As a market leader, Apple finds itself in a position that would have seemed impossible to dedicated Mac-heads two decades ago; a strange parallel universe in which the band that sells the most also happens to produce the best music. However, as streamlined as Apple is for a large company, great success and a certain middle-agedness has crept into their marketing.
Logic would say that this is the moment for other companies to emulate the Apple of 1984: presenting themselves as sledgehammer-wielding freedom fighters seeking to liberate users from a brushed-aluminum elite. As many will have noticed, this tried-and-tested approach is exactly the one Samsung has taken as of late. They're considerably outspending Apple on its phone advertising campaign in a concerted iNeedling effort, which rings strongly of the kind of approach Apple itself might have taken in years previous. "It doesn’t take a genius," sniped one of Samsung’s advertisements for the Galaxy S3, lampooning the ill-received "Genius" spots launched (and ditched) by Apple in mid-2012.
It may not be quite the ideological counterpart to the original "1984" Macintosh commercial, but as a B-side to the "Think Different" campaign (which itself satirized IBM’s "Think" slogan) it fit nicely enough. Even more Apple-esque was the Samsung Galaxy commercial which preceded the launch of the iPhone 5. It depicted a long line of drone-like Apple fanboys outsmarted by the hipper, more irreverent Samsung user. It wasn’t steeped in quite the same dystopian imagery as Apple’s Orwellian classic, but it still made the same overriding point.
This isn’t to suggest for a moment that Apple’s advertising post-Steve Jobs has been bad. Zooey Deschanel’s stoned-looking Siri ad might have been mocked in certain corners, but it still nailed Apple’s target demographic and created buzz. What can’t be said, however, is that the advertising has been especially memorable; certainly not the rabble-rousing stuff many expect of a company that has writ its world-changing ambitions so large. What it more closely resembles, in fact, is Microsoft, whose celebrity endorsers used to smack consistently of trying that bit too hard. They've since mostly ditched the celebrities for the man in the street.
The anti-IBM stance Apple took in its early years (and, to an extent, the ongoing battle with Windows) was an extension of the mass society critique that had been warring on for decades before the personal computer came in to being. To quote historian (and technology critic) Lewis Mumford, the machine Apple was raging against was the high-tech equivalent of, "uniform, unidentifiable houses ... inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless pre-fabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to the same common mold."
To Mumford, mass society didn’t just mean that everyone had the same products; it meant that everyone had the same bad products. However, when it comes to personal computing and consumer electronics, that is no longer the case. By creating a category of product more in line with a luxury car or a designer clothing brand, Steve Jobs raised the game for everyone.
Having recently been named the world’s most valuable brand for the third year in a row, it would be foolish to suggest that Apple requires anything so drastic as a branding overhaul. At the same time, as more rival companies than ever try to think (and act) like Apple, genuine attempts to think, if not differently, then certainly differentially become more of a challenge. There exists today an entire new generation of consumers who have never known Apple as anything other than the electronics company that led the market; whether that was MP3 players with the ubiquitous iPod, smartphones, or tablets.
Earlier this year, Tim Cook said that, "Our core philosophy is to never fear cannibalization. If we don’t do it, someone else will." He may have been talking about Apple’s product lines, but he is also speaking about a company whose identity has always been one of its most tradeable commodities. It might not require the kind of shake-up Apple did during its mid-1990s low, but would a well-placed sledgehammer at Apple’s values really miss?
Because if Apple doesn’t do it, someone else will.
Luke Dormehl is a journalist, author, and award-winning documentary filmmaker. With a particular focus on technology, cinema, and pop culture, his writing has appeared in dozens of online and print publications, while his films have been screened at the Cannes festival and on Channel 4. He is the author of The Apple Revolution: Steve Jobs, The Counterculture, And How The Crazy Ones Took Over The World. You can follow him on Twitter @lukedormehl.
[Image: Flickr user Karen Blaha]