How Apple upset the apple cart

Apple’s first post-Jobs as CEO event in October 2011 may have been the most shocking presentation we’ve seen from Apple since Steve Jobs announced a strategic partnership with Microsoft. What with all the hoopla surrounding what Apple could and would do in a post-Jobs era, it was shocking just how overtly the event advanced the narrative that Apple is rapidly advancing into its post-peak years without Jobs.

Let’s break this down into the components where communications, story and symbols were seemingly not designed to allay fears around the post-Steve Jobs, now-Tim Cook era at Apple:

  1. Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Apple didn’t meet expectations. Expectations were certainly for an iPhone 5. Apple’s brand is based around exceeding expectations, and they did not meet this test. Unless there’s a “One More Thing…” event planned very soon, it’s difficult to argue that Apple underwhelmed on the new product front. I just don’t see how else Apple can hit the holiday season with a bang with the “iPhone 4S.” Which brings us to the next item:

  2. 4s. What does the S stand for, Tim? The sport model? Super-speedy? If you’re Apple and you’re going to name something, name it with a purpose. And convey the purpose through a story that people identify with. Make that S matter. Right now, it really doesn’t. Or perhaps the S stands for….

  3. Siri voice control. A very cool technology, and done in a very Apple-esque way. Perhaps this is the hidden gem that Apple is most proud of, and perhaps it is something that should be experienced first hand to really get the gist of. But, Siri? What does Siri mean? Is that my digital butler’s given name? Why all of a sudden is Apple rolling out oddly named technologies vs. descriptive ones? For context, they didn’t name it the MacBook SSD… they named it the MacBook Air.

  4. The introduction of an odd, somewhat folksy side project around making and mailing cards. Neat and cool, and very attractive for a specific demographic or two, but is that what Apple wants to be known for as a brand?

  5. Visually, nothing changed in the presentation style in the event. This one is tricky, because new CEO Tim Cook certainly needed to give the impression that Apple is still Apple, and that Apple is more than Steve Jobs. But the visual design language of the presentations is so strongly linked with Steve, that I (albeit daringly) believe that a small yet meaningful tweak to the design language would have shown us that Cook has his own “juice” that will be pumping through Apple, and that he’s not just a carry-on CEO like so many are concerned about.

While these five components might be interesting and compelling, they did not drive me to write this post. What drove me to write this was one slide Phil Schiller presented at the event:

This single slide signaled to me that Apple is already missing Steve Jobs. How? Let’s count the ways:

  1. The iPhone 4S sits alongside its Android rivals. No special treatment, status nor elevation to visually indicate that the iPhone is nothing more than just another smartphone that you can choose. Whereas Jobs clearly saw the iPhone as something unique and special... and without peer.

  2. The latest and greatest iPhone is merely competitive with its rivals in terms of speed. What an odd frame to advance… why visualize a message in an area where you’re not leading? It kind of looks like Apple is just barely keeping up!

  3. It re-enforces the point that the iPhone is one of the remaining super phones without 4G. Whenever Apple’s technology wasn’t the vanguard, Jobs would expertly pivot by saying that they focus on the experience, not the technical specs.

  4. I think the point of the slide was that the iPhone 4S is going neck-and-neck with 4G phones. But what I see is LG, HTC, Motorola and Apple side-by-side, all about equal.

And I think that last point was the visual that really struck me. Jobs’ vaguely-religious view that Apple’s products were without peer permeated his every message (and every visual). Here and now, with this slide exemplifying the point, what is being shown is Apple seeing itself in the rough and tumble smartphone market, vs. rising above it, elegantly, magically and magnificently beautiful and awe-inspiring.

This Apple also didn’t bother to tell us the story behind the free and $99 iPhone models, and how that will extend world-class user experiences into new audiences that deserve a touch of elegance and magic in their lives.

This represents a seismic difference in brand communications (even if unintentional). Brand managers and communicators, take note. Time will tell if this is a blip or the beginning of a downward shift for the vaunted Apple brand.

[ed: One day after this event, Steve Jobs passed away. Perhaps the folks at Apple deserve a pass if this event wasn’t as stupendous as it could have been, now that the rest of us know Jobs’ condition on the day of the event in retrospect.]

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