Apple: From Beleaguered to Skewered

"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.