At his recent death, Steve Jobs was widely lauded as a business, technology and marketing genius. The success of his company, Apple, and its iGadgets is indisputable. But genius, by its nature, is largely inimitable. What about the rest of us? (To borrow a phrase from an early Macintosh marketing campaign.) What lessons does Jobs offer marketers?
The conventional wisdom on Apples success includes:
- The importance of design and product elegance
- Controlling the whole product through vertical integration
- Ensure a reputation for high quality
- Building cool products
Like most conventional wisdom, these are of little help. You can do all of them and still not succeed. Let’s consider each of these chestnuts.
Many winners of design awards are not winners in the market place. Where are the Palm Pilots and Pet Rocks of a few years ago?
While Apple is more integrated than many companies, it has always borrowed, licensed or bought key parts of its products and has been willing to imitate what it thinks valuable. For example, though known for product design, Jobs hired agencies such Frog Design for the concept of the MacBook portables. Apple tried to develop its own processors, but prospered by abandoning this effort. Instead it became, like many other technology players, “Intel Inside.” Unlike say, IBM, Jobs could not be accused of suffering from a “not invented here” bias.
Quality – schmality. Quality was the cynosure of the IBM PC. Customers, however, became tired of paying for quality alone and stopped paying a premium. IBM took its quality and exited the PC business altogether.
“Cool” products are fine. Most of us would rather market cool than square, but this begs the question of where cool comes from. Most of the shopping list for homes or businesses contains a majority of decidedly uncool items. Some of the “coolest” aspects of products are ones we seldom notice, because they just work. The WiFi and Bluetooth networks, which pipes data to so many Apple products, come to mind.
Jobs did not always have the golden touch. Apples early products ranged from the moderately successful Apple II, to the failed Lisa (there was no market for a $10,000 dekstop), to the never achieved critical mass NeXT “scholars workstation,” to mobileMe, an online service which never gained traction and has been retired in favor of the new free iCloud.
Even the vaunted early Macintosh – “the computer for the rest of us” – was problematic. Despite advantages such as graphics, fonts, mouse, and transportability, it could never achieve more than single digit market share against the clunky PC. At the time, the PC was desk bound with a hard to read 80 column monochrome screen. It could run but one program at a time and print on a grainy dot-matrix printer.
The Mac failed to penetrate its initial target of the general corporate business market, so many early software developers chose not to write programs for it. Apple slogged on, when other companies would have cut their losses. Eventually a market – that of desktop publishing – found it.
From its inception, Apple under Jobs persevered, experimented and improvised as it rapidly evolved. Steve Jobs may be a modern version of the legendary hero Odysseus. Like Odysseus, who struggled against a seemingly limitless series of challenges, Jobs kept at it. Persisting, not by doing the same product, message or campaign but by continually improving and where necessary abandoning. Like Odysseus, he resisted the siren song of “me too,” while striving to define the brand which is his legacy. How much persistence does your marketing have?