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]