Of Apple magic and hatred in a world of horses & bayonets

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The fanatical following for Apple is legendary. It used to be restricted to a niche group of desktop & laptop owners up until 2007. During those days of Macintosh desktop, iBook, early iMac, and Powerbook, Apple users were the odd ones out. They had to live with compatibility issues with software, connecting to the PC network and so on. I remember using OS9 and then figuring out ways to connect to the office PC network (through DAVE a network utility software) and installing Powerpoint and Word for Mac, as iWork suite did not exist then. Through all this Mac users felt superior, smug.  The competition was the ubiquitous Microsoft and they had their share of issues with 95, Windows ME, and Windows 2000. Mac users felt  that hardware-software combination was superior. But wen you pulled out an iBook or a Powerbook chances are you were seen as different and had nuisance value more than anything else. Seeing a fellow Mac user in India brought out a feeling of kinship.  OSX and a slew of hardware launches followed. Despite initial hiccups with OSX, the love for Apple products only got stronger. Apple upped the ante against Microsoft with their ‘I am a Mac’ campaign; Vista woes helped that cause. Was Apple hated then? Of course it was. PC users labelled Mac products as over priced, poor value and reminded Mac owners that PCs have a wider software availability, usage and can do pretty much everything a Mac does. Most of the hatred was under the radar as it were, save for some discussions online.

The 2007 launch of iPhone strengthened Apple’s perception as an innovator. It also attracted a lot of competition. In the PC era, Apple’s competition was largely another OS. Post 2007, competition is in several shapes and sizes. The categories attracting the most attention are the iOS devices, where both Android and Samsung have strong equity and challenge Apple.  For the record, I have used (not just played with) an S2, HTC One and S3. They are good handsets packed with features but my personal preference is for an iOS device.

The Apple hatred club is far and wide now. Yet, Apple continues to enjoy support from a large fan base, derisively referred to as iSheep. The fundamental difference between then (PC era) and now is that Apple hatred gets amplified through internet and social media. That’s a huge marketing challenge for Apple. Why? Because social media makes instant reaction easy. Those instant reactions are not always thought through, considered opinions. You can choose to dismiss someone’s effort or talent in a jiffy. Sometimes negative reaction is expressed in profane, vulgar language. Personal attacks are common too. No one is spared. Icons like Amitabh Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar or people in high places like the Prime Minister – all are equally subjected to criticism, harsh ones at that. It is the equivalent of ‘hit and run’. Anyone can hide behind anonymity and pass judgement, use filthy language and induge in personal attacks. During a recent India-Pak cricket match, tweets pertaining to Shoaib Malik-Sania Mirza, Yuvraj were seen to be believed. It is also easy because its just a matter of stringing in a few words (sometimes a max of 140 characters – it doesn’t require much effort). And when the reactions get personal & mean the mob mentality in those who are otherwise bystanders in social media is kindled. But that’s the nature of the beast – we can plead for restraint, question accountability of one’s utterances in social media but being under the spotlight will elicit negative reactions for all to see and influenced by.

Another aspect of new media arising out of the penchant for ‘instant reaction’ is a form of casual or superficial understanding of a subject. Given the clutter of news media and thousands of stories, everyone looks for an easy catchphrase, soundbite, a headline or at best a gist of the issue at hand. The recent Presidential Debate on American TV was watched by millions across the world on TV and resulted in instant ‘commentaries’ on Social Media. Not all of us will have a deep understanding of the issues at hand when it comes to US foreign policy. But Obama’s ‘horses and bayonets’ comment was tailor made for such social media commentators. They latched on to it, had a laugh and it was tending worldwide. To the average social media user the comment was perhaps the most memorable part of the foreign policy debate. Social Media is unlikely to have helped anyone acquire a deep understanding of the various conflict of the world, the role of United States in those conflicts and the kind of foreign policy it should have. All that was remembered was that Obama scored a brownie point against Romney with that quip. I think something similar is in play when it comes to Apple – on both sides, Apple lovers and haters. Most of us latch on to some key phrases, comment about it in an instant, share it with friends, imbibe it and assume that’s all there is to know on that subject. ‘Under featured & over-priced’, ’rounded corners and rectangles’, ‘purple flare’, ‘copycat’, ‘sales results disappoint’ etc., are a few examples. I would not put it past tech companies to hire paid trolls to populate these columns with comments trashing Apple. I bet most of those commenting would never have used an Apple product – yet they feel compelled to comment negatively going part by what they perceive as Apple’s problems (smug, snooty, copycat, bully) and part hearsay.

