Apple: From Beleaguered to Skewered

| Hidden Dimensions

"I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice, and have received a great deal of kindness not quite free from ridicule."

-- Abraham Lincoln

When Apple was on the ropes in the late 1990s, beleaguered as many were fond of saying, believers rallied in support of the company. Now that Apple is strong and prosperous, the tendency of some in the community is to switch to satire, even ridicule. This time, it's not Apple bashing, but just basic human behavior. How Apple reacts will be critical.

For a long time, Apple has literally cashed in on the basics of human behavior patterns. The appreciation for a finely crafted tool, the joy of handling certain types of materials and textures, the pride in a classy and reliable product, and a need for simplicity have all been used by Apple to profitably sell products.

Live by the Sword, Die by The Sword

However, emotions can go both ways. When Apple was beleaguered, it was easy to combine sympathy for the company's misfortunes with its heroic endeavors to fight the David battle against the Microsoft Goliath. Nowadays, that just isn't appropriate, indeed, fashionable. And so, some very basic human behavior tendencies are going to work against Apple for the foreseeable future.

It all started with Daniel Lyons' "Fake Steve Jobs" in which he carried the arrogance of Steve Jobs to its hysterical, satirical limits. (Mr. Lyons now writes for Newsweek, and has resuscitated the fictional writer.)

Fake Steve Jobs

 Credit: Newsweek's Fake Steve Jobs Caricature

 

In addition, a Simpsons episode spent some time skewering Apple. For example, "Our motto says, 'Think Different,'" Mr. Jobs, in his under ground palace, said. "But it's really 'No refunds.'"

We can expect much more of this, and it won't be just from people who've disliked Apple all along. The teasing will start off affectionately, even from the parishioners, and border, at times, on abuse. But then plebes at the military academies also take their share of abuse and survive with dignity.

Apple's Reaction

Steve Jobs himself is pretty good a self-deprecating humor. He has to be, even if some of the lines are written or thought out ahead of time for good effect. On the other hand, Apple as a corporation has a reputation for being thin skinned. As a result, the company will need to make a subtle transition in its thinking: dignity in the face of ridicule by small minded opponents is fine; arrogance in the face of a poke in the ribs is not.

If that transition in thinking isn't made, then people who make fun of Apple, for the sake of making fun of a powerful, wealthy corporation, run the risk of being sized up as enemies when they need not be. Enemies, in the fashion of former, disgraced U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, will be found (miraculously) wherever Apple looks.

In addition, when Apple made mistakes in earlier times, it was because they were struggling. Finding the key solutions to tough challenges can lead to natural, forgivable human error. In 2009, when Apple makes a mistake, a more likely response will be that it was caused by arrogance. Accordingly, how Apple handles mistakes will reveal a lot about its corporate character. Some self-deprecating humor by all hands on deck, not just the CEO, will be most welcome.

It was a long, hard, tough journey for Apple to make the transition from a company that almost went out of business in the late 1990s to a successful, thriving company, even in an economic downturn. The principles that Apple used, making great products, inspiring the customer, and giving them fantastic tools they even they didn't know they needed until they saw them served Apple well.

What may be more difficult for Apple to do is maintain its culture of minimalism and excellence in its public relations and still combine that with a keen sense of humility, grace, and humor.

The Best That Apple Has to Offer - in Every Way

I'm not suggesting that Apple all of a sudden become apologetic in the extreme. Pride in its accomplishments doesn't warrant that. What I am suggesting is that customers, journalists, suppliers, and even competitors be treated with a basic human tolerance, respect, and honesty that reflects well on a company -- even in the face of the inevitable severe satire, ridicule, and skewering.

That is, after all, part and parcel of what we expect from famous and successful people or companies. If I were to cast the personality of a company in terms of famous people, I would want the modern, wealthy Apple to be known as the Jimmy Stewart of companies, not the Howard Hughes.

It's been a Wonderful Life with Apple. I'm hoping that this new, very natural public attitude about the company, with abundant ribbing, results in the best in Apple's character showing through over the next few years -- and doesn't lead it into temptation.

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5 Comments Leave Your Own

pk de cville

Apple (Jobs) has been quite the honorable warrior since his return.

We don’t see Apple offhandedly spewing FUD or denigration. The FUD is strategic: “Apple sees no future in movie rentals.” “Apple wants to get rid of all DRM.” Hah!

When Apple goes negative (Mac vs PC ads), it’s done with strategic forethought. Have you ever noticed how the ads copy the friendship of the Toad and Frog children’s books? Loving rivalry and understanding friendship. Makes it easy to acknowledge Mac’s superiority when he’s so concerned about PC’s well being. (Now, that’s how to burnish brand value with a wink and an easy to accept conceit.)

All in all, Apple is incredibly light and powerful w/ competitor remarks: “Float like butterfly, sting like a bee.”

Disclosure: Of course I’m long Apple.

deasys

When Apple was beleaguered, it was easy to combine sympathy for the company’s misfortunes with its heroic endeavors to fight the David battle against the Microsoft Goliath. Nowadays, that just isn’t appropriate

It isn’t?

The most recent news is that Windows has fallen just under 90% market share. That implies that the Mac has about 8-9% market share. It’s STILL a David vs. Goliath battle, John. Don’t kid yourself.

Things can turn on a dime these days…

exnihilo

“It?s STILL a David vs. Goliath battle, John. Don?t kid yourself.”

You are assuming that Apple wants everything that MS wants. I clearly doesn’t. Apple is highly focused on the consumer, with what a secondary interest in business (outside of graphics, video, audio and such). There are many POS (point of sale) terminals, computers that run industrial equipment, and such that are mostly running Windows, and I highly doubt Apple is very keen on cornering those market. If you just focus on the consumer side, then Apple is indeed a formidable company nowadays.

Tik Tok

I think it is long past time that someone posted this gentle chiding of our favorite electronics firm.  There definitely have been some boneheaded stunts pulled in the past year.  Consider the uproar over “censoring” new apps for the iPhone/Touch; price changes on the iPhone; botched release of the iPhone; battery and power device failures on laptops and the iPhone.  None of these instances was particularly significant or long-lasting by itself, but the grumpy or silent stiff-arms we got from Apple gave me, at least, a sense that someone wasn’t paying good attention to the PR side of things.  Sure, Apple will likely always have its die-hard core supporters as long as it makes good products, but, to grow and keep its newer customers long-term, it needs to avoid becoming another of those all-too-common enterprises where profit alone is all that is important.

Finally, to judge Apple against MS alone is a mistake for more reasons than exnihilo points out.  Apple is a huge business, not just an MS competitor, and its focus is on consumers in a very special way.  If it neglects to treat its potential customers appropriately, it will spoil its own potential faster than by failing in any particular product development area.

Nemo

An interesting thing about Jimmy Stewart that most people, especially younger people, don’t know is that affable, bumbling, humble, humorous everyman of an actor was a Colonel in the U.S. Army Air Corps, which became the U.S. Air Force, during World War II.  Colonel Stewart severed as B24 wing commander in World War II, flying missions over Germany and was highly decorated for valor.  Flying bombing missions over Germany was some of the most dangerous duty that a soldier could do in World War II.  It took 25 missions to come home; most air crew didn’t survive beyond fifteen missions.

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