Apple’s silence cedes market narrative to rivals, says expert

Gregg Keizer
16 April, 2013
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Apple’s noted silence has hurt its mystique and caused it to cede the ‘cool’ factor to competitors, says a communications expert.

“It’s what Apple didn’t say that made them so powerful,” says Peter LaMotte, an analyst with Levick, a Washington-based strategic communications consultancy. “They were so silent that it created an entire industry of rumour mongers.”

Now, that silence hinders rather than helps Apple, LaMotte argues. “The Apple mystique protected them from a need to engage in the conversation. But the mystique has worn out. They used to own the ‘cool’ factor. Not anymore.”

LaMotte is reacting to comments made last month by Jean-Louis Gasse, a former top-level Apple executive, who said that Apple had “lost control of the narrative… [and] let others define its story”.

Gasse worked at Apple until 1990, and finished his career with the company as its head of advanced product development and worldwide marketing. He was forced out by then-CEO John Sculley and replaced as head of marketing by Philip Schiller, who still holds that post with the Cupertino, California company.

In turn, Gasse was reflecting on the launch of Samsung’s Galaxy S4 last month – the smartphone will go on sale in the US in late April – and what he saw as a clumsy putdown by Schiller, who knocked the Galaxy S4 for allegedly relying on a year-old version of Android, which in fact was not true.

The episode, Gasse said, reflected poorly on Apple and illustrated how rivals, much less reticent than Apple to toot horns, have commandeered the conversation about mobile. Apple, meanwhile, has remained silent.

Part of that may be timing: Apple has not hosted a product launch event for more than five months, when it introduced the iPad Mini. And its next expected event, the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), is two months away in June.

LaMotte, however, thinks Apple’s problem is more deeply rooted. “I think it really comes down to the fact that Samsung is making a product that is seen by many as comparable in technology to the iPhone,” he says.

Schiller’s attempt to disparage the Galaxy S4 on the eve of its introduction backfired because of Apple’s longstanding reliance on tight lips. “When you have been historically silent, even a few words is a substantial change of philosophy,” says LaMotte.

And people have noticed. Many commentators, including the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, pointed out how unusual it is for Apple to speak up and, because of the timing, interpreted Schiller’s remarks as defensive. Analysts said it showed Apple’s concern about the competition, something it rarely admits even exists.

Apple needs to ditch its longstanding reticence and get in the game, LaMotte says. “We will always recommend that it’s better to be in the conversation than not,” he says. The way it is now, Apple is letting others create the narrative. “If Apple’s not in the back seat, they’re in the passenger seat, and Samsung is driving the car,” says LaMotte.

Apple doesn’t have to be defensive, or take cues from Microsoft, which has run an attack ad-based campaign against Google since late last year, by going negative. But it should do something, LaMotte urges, if only because it’s battling a flood of messages from rivals who use social media, blogs and other outlets in addition to traditional advertising.

“They’re trying to fight off basic social media tactics,” LaMotte says, hinting that such a strategy is futile.

Even its ads, says LaMotte – himself a former ad executive – now take the wrong approach, sticking to products and their features.

“Apple always added to their mystique through their advertising,” he says, but notes that those ads – such as the ‘Get a Mac’ campaign that pitted John Hodgman, playing an always-inept PC, against unruffled hipster Justin Long as a Mac – bolstered Apple’s cultural image more than focused on products. That cultural image – what LaMotte calls its cool factor – has fuelled Apple’s revenue-making machine, he argues.

“Ads should focus on the brand identity of Apple, the cultural attachment that its users have with the brand and the products,” concludes LaMotte.

By Gregg Keizer, Computerworld

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