The tech and marketing worlds are buzzing with the news that Steve Job is stepping down as CEO of Apple.
What follows will be an interesting case study in brand management…
As Mark Ritson points out, companies that lose their founders struggle in the immediate aftermath.
It’s only to be expected – especially when the founder is a media darling like Jobs.
However, as Lara O’Reilly says, the loss of Jobs won’t be the demise of Apple. Whether you’re an Apple Advocate or not, the company serves up innovation and desirability on a regular basis.
OK some of the products might break as soon as they get out of warranty, and the prices can be enough to make grown men cry,but the Apple brand is a pretty hip one.
It would be foolish to think that one man, even someone of Steve Jobs’ calibre, is the driving force behind every single innovation that comes from the company.
All of this brings three issues to my mind.
The first is around corporate culture – will the culture Jobs developed survive? While I don’t claim to know a whole lot about it, my impression is that the Apple labs are probably quite groovy spaces that foster innovation, let the techs get on doing whatever they want to do and where experimentation is probably rife.
Tim Cook will have to ensure that (if this is the case) such a culture survives, while putting his own stamp on the company. For that, I don’t envy him at all.
The second is about the role of the founder. Mark Ritson’s examples of Jobs’ return to Apple, Howard Schultz’s turnaround of Starbucks and how Coco Chanel revitalised the style house perfectly illustrate the passion of the founder.
After all, if it is your baby, you’re going to be passionate about it.
No-one else, no matter how corporate, how imbued with the company brand, can have that passion. If you were there at the very beginning, if you lost most of your hair and sanity going from backroom enterprise to global domination, the business represents more than a bottom line or a range of pretty products on a shelf.
It represents you, your blood, sweat and frequent tears. It’s deeply personal in a way that it can never be for someone else.
This is The Passion of The Founder and can never be replicated.
The passion drives innovation, it scoops up people in its wake, inspires individuals to push themselves harder and further than they ever thought possible.
Once again, I really don’t envy Tim Cook. He’s going to have to do something special to keep the momentum up.
The third consideration is how the Apple brand will deal with the loss of Jobs.
I believe that it can be dangerous for a whole brand to rest on a single person’s shoulders.
Yes, companies need figureheads – it helps to personalise the brand and give the consumer a human link to the products (after all, people buy from people).
But I think that a profitable approach would be to look at the way a business trades and develop a method to devolve brand and personal equity down to the front lines.
You would need to create a network of cells, with individual localised leaders able to share and communicate the passions and the values direct into their communities – while building and maintaining their own locally nuanced brand.
There are significant upsides to this cell approach.
First of all, you’ve got an individual that the local community can get to know personally and build a real relationship with.
I would guess that the majority of commentators on today’s events probably never met Jobs, nor would ask him to fix their faulty hard drive.
So while there might be a relationship of sorts because we know him through the media, it is like all celebrity relationships, one-sided.
Secondly, devolving into localised cells gives you a buffer zone, for precisely the same reason that advertisers use mascots or puppets in their TV work.
If the founder dies, moves on or is caught doing something that they shouldn’t have done, the local cell and its developed relationships can rely on the local brand equity to ride out the storm, ensuring a seamless transition for the customer.
Equally, if the local cell expert has to be replaced, the brand has a buffer where the founder can come into the local arena and bring the full weight of the brand to bear on the situation.
Up and down, it’s a winner.
So back to Apple’s current state. What follows in the coming weeks and months will be fascinating to watch from a brand management perspective.
Only once the organisational grief has died down will we get a sense of what’s next for Apple.
Until that time, I suspect the tech and marketing industries will be in a fervour. How much the end-point consumer really cares is probably another matter entirely…