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Thoughts on Apple event and reactions: Part 1

Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans, goes the famous quotation. With Apple, it can be modified to say, ‘Record sales is what happens when media & critics find fault with almost everything the brand does’. The reason: news about Apple gets attention; bad news about Apple gets even more attention. When it comes to product launches, the brand is under the microscope like no other brand. A media circus has now become a part of the launch event. While this applies to many other brands too, with Apple the hype, buzz and decibel levels are incomparable. Everyone has an opinion on the brand and what it does – especially those who have never used its products, don’t understand what the brand is all about, why it sells and why it has such a fan following.

The circus has three parts: leaks, forecasts of doom prior to the event, avalanche of opinions on social media & live blogs during the event and then the post-event critique, forecast of doom. In between all this, the company just carries on what it believes is right for the brand.

The Sep 9 event was no different. We are now in the ‘post-event critique’ phase with every element of the launch event being analysed. Herewith my unsolicited views on the event and the reactions thus far:

Was Apple better off under-promising and over-delivering?

One of the comments prior to the event was that Apple is making a mistake by hyping the event. Over the past few months, Apple paid a minimal role in the hype through stray comments by executives in interviews. The media & tech blogs were in their usual shrieky best. However, after the cryptic official invited went out, Apple began to tease, with a countdown on its site, live blog and granting access to ABC for exclusives. I too felt that Apple is better off remaining silent and letting others do the talk and simply launch the much-anticipated products: the good old ‘under promise, over deliver’ mantra of expectation management. On hindsight, what John Kirk of Techpinions said makes sense: maybe Apple had to create the hype to bring their announcements (payment mechanism, watch) into the mainstream. In smart watches, up until now, most of the competition has attracted a small niche of gadget freaks & health fanatics. In my view, Samsung’s wearable launches (seven in all?) was driven by the desire to beat Apple to the market and imbue leadership stance to their brand in this category. Yet, it is Apple’s entry into the category which gets everyone excited. Apple’s track record of taking something existing, re-imagining it and creating a huge market out of it, is also at play here. So it seems imperative for Apple to get everyone excited about this nascent category. Look what happened to smartphones in the seven years since the iPhone launch.

The snafu on live streaming made: disappointing, inexcusable

One cannot brush aside the glitches of live streaming as ‘these these things happen in tech’. Getting things to work well and attention to detail have been hallmarks of the Apple brand. So to experience glitches during such a widely-followed event was disappointing for the Apple fan, though such glitches will be forgotten soon and will not do long term damage to the brand. Apple has come out of even bigger fiascos – e.g Apple Maps.

Has Apple become a follower brand?

This is another favourite topic of both tech and marketing pundits. Traditionally, the first to market a product or create an innovation is the leader and those who copy the product or feature become followers. Logical enough. Unfortunately, neither consumers nor businesses care for such labels. Good businesses will take decisions which they think is right for their consumers and for the company’s bottom line (note, not market share alone). Consumers in turn, will patronise brands which they like for whatever reasons they assign – price, quality, feature set they want, availability, feel-good, utility etc. A huge part is also played by the emotional brain; it is not just rational reasons which guide our decisions. As Prof Baba Shiv of Stanford Business said, ‘the rational brain is good at rationalising what the emotional brain has already decided’. In this context, labels like ‘follower’, ‘leader’ are academic. Some companies choose to take these labels seriously and take corrective measures. Samsung may have been riled by the constant ‘fast follower’ tag in the telecom segment (it worked in terms of garnering market share, mind share and profits though) and that may have guided their choices in wanting to be first with the wearables. Most great brands end up becoming leaders as a consequence of some of their actions – it is not just a goal.

As many others have said, Apple has built its successes on re-imagining a current product (mouse, the Mac GUI, iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad have all followed this pattern). The goal is never to be the first. Sure, they have taken flak for it – especially with feature sets in iOS which were already available on Android. But I don’t think Apple’s management spends sleepless nights worrying if they are followers or leaders. So my answer to the question is, ‘it doesn’t matter’. I think Apple has a leadership stance in the way it re-imagines things in a category. The touch interface, pinch & zoom and apps which we take for granted today was first seen on Apple products. Such innovations create the perception of a leader among a significant section of consumers.

For the last time, please stop this ‘Apple sells its poor-value products because of hype’ nonsense

Among all the anti-Apple rants that rile me, the biggest one is this: ‘Apple fans are fools who part with their money easily just because it is made by Apple’. Prominent among the barbs are the terms, iSheep and ‘reality distortion field’. Sadly, such comments come from those in the branding industry too (brand management, media, creative, marketing & advertising) from whom one would expect an understanding of consumer behaviour. I also feel that such comments come from people who don’t really understand the Apple brand and it’s history; their view of Apple is limited to what has happened in the last one year. Essentially what is being told is that a consumer is a moron for making a brand choice which is different from yours, largely based on the misplaced ‘I am paying less for the same features’ theory.

Most consumers want to spend their money wisely and are unlikely to have money to just throw around. But the simple fact is, there is a market for everyone. A traveler may choose a 2-star hotel based on his expectations and what he can afford. Someone else may choose a luxury brand for an entirely different set of reasons. Both offer a room to stay and a bed to sleep in. Who is to judge either of them? It is not always about a list of features that clinch a sale. Intangibles matter; especially when lifestyle, fashion choices are involved. In Apple’s case its designs, finish, attention to detail, the hardware-software combination, simplicity attract a certain type of audience. And that approach is an unqualified success – just see Apple’s bottom line.

Similarly, even in the handset category (strictly speaking, Apple is not in the handset category as it what it offers is the combined package of hardware & software) there is a market for everyone. Apple has chosen to ignore the price & bargain hunter and go after the premium-paying audience. In the category, other brands are trying this approach too, not just Apple.

The ‘we have had this for years argument’ only makes competing brand users happy about their choice

Another element which appears like clockwork with every Apple announcement is the ‘we have always had this before, this is nothing new’ argument. When Apple introduced Touch ID, I remember someone claiming that this fingerprint reading existed in some other obscure phone model. Ditto with everything else. The iPhone 6 features have been around since 2012, apparently. There is an element of too-clever-by-half in these comparisons which conveniently forget Apple’s own features which are not available elsewhere or its ecosystem advantages. The larger point is that such comparisons are meant to create dissonance among Apple product owners but mostly fail to do so. In an earlier post, I had said: the anti-Apple ads of Samsung, be it the print ad or the TV spot do two things, according to me: (a) warm the cockles of the Android fan and makes him or her glad that Apple is being beaten with a stick (b) provide content that can travel across platforms, channels and provide more ammunition for flame wars.

In my view, such comparisons make the competing brand owner feel good about his choice and reinforces his self perception of a smart buyer. It does not move the needle as far as the Apple loyalist is concerned. Second, it appeals to a certain mindset which is not going to be swayed by the intangible benefits of buying an Apple product.

More in Part 2 of this post.

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