Surviving Success

July 19th, 2010

Apple is taking a beating, even while at its most victorious.

After the launch of the iPhone 4, a well-designed device with one easily-demonstrable flaw, the company is losing its famous control over the emphasis of press coverage. Apple is typically brilliant at walking the line between humility and pomposity, adjusting its tone to suit the current situation.

When Apple was suffering in the late 1990’s, it played to historic core values with campaigns like “Think Different,” but held on to the sliver of confident superiority that helps to sell its brand. Now that it’s on top of the world, it tends more toward a triumphant strut, with just a dash of idealism. Recent blunders paint the company as both arrogant and user-hostile, two attributes that incite pundits to attack without mercy.

Nobody likes a sore winner. Whatever the fight, struggle, ambition, the odds are good that judgement will be harshest on the one who emerges victorious. Anybody who ever received an A+ on an exam in grade-school, only to have the teacher publicly celebrate it among classmates, knows that success turns you into a target. Surviving that success requires careful management of one’s own image, as perceived by the audience that was most invested in the outcome.

Imagine you’ve just achieved something incredible. Bystanders will react with one of three reactions: praise, indifference, or scorn. You can ignore the majority, who don’t care a whit one way or another. Your fate will be decided by the passionate minority, so you must inspire fans to be more passionate and tireless than detractors. A small, energized core of supporters can outlast even a large, committed group of critics. At its best, Apple inspires passionate users to identify more with the company’s egalitarian rhetoric than with the billions of dollars that are flowing into the company’s bank accounts. (The billions are pretty inspirational to stockholders, however).

Apple makes fantastic products that are, by and large, defect free. In my opinion, they deserve to win. I applaud the company, and in particular, its employees. As the years go by, almost every part of the company seems to be improving. They routinely launch new products that stun and delight us with a combination of obviousness-in-hindsight, and that futuristic “Apple magic.” Kudos to them.

Apple is also brilliant at public relations. They produce beautiful, inspiring advertisements. Their web content strikes the balance of confidence and customer-centric humility. And their rank-and-file employees show off their passion for the company in email lists, internet fora, and on Twitter. But at the height of success, the fact that critics are gaining the upper hand is evidence that the company is failing to control its image.

Most of Apple’s recent PR gaffes trace back directly to Steve Jobs. His famous arrogance was exactly what the company needed while it restored itself to, and then surpassed, its former glory. During Apple’s recovery, detractors belittled and dismissed Apple as an “also-ran” company, suggesting they should give up and yield to the obvious victories of companies like Dell and Microsoft. But Jobs ignored the critics and spoke to the fans, inspiring us to stand by and loudly defend Apple.

Now that Apple is on top again, Jobs seems to be losing that knack for inspiring fans. He’s turning into a sore winner. He defensively chides his own customers for holding their iPhone 4 “the wrong way.” He tersely defends questionable Apple practices in one-liner email responses. He spins the truth in that barely plausible manner that used to be celebrated as the “reality distortion field,” but now comes off as purposefully dishonest and manipulative.

I believe Jobs is an idealist product visionary who wants the best for Apple and for its customers. But he’s lost his ability to manage his own image, and thus the image of the company. Apple’s PR department is in charge of manipulating how the company is perceived, but their efforts are being drowned out by the live-wire personality at the helm of the ship. Jobs needs to quiet down now and let cooler heads speak. No more arrogant, terse email replies. No more defensive press conferences. No more snarky interview quips. Just chill out and try to get your groove back.

At his best, Steve Jobs is a brilliant, inspirational spokesman for the company. At his worst, he is the pompous winner who begs to be taken down a notch. Jobs is the kid who, having been celebrated for the A+ exam grade, reacts by chiding his classmates: “You all are a bunch of idiots.” Fans lose their faith, detractors gain momentum. This guy’s in for a rough victory.

This entry was inspired by Michael Tsai’s Tone.

12 Responses to “Surviving Success”

  1. Kevin Hoctor Says:

    This post is spot on. Well done Daniel.

  2. Warren P. Says:

    I don’t think Apple has yet begun to take all the flack it is going to take over the Apple Developer Agreement, and their lockdown on third-party language technologies OTHER than ObjectiveC.

    But the market is open, and people will go elsewhere if someone else, anybody can begin to make a product that doesn’t completely suck. Color me cynical because I think Windows 7 will fail to make a dent in the iPhone juggernaut.

    I am not a non-critical fanboy. I think you’ve nailed this on the head. Well said.

    But Apple still makes a good product, and at the end of the day, that’s where the dollars go. Ironically, it takes a team of highly skilled engineers at apple to make the engineering of all the various aspects of this device as good as is humanly possible. But any teenage kid can tell you that the iPhone is “cool”, and that just about everything else is crap, by comparison. Why is it so easy to tell, while it’s so hard to do the product design right, do you think?


  3. Warren P. Says:

    I meant to say “Windows Phone 7”. Left the word “Phone” out. :-)


  4. Doug Adams Says:

    Good read. Well said.

  5. Preston Says:

    I don’t think Apple comes off as any more or less arrogant than any other company, nor are there practices and more or less “questionable.” Apple just gets more flack because they’re on top.

