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Apple's Lumberjack Problem

July 25th, 2017

  Steve Ellis

Using SoundingBox to help us measure brand resonance, we explore why Apple, widely viewed as one of the best brands in the world, may be losing some of its power.

Apple is widely regarded in the popular business media as one of the best brands in the world. It frequently tops world’s most valuable brand lists. Marketing pundits wax poetic about how its brand is more of a lifestyle, that people buy and pay a premium for Apple products to feel part of a “creative class” of mavericks who “think different.”

The iPhone 7, not unlike mine
Is Apple's minimalist aesthetic part of a larger problem?

On the flip side people love to hate Apple. Just google “why people hate Apple” and you will be treated to dozens of diatribes enumerating all the ways that Apple is perceived to be utterly terrible, that it is overpriced, that its technology is a closed system and hostile to developers, that people who identify with Apple’s image are just sheepish fanboys who ought to get a real computer that you can use for real work.

Considering the vehemence of such distinctions, on the one hand the marketing gurus getting gushy about the world’s most valuable brand, and on the other, a pack of rabid Apple haters, you might conclude that wrapped inside everyone’s identity is toggle switch: Apple lover or hater. The lovers buy the products and feel smug about their creative class status. The haters hate.

Were this to be a real problem, it might not be completely bad for Apple. After all, its probably better to elicit a strong response than no response at all.

I think the reality of Apple’s brand is different though. SoundingBox tells a different story about how Apple’s brand currently might be functioning. Over the last few weeks we measured how people experience 18 of the top retail brands using SoundingBox’s in-house REVERB framework. We recorded how people interacted with the sites and then asked them questions based about their experience immediately after their web browsing.

REVERB measures how people react along six dimensions culled from our own three year study of best practices in measuring user and brand experience. One thing we noticed right away was that Apple didn’t score well relative to nearly every other brand in the set that included one direct competitor (Dell) and a few design-oriented brands like IKEA, which scored quite well.

If the marketing gurus are right and Apple is one of the world's most iconic, meaningful and valuable brands, Apple ought to be at the top of our ranking. Perhaps the polarizing nature of the brand is a cause. Surely haters were pulling down Apple’s scores. We found two problems with this story:

  • If polarizing tribal affinities were pulling Apple’s scores down we should probably see the opposite effect where “Apple people” pulled the score back up somewhere to the middle. This didn’t happen.
  • We searched the open-ended comments for evidence of Apple hatred. There were only a few haters, and not enough to pull the average down so far.

It wasn’t as though people were uninterested in Apple products. They spent roughly the same amount of time browsing the Apple site as they did Dell and Ikea, and appeared to enjoy checking out the cool gadgets. The site didn’t have any usability problems, which is something we often see hurting brands online. Without usability a good brand experience will suffer. But here, the only thing Apple scored well for was for usability, or what our REVERB framework calls ease.

One trend did emerge in what people told us about how the site made them feel, however. More than a few people reported that the site left them feeling rather meh.

Blaise. I know the products are slick but I'm just not interested.
On how apple.com made them feel

One obvious interpretation of all this could be that our sample didn’t include enough likely Apple purchasers, or people with the sense that they could afford an Apple product. It’s a fair criticism perhaps, but isn’t this effect supposed to be exactly what the Apple brand is supposed to cancel out? Apple products have always been more expensive than their PC or Droid counterparts. But that’s not supposed to matter.

We think the data suggests a growing Apple liability, that people are less-than-moved by the brand, and when they are moved, they feel put off by it at best, and in some cases feel vehement dislike. The old stories of “think different” aren’t resonating as much (just think of how religious some people used to be about Apple). It may reflect a broader cultural shift somewhat out of Apple's control. Witness the growing distain of the a hipster creative class, the ridicule of Brooklyn lumberjacks, and how silicon valley has become uncool.

It is interesting to think about how these these cultural explanations connect to design, whether of the website or the products themselves. There’s something distant and less-than-human in the Apple aesthetic, maybe having to do with what happens when designers shoot for luxury or rarity. The Macbook now comes in not one but two shades of gold, after all. To put it another way, the attributes of luxury, and being part of the countercultural hipster creative class, are a bit at odds.

I like my iPhone well enough. But every now and again, I’ll marvel at how if I take it out of the rubber case it normally lives in, it’s shiny, slippery and cold. If I try to hold it without the case, it practically falls out of my hand.