As an avid follower of the latest and greatest consumer technology, 2019 has already brought us the foldable smartphone and the promise of streaming triple-A games. So when Apple announced their first special event of the year, I was excited for something equally as paradigm-shifting from such a major player of the tech world.
The star-studded event, which included the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Anniston, heralded Apple’s new streaming services, Apple TV+ and a new game streaming service called Arcade. It was an unusual event in that Apple felt very much like they were following the leader. Apple’s perception has always been that of a trailblazer, but this last event showcased nothing new. Subscriptions have proven to be a great source of revenue, so with iPhone sales declining, it makes sense for Apple to move into it. However, as they weren’t showcasing a new product, Apple had to substantiate the event with what came across as a caricature of their signature aspirational storytelling.
Granted, Apple’s storytelling is still top-notch. It continues to be the benchmark by which many brands measure themselves against. But while Tim Cook purports that the customer is at the centre of Apple’s efforts as he closed the event, an analysis of Oprah’s address says otherwise.
She begins with big, blue-sky aspirations. “There has never been a moment quite like this one. We have this unique opportunity to rise to our best selves in how we use... both our technology and our humanity. We’re all at a crossroads where we get to decide if we want to reach beyond the borders of our hearts and minds, to face the daunting challenges of our time.” It’s all positive, empowering emotive language. As she continues, her speech becomes more sermon-like.
"Each of us comes to this Earth for a deep potential that yearns to be fulfilled with love. To be set free. We all crave connection. We search for common ground – we want to be heard, but we also need to listen — to open, be open and contribute in order to harness our hopes and dreams and to heal our division.” At this point, it’s difficult to argue with any of that. And then she drops the (literally) million-dollar line.
“That’s why I have joined forces with Apple”.
And so the event rolls on with celebrity after celebrity coming on stage to sing Apple’s praises. It quickly became apparent that this exercise wasn’t for or about the customer. It was about Apple trumpeting their own horn for how clever they are for finally doing what Netflix has been doing for the past three years. And that’s not to mention their supposed virtue for hosting celebrities like Oprah on their platform.
“Brand humility is the only response to a fast-changing and competitive marketplace. The humble brand understands that it needs to re-earn attention, re-earn loyalty and reconnect with its audience as if every day is the first day.” — Seth Godin (in a recent blog post)
In recent memory, a successful example of a brand that has re-earned the love, attention and loyalty of their audience through storytelling and brand humility is Lego. The Lego Movie had every right to be awful, and the casual moviegoer wouldn’t have demanded, much less expected, anything more than that. To everyone’s pleasant surprise, The Lego Movie turned out to be a fun, sharply-written, critically-acclaimed film enjoyable for kids and adults alike. Released in early 2014, perhaps it was no coincidence that The Lego Group surpassed Mattel to be the world’s largest toy company (by revenue) in the first half of 2015.
It was just a story that incidentally took place in a world made of Lego. Every scene and every beat was designed to serve the story, and the story told was the very essence of the Lego brand itself; that imagination knows no limits, that there is a ‘builder’ within each of us and that you’re never too old to create magic. At a strategic level, The Lego Movie created a world centred around their customers, assuring them that their imaginations and desire to express themselves through their products was recognised and understood.
Contrast this with Apple’s March 2019 Special Event. The customer is not the centre of Apple’s world. Maintaining people’s perception of Apple is the centre of Apple’s world. At least, that’s the impression it gave off. But why wouldn’t they want to maintain the perception Steve Jobs so masterfully cultivated in the 2000s? One reason is complacency. Apple’s last game changer, the iPad, was released in 2010. Since then, it’s only been a steady stream of incremental improvements.
Apple’s ecosystem today is more siloed than ever before. If the customer was truly at the centre, you wouldn’t need a dongle for your dongle to accomplish even the most basic of tasks. It sometimes feels like Apple forgot how it earned its customers’ loyalty to begin with. But that doesn’t stop Apple from reminding everyone why they (still) think they’re so awesome.
Oprah finished her address as strongly as she began – grandiose and profound. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this dream for us all to someday realise the deep potential that we are each born to. It abides in every soul; I know this to be true.”
Her speechwriter deserves a raise.
“And my deepest hope is that we all get to become the fullest version of ourselves as human beings, to join in the mission and vision for our common good. To leave this world more enlightened, kinder and better than we found it and to move together one billion plus strong into a future of our own design.”
“All connected through Apple.”
1. A humble brand doesn’t take the attention, loyalty and connection of its audience for granted. It recognises that in a world of choice, it needs to work hard to retain that loyalty.
2. A brand’s storytelling and actions should align with their brand promise, especially if the latter puts the customer at the centre.
3. More consumers now hold corporations responsible for the ancillary effects of their operations. Brands should be proud of being socially responsible, but shouldn’t be signing their own praises.
4. As Apple’s March 2019 event shows, there is a stark difference between a humble brand and a humblebrag.