  6. Blad_Rnr Says:

    You make some very valid points. But as a long-time Mac user, I see very few tech pundits, who, having grown up using WIndows 95, ever really gave/give Apple a chance. Apple Mac users were always 2nd class citizens. We still are to most people who work in IT. Apple has never been liked in the IT world. Remember how the tech pundits railed against the iPhone when it was about to come out, begging people not to buy it? They hated something they had never used while it was clearly so revolutionary. I believe MSFT was behind the storm, paying many of them to belittle it.

    Yet look at how much negative press Ballmer rarely gets. Even with no hits to speak of and the disaster known as Vista he still got a pass. It will take years for people to see who the real innovator is, and in the enterprise, they will still lay laurels at MSFT’s feet. It’s just the way it is.

    Apple has done the unbelievable in the last ten years. It is the consumer who has seen what Apple can do clearly while the IT sector pitifully allows Apple products onto their networks. Jobs may be arrogant, but he has class, vision, drive and design sense that no other tech company will ever have. The whole iPhone 4 fiasco is not making a dent in sales, so at this point I don’t really care, and neither should Jobs/Apple. Three million iPhone 4s in 22 days? Doesn’t appear anyone else cares either.

  7. Ölbaum Says:

    … two attributes that incite pundits to attack without mercy.

    Since when do pundits need excuses to attack Apple without mercy? They”™ve been doing it for years with no reasons whatsoever.

  8. haineux Says:

    Apple has always had self-proclaimed Zealots that become irate whenever Apple announces ANYTHING because it isn’t EXACTLY what they think they want, instantly, and free.

    The more-mainstream media, desperate for readers, adopted the mantra “Report the Controversy.”

    “Smug” Company + Hit Product with Achilles Heel = Ad sales JACKPOT.

    This pushes Apple to have a press conference with a detailed explanation of a complex problem — blogged INSTANTLY to a bunch of impatient Zealots saying things like “HEY HURRY UP WITH THE FREE STUFF!!!”

    When Apple DID announce the free cases, Zealot reaction was “THAT’S IT? LAME!!!one” Not much of a surprise there, but I think this response partially comes from Jobs’s penchant for “Just one more thing.”

    And here’s my “one more thing:” Apple spent too much time saying other phones having the same problem. Whining is never attractive.

  9. Singer Says:

    No investigative reporting and bloggers reacting to poor press. As engineers we look to the use case. No one and I mean no one holds any phone to their ear in the manner that would bring about signal attenuation on the iPhone 4.

    All phones have an issue, and the area that needs to be avoided depend on the particular phones design. Some manufacturers put a label directly on their phone to signify the area, others write it in their supplied user manuals. But, even a little bit of due diligence on the part of the press and the blogging community would have brought this out before Apple did their press conference.

    Let’s not make this an issue of personality. Picking on people is never good form. Especially in the absence of legitimate critical review.

  10. Tim Moore Says:

    Great post! It gave me a funny idea. This is ranging into wacko conspiracy theory territory, but it’s fun to think about.

    For at least the last decade, Apple has been Steve Jobs, at least in the public mind and especially in the media. When rumors were swirling about his health problems, it became common folk wisdom that the company could never survive his departure. This type of sentiment can become a self-fulfilling prophecy — even if the company is well-situated to continue operationally once Jobs retires, if shareholders lose confidence it could be disastrous, for the company and for Jobs’s personal wealth.

    At the same time, I find it hard to believe that someone who has made his career out of being so calculating, observant, and critical would go over the top and allow his arrogance to get the better of him. Now. After all he’s been through.

    What if Jobs is intentionally assassinating himself? Trying to build up enough ill will towards himself as a person that when he finally does leave Apple, probably in not too many years, the public, the media, and investors are glad to see him go. It may leave less of a favorable story in the history books, perhaps, but he’ll still walk away with a big pot of gold.


  11. C Bedard Says:

    I tend to agree with Singer up there: Please remove the guy’s personality from the equation. If you’re giving him that much power over your life, you seriously need to re-evaluate your value system.

    People talk about Jobs as if he held some kind of power on society, some form of responsibility akin to that of a goverment or even a God. It’s as if Apple owed people something more than making consumer products.

    If you bought an Apple product and are dissatisfied with it, ask for a refund and remember it next time you make a purchase decision and get on with your life.

    I think Jobs, while passionate about the company he runs, also recons that Apple is simply a tech company doing its best to make good tech products.
    And that’s precisely why you feel he’s treating everybody as idiots. Whatever he says remains (as it should) on the customer relationship level, while you expect him to make miracles because you’ve turned yourselves into worshippers. And whenever he says something that doesn’t answer your prayers, of course, you feel cheated.

    So yes, please do take him down a notch. Apple makes tech devices. You find them useful and buy them or you don’t. Let’s keep it at that.

  12. James Anthony Campbell Says:

    I’m curious, do you own an iPhone 4. I got mine in the mail the first day. I haven’t been able to reproduce the ‘flaw’ even while death gripping the phone. Steve also said this on stage and showed everyone that he couldn’t do it either. The whole issue was blown out of proportion by the viral nature of the social web. He rightly ridiculed everyone IMO.

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