

LOL And now to contemplate how one of Apple’s board members, the high priest of global warming Al Gore, is richer than the envied Mitt Romney. Guess even idols with feet of clay will sell to the highest bidder, guess that is what makes his feet of clay.

skipaq

An out of touch rich guy is about the last thing that comes to mind with Mitt. I lived in Massachusetts while he was governor. I viewed him as a moderate to liberal Republican. I have two sons who still live there and we are no fans of RomneyCare. He also has a tendency to waffle which indicates a politician more in touch with the populace than his own convictions. That had more to do with his losing the election than his wealth.

Brutno

Politics and religion, John. Surely you know to leave those out of your articles. There’s no way to bring up politics or politicians in an article without some being offended or disappointed*. Better to write for everyone here rather than polarizing your readers. This a Mac/technology-oriented site, let’s keep it that way.

* Except, of course, if a politician did or said something related to technology.

John Martellaro

Brutno: Those who have been following me on the Internet for the last 15 years know that what you suggest is *exactly* what I do. This was an incredibly rare but worthwhile exception.

webjprgm: Thanks for a beautiful synopsis of my message.

Brutno

John,
That is one of your endearing qualities and part of what makes your articles worthwhile reading (aside from your keen insight). So, exception noted.

Point of reference: I once worked for a processed meat company. We produced a product that was of incredibly consistent quality - far superior to our competitors. When our product was the tiniest bit out of our norm, yet not out of spec. and still far better than our competitors product, we got complaints. Other companies could produce inferior product with few complaints, yet we suffered by having a great product. Call it the price of success, if you will. Apple suffers from it as well.

Consider yourself in good company, John. When you approach the boundaries people notice.

Black_Dog

“Apple flaunts an obscene amount of money in cash holdings overseas, immune from taxation.”

This is completely untrue. The money Apple makes overseas is subject to taxation in the countries where Apple turned a profit. I am not aware of any instances where Apple has not paid the taxes they owed. What Apple and many other U.S. companies are seeking to do is avoid having to pay taxes on their earnings a second time. It is asinine tax law. Don’t blame Apple for that.

The U.S. is one of only a few countries in the world dumb enough to try to tax the importation of cash earned from foreign operations. If Obama and congress want all of that cash that U.S. firms are holding in foreign countries to flow back into the U.S., which would be a very good thing for our economy and stimulate domestic tax-generating economic activity, they would repeal this stupid tax law.

Lee Dronick

How about a story that includes science, kids, Apple iPads, and politics. All it needs is a puppy. smile

http://www.salon.com/2013/04/05/limbaugh_rewards_child_climate_skeptic_with_an_ipad/

John Martellaro

Jeff Kennedy, U.C. Davis, CA, was unable to post successfully. Until we figure out the problem, I offered to post his comment for him.

“I’ve been really impressed with your “Hidden Dimensions” series, and this latest contribution is an important one, in my estimation. You’ve managed to articulate, and make explicit, a confluence of traits and events that place Apple at an important juncture in its evolution, both as a company and in the nature of its corporate culture.

Apple’s iconoclastic persona and its seeming unwillingness to communicate meaningfully with its loyal customers, as well as its critics, does not serve it well in the new business climate. I’ve long been troubled by Apple’s seeming arrogance, and it’s unwillingness to acknowledge it mistakes (e.g., the hinge design on the Titanium Macbook—or was it a Powerbook then?—and the hockey puck mouse, to pick two examples).

The lack of solicitation of customer input makes perfect sense when you are creating breakthrough products, but once that new product line is established, and you’re in refinement mode, it seems to me that active solicitation of customer feedback would be both highly desirable, and even necessary. A good model for the latter dynamic is the approach that Adobe has taken in soliciting the input of professional photographers in the scoping and development of each new version of Photoshop Lightroom. There is an ever-increasing convergence between the functionality that pro photographers desire and the new features each version provides. This goes a long way toward explaining why Lightroom is so strongly preferred by pro photographers over Aperture. I imagine a similar dynamic exists with regard to Final Cut Pro and professional videographers/film-makers (but I don’t do videos).

One final observation. I was quite struck by the following quote, and its obvious applicability to your previous “Hidden Dimensions” piece on Apple’s abandonment of the science market:

“There are worthy things for a corporation to do besides make money. They can fight the good fight for its customers, and that often has a technical theme. Plus, they can exhibit some social responsibility—giving back to the home country.”

As a retired scientist, I think Apple needs to follow its own marketing advice and “Think Different” about the science, mathematics and engineering market. The size of that market will never begin to approach the size of the personal/home market, nor the general corporate/business enterprise market. Yet a strong science and technology capability is vital to the current and future viability and economic well-being of our society. Moreover, scientific illiteracy and innumeracy is rampant throughout the vast majority of our society. I believe Apple needs to shift its perspective and stop viewing scitech, merely as a direct profit center, and see it from the perspective of its broader importance to society.

Contributing to a strong science and technology sector is something that Apple is exceedingly well-placed to make a significant and positive contribution towards—as a matter of social responsibility—independent of the size of its contribution to Apple’s corporate bottom line. Lord knows, it has the financial resources—cash in hand—to fund that effort, should it so choose. It could (and in my view, should) take a more pro-active role in funding a grant program to sci-tech investigators, young and old, using Apple hardware and software. And even if they decide not to take such a proactive approach, they should, at a minimum, reinstitute their science and technology user profile web pages and their web pages providing listings and synopses of sci-tech software and hardware with links to their manufacturers. The Apple web site should be a modern-day Whole Earth Access Catalog to sci-tech goods, that mirrors the pivotal role that the Whole Earth Access Catalog played in the seminal evolution of Steve Jobs.”

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