Why Apple Is Losing Its Aura

The company’s recent disappointments have undermined the engagement users have had with the brand, marking a shift away from building community to making money, argues Bruce Nussbaum.

The last time I wrote about Apple was in the fall of 2012, just after the stock crossed $700 per share to make it the most valuable corporation in the world. I was finishing the last draft of my book and just about everyone was predicting Apple would soon go to $1,000 and probably much higher. Apple had a certain glow, an "aura" about it that few other companies had. That aura now appears to be fading. A similar glow has already left Nokia, RIM, HP, and Kodak. Unless top management changes course soon, it will fade from Apple as well.

When Apple was at the top, people explained its aura in many ways. Apple could design to "delight." It provided great "experiences." The company combined both software and hardware. It has a unified "ecosystem." It offered a "family" of products. Apple had devoted "fanboys" and a "community" of developers. Its products and solutions were elegant, beautiful. Apple reflected the halo of its charismatic founder, Steve Jobs.

I never bought into the "delight" argument. Designing for "delight" was too amorphous and shallow. The concept of the "experience economy" doesn’t work today, either. Experience is too passive a concept in an era of active engagement, and Apple’s success centers on participation. The ideas of ecosystem and integrating hardware and software are an engineer’s explanation of process. My students at Parsons laughed at them and asked, "Where is the emotion?" They are right. Explanations for Apple’s success pointing to "community" and "family" made more sense to me. And ever since I draped myself over a Ferrari at a design conference party and declared my "product lust" for it, tactile beauty has been a powerful explanation for success to me, even during the era of design thinking.

I’d like to suggest that Apple’s aura—and the concept of aura in general—involves more than "glow" or a reflection of qualities. Aura is the power of engagement, and it is this engagement in an age of social media that is the measure of a product and a company’s success. Today, aura is more important than the notions of need, experience, user focus, or even empathy. When we talk about "sticky," or "engaged consumers," we are trying to get to something deeper and richer, something that involves lust, love, and obsession. Aura.

More Than A Lusty Glow

What is the nature of auratic power? Start with a thing that beckons you. Walter Benjamin, of course, talked about how beautiful art beckons and holds the viewer in place. The face-to-face engagement with aesthetic beauty in painting, sculpture, and live performance connects people in a way, he argued, that cannot be replicated mechanically. Aura can’t be associated with technology or commoditized or sold in a mass market. In this definition, aura is a glow emanating from a traditional object that pulls us in and keeps us there. Jobs and Jonathan Ive’s focus on aesthetic perfection for Apple products fits this idea of aura. The physicality and tactility of Apple products is certainly key to their having an aura.

But there is more to "aura" than aesthetic semblance and more to Apple’s aura. In her essay "Benjamin’s Aura," the University of Chicago professor, Miriam Bratu Hansen, writes that we have reduced Benjamin’s concept of aura "to a cult of beautiful semblance" and a "pocket version" of aura, as she puts it. There is, however a big aura, an aura with a capital A. Six years before his 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Benjamin wrote: "First, genuine aura appears in all things, not just in certain kinds of things, as people imagine." In "On Hashish" (yes, hashish), Benjamin says that aura is not limited to aesthetic beauty but applies to everything. It is a far deeper concept than "halo," Hansen says. The simulated aura that comes with mass production can have enormous power. It is this larger, simulated aura, which I prefer to simply identify as Aura that applies to Apple and other companies such as BMW, Nike, and Coca Cola.

What are the elements of Aura and Apple’s Aura in particular? Engagement and community are perhaps the most critical. "The aura is a medium that envelops and physically connects and thus blurs the boundaries between subject and object, suggesting a sensory, embodied mode of operation," says Benjamin. This is crucial. We lose our individual selves in something larger that is meaningful to us. Aura reveals values to us that we didn’t think existed but recognize and welcome. It sends out messages and signals and communicates to us—and we respond. We become part of something else that then defines us. If this sounds like our old-fashioned notions of brands, it is something very close. Great brands have huge auratic power. And Aura also sounds like mass social movements—for good or bad.

