Apple – superb strategy or a history of happy accidents?

Apple logoIt looks like Apple is set to be one of the world’s biggest companies – it has constantly featured in top brands surveys for a number of years. But it is a curious phenomenon for a brand linked so strongly to its products which have had somewhat of a roller coaster history. Much though I admire Steve Jobs, I do wonder how much of the company’s success is down to luck and serendipity.

I remember in the early eighties, as a small businessman looking to computerize some aspects of my business, I bought an Apple II. Brands were only just appearing in the relatively new personal computer market, so it was pretty much a toss of a coin whether you chose an Apple, Commodore, Amiga or some such. There was little to differentiate the products: the Apple did nothing to impress me, so when the time came to change, I had no loyalty and bought some other ‘me-too’ product. However, a little while later, my local dealer brought in to my office one of the first Mackintoshes.  A curious little all-in-one box with a lead and a small plastic device – a mouse. He thought my design company may be able to make use of it, but I needed a business machine more than a design tool. However, Apple had made a small statement of differentiation.

Just a couple of years later I had a studio with seven designers all using Macs. This had little to do with the curious underpowered machines’ abilities – it was because the DTP software at the time, QuarkXpress and Adobe Illustrator, were only available on the Mac. How far this was down to Apple’s far-sighted strategic thinking or serendipity is hard to say. By the time this software became available for the PC, designers had already become used to Macs and they became the ubiquitous design tool.

The Apple brand had built a strategic niche in the graphic design community. But even designers had a love/hate relationship with the brand. The machines had reliability problems, laptops were constantly breaking, software was expensive and networking was not a task for the fainthearted. Little wonder that Apple made little impact on the consumer market – even loyal design users tended to have a PC at home for their personal use.

Apple continued to support the design community with increasingly powerful (and costly) machines. The argument over whether they were faster or more suitable for the demands of increasingly hungry graphics and video applications rumbled on and whether any small differences justified the cost differentials was very debatable. It is not overstating the case to say the brand was in crisis. A holding action came about from the values of the user community – style! If you can’t win on function try design and style. The distinctive iMac was soon appearing, not just in design studios, but on TV and in movies. Apple was starting on his route of ‘must have’ consumer style in just the right window of blatant consumerism. Techies may still grumble about the product, but people loved the style.

From a niche brand Apple was now full in the public eye, and the next step bolstered that position. Not a computer, but a music device – the iPod. Like the original Mac, it had found a niche. Again, not through the intrinsic technology of the product – there were other mp3 and music players at a fraction of the cost, the technology was not that clever, the mp4 format was not portable – what made it special was the link with iTunes. I find myself still scratching my head over whether this is great strategic planning, or owes a lot to the luck of the zeitgeist. Where Apple does seem to score over other brands is the way it brings its ideas quickly (often too quickly!) to market.

The iPhone and iPad quickly followed – all flawed, all with less costly and technically better alternatives – yet Apple has become a brand of desire. Tech-heads will grumble and point out the flaws and the better choices, but for the consumer the Apple brand now stands for style and desire.

In the past, Apple was so closely linked to its products that when they failed to deliver the company had serious issues to address. Now perhaps the brand is strong enough and the consumer affection sufficiently powerful to forgive any small shortcomings.

As Apple becomes not just a major brand bust a massive company, I’m sure Mr Jobs will be looking at Mr Gates from his walled garden and watching out for the tall-poppy syndrome.

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