For most brands being evaluated on new media could mean any of these: a relatively harmless thumbs down to a TV commercial posted on YouTube, unfollowing a Twitter feed, posting a negative comment about the brand experience through comments and forums, ridiculing a brand’s user group or calling to question a brand’s strategy. Apple enjoys (not sure if enjoys is the right word) a unique position: it is both loved and hated vehemently like no other brand. The halo around the brand makes people do crazy things: stand in line for a for product launch days in advance, copy its designs to make a quick buck (nobody in China is making a fake Nexus or S3 as far as I know), defend its brands & strategies in public forums, recommend the brand to non-converts and so on. The hatred for the brand can only be expressed one way: trash talk the products, the company and its users. The nature of new media amplifies such trash talk. Competing brands capitalise on this by providing stimuli in the form of ads, participation in commenting forums and feeding the haters with sound bites like ’rounded corners. A simple, perhaps trivial illustration of this. The official Apple channel over at YouTube has the commenting option turned off. So viewers can like or dislike a video but can’t comment on them. The only way one can comment on those videos is on other channels which post the same videos. Samsung Mobile’s official channel on YouTube posts ads dissing the iPhone 5 user and keeps the commenting option open. The result: the comments section becomes a virtual cat fight between fans from both sides of the camp. The discussion is not on the ad at all but about name calling, merits & de-merits of the camps. This in turn feeds into the ‘casual understanding’, sound bite loving social media audience. Horses and bayonets all over again.

You can see reactions to Apple and its products on any of the tech sites, tech blogs, Facebook. The dismissive nature of comments (‘its crap’), the invoking of one’s mothers and sisters when discussing a phone (for crying out loud), the vitriol, the venom is enough to make a a brand curl up and die.  A sane argument like there’s ‘room for everyone and all kinds of value propositions’ will fall on deaf ears. The devices are so personal that people are blinded. Witness the lack of spying and speculation on the new iMac as a run up the recent Keynote. Everyone was obsessed with just the iOS devices.

It takes guts to put up with all this and still ‘keep calm and carry on’. I think Apple does that. How? Letting the Apple evangelists speak for the brand in social media, cultivate a select group of opinion leaders in the tech space by giving them er..strategic leaks (I am speculating here), not being unduly worried about competitive moves but being prepared nevertheless. And more importantly, stay focused on what you set out to do by playing to your strengths. That showed in iPhone 4S, the new iPad, iPhone 5 and iPad Mini.

The marketing problem is compounded by the undue attention to everything Apple does and does not do, great expectations from its products  and Apple’s reliance on 3rd party manufacturers in Asia which is a potential source of leaks for prying tech sites and bloggers. What’s for sure is that haters gonna hate, trash the brand on the internet and cheer every misstep. The world reacts differently to a Steve Ballmer laughing at the iPhone dismissively and to a Steve Jobs ridiculing the 7″ tablets. The latter is seen in more negative light (‘smug asshole who had to be proven wrong’). If there was a competition on ‘the brand most hoped to fail’, Apple would win it hands down. There are so many out there hoping, praying, wishing it will fail.

So what’s Apple to do? In my view, Apple keeps a watch on competition but does not imitate their strategies. Apple should continue to stay focused on delivering value-added products to those who willingly, happily pay a premium. Ignore the rest. That’s manifested in their focused China strategy and showing results. What they need to contend with however, is the fact that there is a generation growing up in large markets (albeit seeing value for money e.g.India) for whom Apple has no halo. And a large number of impressionable minds will get swayed by the noise these guys generate in Social Media. Knowing Apple, they will not address the issue immediately and will continue to focus on markets that deliver results the way they want it.

What are your views? How should Apple react to the amplified hatred in new media?

photo credit: f_shields via photopin cc

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