Does the iPad Signal a Change in Apple’s Core Brand & Identity?

by cv harquail on February 2, 2010

If products reflect an organization’s values and an organization’s identity, does Apple’s new iPad tell us something about where Apple as a company is headed?

And, if that’s where Apple is going, do we all want to go there too?

Here’s a proposition:

  • Apple as an organization is changing, from an organization that’s “about” creativity to an organization that’s “about” consumption.
  • Most consumers haven’t noticed this change, although the tech community is on to it.
  • While many consumers won’t care, Apple’s core customers and its biggest fans will feel disappointed by this identity change. Some may even feel betrayed.

Let’s build the argument:

An organization’s products communicate that organization’s identity.

An organization’s products – their physical features, their intended uses, their manufacturing processes, and their marketing strategies — communicate an organization’s values. green apple.jpg

When an organization creates, produces, distributes, and supports a product, that organization makes important choices. The organization places bets on what it thinks consumers want (or need), decides which possibilities it wants its products to support, and decides how it uniquely will make these come about. The organization chooses a physical design, a software platform, and a set of utilities, to support a certain kind of current use.

The organization’s choices also express, demonstrate and create the organization’s vision of the future.

Corporate values = product attributes = corporate brand = product brand

The relationship between an organization’s identity and its products’ defining attributes is like the relationship between the chicken and egg. Neither one comes first, and each depends on the other.

Consumers have an understanding of the organization’s brand (or identity) and see the brand in the organization’s products. And, consumers come to equate the qualities of the product and the attributes of the organization itself.

Nowhere is this interdependency between organizational ‘brand’ and product brand more apparent than at Apple.

Apple’s product brand: What do we think makes Apple products special?

Each Apple product is positioned as a tool to ‘think different’. Apple products emphasize sophisticated visual design, simplicity, sheer beauty, and an “alpha-underdog-ness” that suggests that everything that makes Apple products different from convention also makes them better.

Apple’s organizational brand: Who do we think Apple is?

Run down the list of attributes that you think Apple stands for. Apple will stand for something different for each of us, but for the general consumer Apple is hip, cool, cutting-edge, what the “people in the know” use, what the hip and cool people use. Apple is more creative and more sophisticated. Apple is elegance through refusal to pander.

Apple is the Alpha-underdog. Apple is the choice of creative professionals. Apple is the choice of people who like to tinker, people who like to build, people who like to create. Apple is hip, cool, forward, smarter than you. Apple is the company with not just a different way, but a better way.

Now, let’s turn to Apple’s latest product, the iPad …

What do the features that distinguish the new iPad tell us about who Apple might be becoming now?

green rotten apple.jpg

[There are some terrific analyses of the iPad’s features linking the technical choices to values that these choices might reflect. Rather than restating these here, let me direct you Peter Kirn’s analysis of the “Closed Mac” at CreateDigitalMusic, and Samuel Axon at Mashable. Be sure to look at the critique of the iPad’s Digital Rights Management (DRM) features by Nate Anderson. And, for thoughtful analyses of what these features mean to the tech community, go to Alex Payne’s reflections ‘On the iPad’ and StevenF’s blog.]]

All of these tech analysts focus on three key features of the iPad:

1. The iPad runs on a closed platform and reflects a closed vision.

The iPad is a completely closed tool. All of the software for the iPad is proprietary; it is owned and/or controlled by Apple. The iPad’s hardware is also closed. These design decisions by Apple mean that the iPad cannot easily be modified, personalized, or expanded. The iPad cannot be used to create new programs using open-source software by non-Apple software designers, developers and home hacksters who like to think differently.

The iPad is closed to anyone with any idea that is too small or too personal to fit with Apple’s business plan.

2. Access to the iPad is centrally controlled by Apple, not by you.

Because the creation and distribution of apps for the iPad are controlled by Apple, the only things you can use on the iPad are tools that Apple has chosen for you.Kirn offers a concise analysis of the iPad:

“It’s a storage device you own but that someone else controls.”

Apple  controls what everyday consumers can use their iPads to enjoy. Apple also controls which other businesses can have access to consumers, and even how much access to consumers a media supplier can have.

Instead of disintermediating process by taking out the middle man, Apple is inserting itself more fully in between content creators and consumers.

This positions Apple to exert more power, more pressure and more control over both customers and suppliers.

3. Closed + Controlled => Consumption, not Creativity


The iPad’s closed platform and the centralized control of apps and content work together to create a technology product that is not so much about creating things as it is about consuming things.

Back in the day, Macs were heralded because of the way they enabled users to add on hardware & software and build up their own applications. Now, with this move to a closed platform and controlled access, owners of iPads can’t make their own little programs to run their own little stuff. They can’t generate new things. They can’t use the iPad like a ‘real’ computer. iPad users can only choose from among the set of things offered by & through Apple.

The iPad is not a tool for creativity, but instead a tool for consumption.

A creativity tool allows you to experiment and invent. A creativity tool is limited only by your imagination, taste and skill. In contrast, a consumption tool invites you to shop, to acquire. A creativity tool allows for customization through purchasing, which is itself made possible by your means, your tastes, and your disposable time.

But shopping is not quite the same as expressing. Customization is not the same as creativity.

Abandoning the Digital Creator?

What has long made Apple special and distinguished it from all other hardware & software companies has been its perceived commitment to the digital creator.

Whether you were a digital creator as a coder, a software designer or nerd with a screwdriver, Apple was there for you. Whether you were a digital creator as a graphic designer, a basement mixmaster, or a an explorer of user interface, Apple was there for you.