Aura provides tools to participate and engage. This is very important. Aura helps us create our own identities within the community of engagement. Without the tools, there can’t be active and constant engagement. There can’t be the creativity or the connection associated with aura. Those tools have to be easy to use, intuitive. And they have to evolve over time, giving us ever-changing opportunities to engage and deepen our involvement. This is why Apple’s iTunes and apps are so important. It’s why the seamless integration of software and hardware is critical. It’s the reason why moving to the cloud is embraced by people. It’s the promise of Siri allowing us to communicate, connect, and create naturally. It’s not about "ease of use" but "ease of engagement."

Aura also provides rituals. We mark our deep relationships with predictable ceremonies and promises of surprise. Steve Jobs’s annual on-stage "reveal" of new products played that role. The opening of Apple products in well-designed boxes does the same. And the rituals of shopping and buying in Apple stores, deliberately designed to be different and pleasing, is critical.

Apple, of course, also gives us traditional physicality and aesthetics in the tactility of its products and the touch-screen mode of our communicating with them. For two decades or so, corporations shifted away from "things" to "services" and "thinking" and "monetizing," but Apple stayed with making beautiful stuff that felt good in the hand. The "fit and finish," the glass and aluminum, the size and shape of its products added to the company’s Aura. Now Amazon (with its Kindle), Google (with its glasses), and others are following.

Finally, Aura is often associated with charisma. It is the charismatic figure that personifies and makes possible all the elements of Aura. It is the charismatic figure that people identify with and hope to emulate. They have high expectations for this leader but are forgiving of sins if they are acknowledged and changed. Jobs played that role, in close association with Ive and a small team of incredibly creative people who worked with him for many years.

This Aura, this combination of elements that beckon us to Apple and compel us to stay, is the generator of its economic value. This emotional engagement, not simply the number of iPhones sold worldwide, is the real value of the company. Looking at Apple’s value through the concept of aura allows us to move beyond the technology and the units sold to place the company’s economic value within a social context from which it is derived. If you don’t understand the auratic power of engagement, you can’t understand Apple or modern capitalism.

Love Becomes Anger Really, Really Fast

Which is why the erosion of Apple’s Aura is so threatening to the company. This erosion appears to be widespread. The utter disaster of Apple Maps and problems with the latest version of iTunes disconnects the community and puts barriers between the "object" and the "subject" of Aura. There is no beckoning in bad products and no desire for losing the self in belonging by the consuming audience. Selling bad products is a betrayal of the Apple community and turns users’ strong emotions from love into anger. Who wants to identify with incompetence, rather than cool? This undermines the emotional engagement people have with the company.

The shift in Apple’s narrative frame from awe to money is changing the meaning of belonging, a crucial ingredient of Aura. Instead of new and wonderful things that make our lives better, we hear constant talk of share prices, cost of iPhones, and price points in the "globalization" of products. Charging for the iCloud introduces a tax to belonging to the community. And cutting costs by threatening to fire the competent and friendly staff in Apple stores—the physical "face" of Apple to its followers—marks a distancing of the company with its followers. Apple once provided an optimistic, modern, creative existential meaning to its customers, who wanted to belong and were willing to pay extra to get into the community. But now it’s as if Apple has set out to break the bonds that connect it to its community.

Perhaps one answer lies in the end to charisma, the breakup of the creative team, and the commodification of creativity. The incrementalism that we now see in Apple products and the push to sell as many units in Asia and globally as possible is a dramatic shift from the vision of Steve Jobs. It’s a betrayal in many ways. Jobs had a business strategy that deliberately limited scale in favor of Aura—great engagement, beautiful things, access to tools and content that let you create your own identity.

Under Tim Cook, the charisma is gone and the team, the "band" that worked so well together under Jobs, has scattered forever. Cook doesn’t appear to understand the economic value of Apple’s Aura and is unable or unwilling to maintain that special engagement people feel for its products and its brand. Is it coincidence that the dialogue surrounding Apple has shifted from awe to money since he took over?

I still see evidence of Apple’s Aura around me. On a subway ride recently, I saw a woman huddled over her iPad Mini, so deep into her screen that she appeared one with the machine. She clearly loved it, and had I tried to take it away, I’m betting she would have fought like crazy for it. That’s the power of Aura. If Apple can create a really great new TV engagement for people, it could regain some of that power. Jobs said he left that as a legacy, but where is it?

