Can We Get a Grip, Please?
So maybe we need some perspective. On the drive home this evening I heard this encomium to Jobs and his marketing prowess on npr and figured it would be worth underscoring just part of the segment. Because while the npr folk - and this was the business groupies at Marketplace - thought they were singing Jobs's praises, they actually revealed what a manipulative genius he truly was:
Making people feel like it cares is exactly why Apple is Apple, says Jen Drexler, a brand analyst at Just Ask a Woman.
Jen Drexler: You joined it. It's like enrolling in college and wearing the sweatshirt. You joined this brand the second you became hooked on one of the products.
Part of it is the cool factor. Drexler says instead of focusing on selling to businesses and targeting the cubicle culture, Mac aimed its products at musicians, filmmakers and visual artists.
Drexler: And then everyone else who has one can feel a little bit of that too. I can tell you I've never done anything creative with mine ever, but I would like to believe people think I do.
And once you buy in to that perception, it's hard to get out. Apple's products have never played very well with others. PC documents won't open on your Mac; your iTunes songs wont load onto your Android phone. All of which creates an aura of superiority, says consumer behavior consultant Britt Beemer.
Britt Beemer: Part of that non-compatibility was kind of a snob appeal Apple also created for its customers.
Beemer points out Apple products also quickly become incompatible with themselves. For instance, if you buy a new iPhone, it won't work with your 4-year-old MacBook Pro. And when you finally break down and buy a new laptop, you will discover it no longer syncs up with your old iPod. At least that's what I hear.
Beemer says this cycle, vicious though it feels, is exactly what Apple's consumers thrive on. The short life span makes Apple products synonymous with what's new and what's cool. Which kind of makes you cool.
Beemer: People discarded an Apple product to get the new Apple product. If you have an Apple product, you always have the latest technology.
Beemer did a series of consumer studies for Steve Jobs back in the '80s. He says even back then, Jobs wanted people to get emotionally attached to their machines.
So, what Jobs did at Apple was to manipulate people into thinking that the company gave a shit about them as something other than sources of income. And once he tapped the consumer's emotions and got he or she to identify with the brand, he regularly updated the product line in ways that extracted money from said consumer on a regular basis - and, by the way, relied on planned obsolescence that is wholly non-sustainable and so environmentally reprehensible. The result? Under the illusion of being "cool" consumers made Apple successful and Jobs filthy rich. That was his job and he did it exquisitely well. Case in point? The consumer and investor disappointment just this week when Apple failed to announce the iPhone 5 and updated only to the 4S!
What is perhaps most pathetic about this dynamic is this inference. If Jobs managed to get consumers to buy into the "cool cult," what they are engaged in now - complete with votive candles and shrines at the mall - might be interpreted less as mourning Jobs than as expressing anxiety about the source of their own coolness. The brand - and so their identity - is under threat and that must make them uneasy. Right? Uncharitable maybe, but not implausible.
I'll end with a comment on visuals. I have seen the image above numerous times today. And once I heard the Marketplace story this evening, I began to ponder Jobs the manipulative genius.
Manipulation, after all, is not an admirable practice. It consists in my influencing you in some way behind your back, taking you unawares, exploiting your lack of information, your guilelessness, or your emotional proclivities. That made me view the image above in a less friendly and somewhat sinister light. And it brought to mind these images - of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich - making me wonder if indeed we have failed to locate Steve Jobs in the proper frame just yet.
This last comparison might seem to be a stretch. But, after all, one crucial feature of the Jobs strategy was to segment the market, keeping Apple products (and hence their users) from interacting outside the brand. A profitable strategy, no doubt. But remember - one common symptom of an abusive personal relationship is that one party tries systematically to isolate the other from contact with family and friends outside the relationship so as to create and sustain a heightened emotional dependency. That is what I think of this evening as I see pictures of distraught consumers mourning at Apple stores.
P.S.: The Marketplace folk offered this mea culpa today following an onslaught of outraged cult members. There is not much in the listener complaints that makes me reconsider the post. I explain why in the comment thread below.
P.S.2 (10/8/2011): I would recommend this short piece over at The Gawker for those tempted to the cult of St. Steve. I am less concerned that the guy could be a jerk on a personal level - lots of people fit that description - even though harassing and insulting subordinates in the workplace is pretty much inexcusable. And I do not deny the opening comments about his talents and impact on industry and so forth. But the bit on labor conditions and the environmental impact re: Apple production and, of course, the bits about restricting free expression are in keeping with what I initially wrote. Sometimes, it seems, Jobs was not just manipulative - in the sense of exercising influence behind people's backs - and was instead willing to simply exercise power blatantly for his own purposes.