When the subject of cool, innovative brands comes up, it's a dead cert Apple gets a mention in the first five minutes. It's iconic, makes beautiful products, and has a wow factor that most tech companies would give their eye teeth for. In short, it sets a benchmark. Granted, it's been slated a bit recently for its draconian measures after one of its employees lost something in a bar, but it is almost solely responsible for tech becoming a sexy, must-have item. Each week, a new report shows that market share is up, or that its latest product is going to hit $1 billion in sales in record time—in short, that, one day soon, the world is going to wake up and there's going to be an apple leaf poking out of the top of the North Pole. But is it?
YouGov's BrandIndex shows that among 18- to 34-year-olds, the shine is beginning to come off the Apple brand. Since March 18, when it hit a high of 80.2 on the thumbs-upiness-ometer, it's been slowly falling and is currently hovering around the 66% mark. The survey, which garners the opinions of 5,000 people per day (blimey, what a job that must be) asked respondents the question: "If you've heard anything about the brand in the past two weeks, was it a positive or a negative?"
No prizes for guessing how these young iguys would rate Apple. But then, those guys aren't like everyone.
It's very hard to slam Apple on its hardware and software—both the iPod and iPhone—and iPad—were (and are) way ahead of their time. They had flaws—as does the first-gen version of its tablet computer—but they are incredible devices that have made Apple a household name. Five years ago, an Apple product launch would not have made the the front pages of either the online or dead-tree media. These days, every single news organization knows that anything to do with Cupertino gets page views. Even sites such as Mail Online (the Internet version of a crappy UK newspaper that asks questions such as: Should Women Really Have the Vote? We Gave them Trousers, and Now they Want too Much) is desperate for Apple bites. See?
But what's getting people is their increasingly belligerent attitude to just about anything and everything that doesn't toe the party line. I'll get back to that in a bit. First of all, since it's Friday, I'd like you to settle down while I tell you a fairytale.
Once upon a time there was a company called the Apple Computer Co. It was small, perfectly formed, and it brought out what could only be called the first truly user-friendly personal computer—that is to say, a computer that your mum could operate. It still does that, only this time, it's kids, grannies, and even online dating sites getting in on the act. But it still stayed niche, thanks to a rocky period in the '90s, and Microsoft's dominance of the home computer market. Apple's great marketing technique was to show that it was the plucky outsider with personality, battling against its Orwellian competitors.
Although more of a household name in the 21st century, Apple could never claim to have gone mass market—probably something that Steve Jobs has been itching for since the '70s, but its cooler-than-thou niche never hurt its market share. Although the driving force behind the move from physical music—tapes, CDs, vinyl—to digital, thanks to Jon Ive's baby, the iPod, it became a household name about three years ago, when it offered up the iPhone. And then something a bit weird happened. It still had the Mac-vs.-PC ads, portraying itself as the cute, normal, non-cubicle jockey one—a geek who could get the girl, if you like—but it also had this.
An iPhone ad that showed the phone, guarded by a pair of brawny security guys, traveling down endless corridors, tracked on CCTV cameras by another shaven-headed goon. Was this the moment Apple became The Man, but we were just too dumb to realize?
Media and tech insiders have known for a long time now that Apple guards its image jealously. While Steve Jobs may know that imitation is a form of flattery, he's damned if he's going to let other tech companies muscle in on what he probably now sees as Apple's, and Apple's alone, market. Hence the lawsuit against HTC, a pissy take-down of Adobe Flash, and the small matter of the iPhone 4 leak. (Are we worried about our ingenuous take on it? No—but we did have our lawyers go through it before we published.) Even a minor news item about a German tablet firm changing its name gets the anti-Apple alarm bells ringing. Even Jon Stewart has been at it, with an anti-Apple diatribe on his show last week.
"Apple—you guys were the rebels, man, the underdogs. People believed in you. But now, are you becoming The Man? ... It wasn't supposed to be this way—Microsoft was supposed to be the evil one! But you guys are busting down doors in Palo Alto while Commandant Gates is ridding the world of mosquitoes. What the fuck is going on?!"
What the fuck indeed?
Since it's Friday, I'm going to part the curtains and let a little light in on what we do here in our Virtual Office at Fast Company. Kit Eaton and I spend quiet periods playing a word association game that's like a geeky version of Rock Paper Scissors. Entitled "Google Microsoft Apple Facebook Amazon," we shout out a word (example: Friends! Music! Pants! Ladies! Zoroastrianism!) and then make a gesture that corresponds with one of the five tech companies. Whichever of the five tech monsters has the strongest showing in relation to each word—Facebook for friends, Apple for music, Amazon for pants, Craigslist for—oh, hang on a minute—anyway, you sort of get my drift.
Anyway, what used to happen was that any word with connotations of coolness or greatness in a real or ironic way—Serafinowicz! Marina Abramovic! Kitsune! Brooklyn Hipsters!—basically was a call for Apple. Recently, however, the game has changed. Over-litigious? Apple. Paranoid? Apple. Dictatorial? Apple. Increasingly joyless? Apple.
The new Scientology? Apple.