5 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Try To Be Apple

Everybody wants to be Apple. But they can’t be, and, Brian Millar argues, that’s not such a bad thing.

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.

1. Nobody knows what Apple is thinking. Possibly including Apple.

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.

2. Beware of survivor bias

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?

3. Can you steal a company’s strategy if strategy doesn’t really exist?

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.

4. Apple gets beaten by companies that Think Different . . .

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.

. . . so Think Different

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.

[Images: TOMAS FANO, Apple Store via Flickr, BRUNO CORDIOLI, Apple IIC via Flickr, MICHAEL FIELITZ, Hallo via Flickr]
Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design (Illustration)

Kelly Rakowski/Co.Exist (Illustration)

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  • hephail

    Apple is not the creative company it was. So even looking at what it is today, is a waste of time. What it used to be, is a design led behemoth showing a different face for each product.
    Sadly, Steve Jobs didn't learn how to create processes, which would keep Apple creative.
    The TV experience would work, only if Apple thought about how it could effectively generate more content for that experience.

  • npekala

    So true.  It takes strategy, a great culture, innovative products and thinking and a really great team to mimic the same kind of success Apple has.  It's perfectly acceptable to hold Apple up as a brand to emulate for the kind of customer loyalty and engagement it generates.....without trying to duplicate everything they do.  Because there's only one Apple...and only one you.

  • Bryphel

    What an excellent article. It's this mind sight that made Apple who they are today. Jobs understood this. Johnson didn't and forged down a road blindly and failed. I know that he learned from the JCP and comes back with a vengeance. Nothing more American than watching the next great comeback. That's why many if us enjoyed watching Apple ascend over the past 20 years.

  • Wushu

    Although I did disagree with giving Samsung a nod for making a business move and not innovation move (see below) in the context of a design site...

    I think the rest of the article has some good points. One being that trying to be like A will guarantee you will never be as good as A. The amount of resources to attain that is inefficient. You have to bring something new to the table.

  • Praveen

    Not Great... Come up with an Article for "5 Reasons why you shouldn't read all the   Articles". This is an example of that. 

  • Anne Herlihy

     I keep reading that the creative attempts to revive JCP are nothing but a cautionary tale. As a consumer, I was just beginning to wake up and take notice of what looked like some pretty fresh ideas. Too bad there is such an emphasis on immediate  results. Much like if a movie fails to "win the weekend", a big and instant
    splash drowns out everything else, and can curtail the natural process of good ideas getting to market. Everyone wants to be Apple because they are strong enough to support their innovations. That's the part that other companies should emulate.

  • Kimberly Crossland

    These are great tips! Too many businesses try hard to be like others. While it is smart to look at successful (and to some extent unsuccessful) businesses as an example, the best way to truly be great at what you do, is by doing your own thing. Authenticity goes a long way in business! Thanks for sharing this.

  • Gtigerclaw

    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."
    Another thing is that Apple is basically a boutique company that produces a few targeted products while Samsung is a giant electronics corporation producing all kinds of electronic products. The products they went up against Apple with were simply divisions in the company; therefore, they could afford to lose money in those divisions and compete with Apple price-wise while still being profitable as a corporation. 

    There's also a lot of competition hitting Apple from all directions and the average consumer will go to the best cost, functionality, and technology over glitzy image all the time.

    Samsung does have a brilliant ad campaign while Apple seems to be lost in irritating crap trying to stuff everything about the product in ten seconds..

  • Wushu

    And why are we praising a Forbes article that cheers Samsung for being profitable, not for building a great product? It's good to think different, but talk about putting the cart before the horse.

  • David Sinclair

    Great ads and distribution of a product never equals a great product (see reason number 4). I should hope we aren't commending a company for spending money on ads and how much of their product they can get people to sell, but on the quality of the product being solid.

    Part of being in an industry of selling devices is great design, both in software and hardware. Companies that focus on creating a great experience for users, a result of software and hardware harmony through design, I should hope are first on everyone's list to mimic for that industry.

    Unless all we want to do is make money, but I think that mind-track does not necessarily lend to the opportunity of doing good.

  • Arman Nobari

    Superb article. Excellent concept and analysis, and thank God for referencing the survivor-bias.

  • Philipp Kristian G. Diekhöner

    Marvelously spot-on article. A great strategist with reasonable creative confidence will never just recommend a me-too, especially not if the benchmark is a grey box like Apple. In fact, even Apple itself may have to rethink if there is any value in trying to be its old, Steve Jobs driven self in the future. Products like the iPad mini that are more of a response to mainstream category trends than a design innovation clearly indicate that Apple is no more keeping up with the expectancy it has created. A similar story is told with the new MagSafe power adapters, which serve no clear purpose other than make life just that little harder for loyal Macintosh users with multiple machines. The new iTunes user interface is another alarming case that indicates Apple's current lack of excellence and future Strategy. All of which is moderated, of course, by Sir Oscar Wildes brilliant observation that 'one can live down everything but a good reputation.'