Apple’s stock recently dipped into the $430s on news of lower sales of the iPhone in China and around the world. That’s one explanation. Another is that the real economic value of the company, its ability to deliver amazing engagements of dazzling wonder and beauty to a passionately committed audience willing to pay high prices for them, is falling. Apple’s Aura is going and the company is simply worth less.

[Image: Apple via Shutterstock]

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  • irevolt

    Steve Jobs Said "Stay hungry and stay foolish". Tim Cook deligated staying hungry to the retail division and the staying foolish to the corporate division.
    Only Steve could have kept the Wall Street mentality from getting it's greedy hands back in charge.

  • JoeR

    I'll be honest, I love well-designed functional stuff that doesn't require a technical degree.  The nice thing about Apple was that for the most part, you could open the box and turn it on and by golly, it worked.  I agree with one of the posters, buying an Apple product is an experience. Even buying an Apple product in a local Best Buy and buying it at the Apple Store are vastly different experiences.  Yiu can unpack the word Aura all you want, but I get it.  Apple products do have Aura
    Apple was cool because quite frankly, Steve Jobs was and he was without a doubt, a visionary which made you feel like the product, even when it didn't work so well was the part of some bigger concept, and so, you were too.  And the stuff looked great. 
    Now, Steve is gone and Tim isn't very cool and I'm not sure he has a vision and if he does no one seems to care. 
    When the product loses it's interest and people, who are not quite as
    stupid as marketers think they are, decide that the product doesn't
    serve any real purpose in their lives- Apple will go away, or they will
    start making TV's or cars or whatever.  At the end of the day, the value
    is established by the consumer.  The store shelves are crowded with
    well-designed junk. 
    Everything has a life cycle.  The real innovation came when Apple started to suck without Jobs vision and it didn't stop until he was gone, or at least the jury is still out on that. This thread sounds a little like a jury.
    Maybe Apple needs to suck again a little to get better.

  • Bryan

    Interesting article. Enjoyed scanning the comments. I'm fairly platform agnostic. I love my Win7 computer, and my iPad as well. I switch from one to the other easily. They both have been durable. I've had problems with both but have been able to figure them out. There are things I can do in Win7 that I can't on the iPad and vice versa. I've used Win8 and love it as well--will likely get a MS Surface running Win8 Pro. What's delightful for me is all of the variety in the world of devices and operating systems. I've never felt a need to be loyal to one or the other. It's all just amazing stuff in my view. I like figuring out what each different approach enables me to do. But I also understand that some folks are fiercely loyal to a product/provider. Articles like this one help me think about why that might be. How people are influenced. Why we become attached to one thing or another. How we form affinity groups. Fascinating stuff.

  • Jeannette Paladino

    I'm one of the people who has lost her love for Apple. I bought the iPhone 5 on the first day and it's been terrible since then. Three visits to the Genius bar, a restore of my software and other "fixes" have not fixed the problem of the disappearing battery. The battery life of the iPhone 5 is ridiculously short. I've disabled all the automatic updates and operate the old-fashioned 3G. Why haven't more tech writers highlighted this issue which is not unique to me. 

  • Jon M

    "I still see evidence of Apple’s Aura around me. On a subway ride recently, I saw a woman huddled over her iPad Mini, so deep into her screen that she appeared one with the machine. She clearly loved it, and had I tried to take it away, I’m betting she would have fought like crazy for it. That’s the power of Aura." 
    Actually it's just that you can't really be any further away from the screen when you're on the subway at peak time. She was lucky not to have her face in someone's armpit instead.Also she'd probably let you take it, then go to the police. You maniac.

  • Dan

    I would think that aura like beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    If so, stating it as a question rather than as a fact would have been much more honesy.

  • Macrina Aivazian

    The one thing that still separates Apple from its competitors is their customer service and it's enough to still keep me loyal.

  • Daniel du Toit

    To be compeditive you have to stay compeditive. Rival companies are offering what Apple had, and bettering them in design, hardware and software.