Apple was all about thinking different.

apple apps.jpgNow, with the shift to the values reflected in the iPad design, Apple is acting as very different kind of company. It is acting as a digital entertainment and consumption company. It is all about the digital consumer.

Instead of being an organization that wants us to “Think Different”,
it looks as though Apple wants us instead to “Buy Different”.

if you were to ask ‘What features would we need to put into our product to establish and protect ourself as a digital entertainment company?”, you would create products with:

Closed platforms. Closed hardware. Controlled, subordinated third-party development. Digital Rights management everywhere. Lots and lots of things to buy.

Oh, and don’t forget, you’d create a product that can’t be physically expanded or repaired, and that will need to be replaced with the next advance in technology. You’d create a product that had to be bought over and over again.

In short, you’d create something like the iPad.

Why would it matter if Apple was becoming:

  • A company more interested in entertaining than in creating?
  • A company more interested in controlling rather than enabling?
  • A company more interested in centralizing than distributing and sharing?
  • A company more interested in selling than in supporting creativity?

A lot of folks wouldn’t really care. Many consumers will be happy to own and use this new variety of Apple product, without a concern for what it might say about the future of computing or the fture of Apple.

But, there are two groups of consumers who will care about a change in ‘who’ Apple is.

Apple’s core group of fans will care.

The consumers, customers, and suppliers, as well as many of Apple’s own employees — will feel a significant loss as Apple moves away from its previous identity. These fans will lose the actual software and hardware support for their creativity. These fans will not longer be able to look to Apple as the Alpha-underdog defending creativity and innovation in the face of computerized consumerism.

Apple’s ‘aspirational customers’ will also care.

Aspirational customers are those who buy a company’s products and support an organization’s brand because of what it represents about who they themselves can become. These customers will lose the sense of who they can become as Apple’s identity changes.

Apple’s core customers and core fans will need to revise their understanding of who Apple is and what Apple stands for. And, these core customers will need to revise their relationship to Apple as an organization.

For me personally, while I’ve never myself written anything beyond some customizing code for my blog themes, there’s always been the potential, the promise, that I could whip up some little tool to manage my photo files, my tags, or my return address labels. There’s always been the possibility that I could be more of a digital creator with our iMacs and Macbooks. When I fire up my Macbook at Starbucks, yes, I am signaling to you that I’m some kind of digital creator. At least I could be. With my Macbook.

But now, with Apple’s new iPad and new set of corporate values, I’ll have to rethink my relationship with Apple. At the very least, I’ll need to revise my sense of who Apple is and what Apple really stands for.

goose.pngI wish I could come up with some pithy metaphor or double entendre to sum this up, but I’m still processing these concerns in my mind. Then again,

Maybe I don’t need to create a conclusive statement by myself. Maybe I can shop my way to creativity? Maybe I just need an app for that?

Maybe Apple can sell me one.

See also Jaymi Heimbuch’s article “What Does Apple’s iPad Really Mean for Society?” at Treehugger, where she evaluates the iPad for its environmental impact

Images: “Come see our latest restrictions” image from Ars Technica, Apple Graphics (wallpaper) free on Designrfx


Sandy February 2, 2010 at 9:13 pm

You knew I would chime in on this one, right?

I’m not convinced by your argument. Instead, I would make the case that Apple was never about its customers thinking differently — it branded itself successfully that way for a while, but what it actually delivered, consistently, was the service of providing elegant tools for work and play. Those tools might allow you to either create, or just get mundane tasks done — and besides, where does the boundary between those two types of work fall, exactly?

I also take issue with the idea that the iPad will not allow customers to create. It’s going to have iWorks, right? So we can still create texts, keynotes, manipulate images (I bet that includes at least cropping, if not other kinds of editing)… send emails…

Yes, I realize that these seem like fairly mundane tasks. I think the iTouch is more consumption-oriented, though — no camera (photography is an act of creation!), no ability to record sounds, etc. With the iPhone you get both. The iPad is simultaneously more text and more video-focused.

And yes, I realize that the whole closed-platform thing is problematic. I’m quite well acquainted with the controversies around Apple refusing to distribute certain iPhone/iPod apps in iTunes. But — they have released the SDK, which means that individuals outside of Apple will be able to write new apps. Within parameters, programmers from all over can still let their creativity rip, and us consumers will benefit from their innovations.

And finally, let me point out that the iPad is not meant to replace your laptop — it’s meant to allow you to access your own creations and others’ in a form factor that’s more convenient for some parts of your daily life. (And sadly, no, we don’t own stock any more!)
.-= Sandy´s last blog ..on wisdom =-.

Will S February 10, 2010 at 4:08 pm

I definitely agree with what you are saying. It’s almost as if Apple released this product just to say that it is still developing new things. I really don’t think that the iPad will be successful compared to its other products. Hopefully the company will release new products in the future that people actually want and by doing so, will continue to uphold the company’s identity as a creative brand.

cv harquail February 10, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Hi Will,
That’s my hope too. I’m probably overstating & simplifying the case here (or so my ex-Apple friends tell me), but I am worried about Apple becoming more like a big consumer product company and less like an art supply store… though, in truth, more people would prefer to buy than to d.i.y.
Thanks for your comments — I’ll be looking for your posts on your class’s blog!

Iqtedar May 11, 2011 at 10:18 am

This is a fundamental change taking place that long time Apple consumers better understand. It is also a justification for migrating to open source based systems.

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