In 2011, struggling department store chain J.C. Penney hired the guy who was behind the Apple stores. He applied the same principles that had made Apple’s geek chic boutiques some of the most profitable retail spaces on Earth. He installed the denim equivalent of Genius Bars. He stopped the yoyo-ing prices of spot sales and coupons. What could possibly go wrong? Well, J.C. Penney lost $1 billion. On April 6, he was pushed out of the company. The activist investor who brought him on board claimed that the ex-Apple staffer’s mistakes had brought J.C. Penney "very close to a disaster."
So much for all those "five ways you can be as successful as Apple" articles that have been churned out over the past few years. In the arm-waving world of design and business writing, it’s been almost a rule that you have to use Apple as an example to make a point about anything.
Everybody, it seems, wants to be Apple. The company’s alumni have been hired in high-profile jobs at Dell and Hewlett Packard. HP did some nice ads, reminiscent of the "What’s on your Macbook?" campaign. Dell produced a laptop that resembled a MacBook Air—until you picked it up and slipped a disc. In spite of those hires, Dell and HP remain, well, Dell and HP.
Employing Oompa Loompas won’t turn you into Willy Wonka, then. But it doesn’t stop a lot of people aspiring to replicate the magic of Mr Jobs’s chocolate factory. If you work in design or innovation or advertising, you’ve probably been in a meeting where somebody says, "We want to be the Apple of toilet paper," or whatever industry they happen to be in. Most times, we smile and jot down some words to the effect that this is a sane and reasonable goal.
But really it’s not. Of course we should try to learn from successful companies. But Apple is a particularly hard company to learn anything from. Here are a few reasons why you might be better off just trying to do your own thing, rather than being, "the Apple of" whatever.
Kate Moss and Queen Elizabeth are two of the great iconic figures of our time. Both are instantly recognizable, insanely popular, fabulously wealthy, and almost completely silent. Sure, the queen makes some staged speeches in public reading off little index cards. Kate says some baffling things on Rimmel ads. We all know they’re just mouthing their lines. But every time they appear, people far more clever and articulate than they are read all kinds of things into what they wear, where they go, and what they have for breakfast.
Apple is the corporate equivalent of the queen. It rides past in its golden carriage, it gives you a little smile and wave, reads some words off a teleprompter, and then disappears. It’s a cipher. A blank sheet of paper. So when you read about Apple, you’re actually reading somebody’s guess about what Apple thinks. What can you learn from this? Stop reading about the queen, Kate Moss, and Apple. Apart from the next few hundred words, obviously. This is the last article you may ever have to read about Apple.
Management gurus who reverse engineer Apple’s go-to-market strategies tend to look upward into the sky and point at the glittering stars. They conveniently ignore the smoking remains of Apple’s failures lying around their feet. This is called "survivor bias." Be careful of it.
Apple’s commitment to integrating hardware, operating systems, and software has been hailed as the reason it’s been able to create a glistening and slick user experience. It was also cited as the reason they almost went bust in the ’90s.
Then there’s Apple’s consistent failure to understand what people want under their televisions, from the Pippin game console to Apple TV. Presumably the same decision processes that produced the iPhone and iPad also created MobileMe, Ping, and the bizarre Frankenstein mess that is iTunes. When companies neglect to research the needs of their customers, they often use Apple as an excuse. Apple’s approach has failed as often as it worked. Perhaps if its designers had spent more time with couch potatoes, they’d already dominate our living rooms. J.C. Penney, it turns out, "barrelled ahead with no testing of ideas." How’d that work out, Mr. Penney?
If you try to copy Apple, how can you be sure you’re making the next iPad, and not the next Newton?
Strategy guys have been asking an awkward question recently. Does strategy really exist? Sure, companies and other groups start out with some goals and a few ideas about how to achieve them. But strategies are always works in progress. There are mistakes and course corrections. If Apple had conceived of iTunes as a hub for an ecosystem of content, apps, and devices, they probably wouldn’t have called it iTunes.
Learning guru Don Schön once described design as, "An intimate conversation with the situation, by committed and knowledgeable people in constant search of improvement." To put it less politely, success might come from smart people making stuff up as they go along, and getting some of that stuff right.
The thing we call strategy might just be the stories those smart people tell about it afterward on the book and TED circuit. In which case, there might not even be a whole lot you can learn from Apple, or anybody else.
Mark Twain once said that the greatest swordsman in England isn’t afraid of the second-greatest swordsman. He knows what that guy is going to do. A great swordsman is afraid of the peasant who comes at him swinging a rake; he has no idea what’s going to happen next. Apple’s marketing and design strategy has beaten companies like HP and Dell that took them on at their own game, creating ads that fetishized their products.
But Samsung has come at Apple with a very different approach. It didn’t try to beat Apple with a better product. They came out swinging a rake. Samsung out-advertised and out-distributed Apple. Instead of selling products, it’s run a brilliant image-building campaign straight out of the Nike or Adidas playbook.
If you’re the sort of person who reads Co.Design regularly, then like me, you probably read far too much about Apple. And as Apple keeps a Kate Moss-like silence about its activities, little of what you’ve ever read may have any relation to the truth. If you want to be, "the Apple" of your category, you’re dodging the question you really should be asking. How can we do something our customers will love and pay for, and be loyal to? Answer that, and one day lots of people like me will be writing articles about how everybody can be more like you.