    The premise is shifting from an aura of acceptance in the greater powers that govern our gagets, to the people demanding their experience...and in escence, that is where the Apple fell from the tree.

    Competition breeds innovation. To not compete, and to rely on the premise of a name is to set the stage for failure.

  • Paul B

    My Samsung Galaxy S3 just died during warranty period. $650 usd phone - like Apple's iPhone - no warranty, plain *rude* customer service from Samsung. I ended up paying  200 usd for fixing it during warranty. Nooow... in Apple they've NEVER treated me like that. Just going back to Apple. Besides Android is just counter-intuitive and their phone is cheap plastic with no support. To charge the same price as Apple? Wow! That's bold. And worked once. Never again Samsung. You're good in commodity $20 a piece phones. Stay away from smartphones, you just too weak for that.

  • eye+untitled

    Why is it that every time I read an article about Apple it simply copy-paste-reword what 100 other "analysts" wrote.

    Simply stay quiet and observe and be patient, this bashing and hating doesn't make anything go round.

    Concerning Apple products they are awesome, yes they have flaws like everything else in this world but it is still limited in the flaws that it does have. I have been using my MacBook pro for more than 4 years now, I have graduated with it and working professionally on it and it doesn't seem a day old, I even had the misfortune of it falling from my bag and diving a full 3 feet onto concrete and the only real harm to it is the tiny bend to the upper right corner and a few scratches; when it comes to laptops this is one tough mother, I dare anyone to do the same with any other laptop and not have the screen or HDD completely worthless afterwards. It has not failed on me once, the only technical aspect I care for it is to re-format the HDD every 6 months or so to simply have a new set-up.

    Simply, stop hating what you have or don't have.
    Grow up and see the brighter things in life.

  • TheoDusko

      Did you read the article? There was absolutely no 'hating' in it. The article was about how the experience of buying and owning Apple products has changed (lost its aura, as he puts it) since Tim Cook took over the company. He doesn't say Apple products are crap, he just says that most of the discussion about and from Apple has shifted from providing a unique user experience and a sense of community among Apple users to talk of money and share prices and what this means in regards to people's attitude toward the company. It's about how their 'aura' has faded thanks to poor business decisions made in recent years (notably since Steve Jobs died) I don't think that anybody would deny that the company has lost some of its appeal (sales figures and general public attitude show this anyway). The products are good, definitely top quality (like you say), but they just don't 'glow' like they used to since the focus of the company has shifted.

    I think a good example is the iPhone 5. It was a bit of a let down to everyone I know who upgraded from the iPhone 4S. Not because it was a bad phone, but because people expected Apple to lead the trend in the industry, and on that release, they ended up behind the competition. They have a phone that looks like a longer version of their old phone (as opposed to the big design change from the round, plastic iPhone 3GS to the straight edged, glass and aluminum 4) and offered nothing really new except that it was lighter and (indiscernibly) quicker. What does the iPhone do now that other phones can't do? Where is the customer experience focused innovation from Apple? They used to be guided by a man who was capable developing and integrating innovative features and ideas into their software, hardware and retail experience that the buyer didn't even realize they coveted yet. To make it even better, soon afterwards these ideas become something that Apple adopters could (rightfully) accuse other companies of copying. Digital personal assistants (Siri), the tablet PC, touchscreens, netbooks. All of these are things that were made massively popular by Apple back in their glory days. But for the last few years I just don't feel that they have their finger on the customer's pulse.

  • Blah...

    Apple started to suck when they tried to turn their laptops into hand helds.  It's a computer, Apple, not a phone.  All the new young dumb geniuses are screwing up what made apple great.  No DVD drive?  Dumber...

  • Danny77_

    I've had my MBP since 3 years now and I've used the DVD drive not more than five time, and I'm a hevy user. Come on...

  • BrianW16

    I feel that Apple has stopped empowering the customer. Mac OS no longer supports PowerPC code. On the latest Macs, you can no longer install software from a DVD or rip your CDs to iTunes. Basically Apple becomes the gatekeeper of all content, and profits from every iota. No thank you. I've used Macs for 25 years, but my next one will be used, it will run Snow Leopard, and it will be my last.