JIN-523 -- Boutique Brand Logic: Why Apple Will Never Truly Go Mainstream

J@pan Inc Newsletter
The 'JIN' J@pan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends in Japan.
Issue No. 523 Friday, June 25, 2010, Tokyo

There's a point in the life of every large, successful company at which, once a critical mass of customers has been reached, that company must face the reality that it can no longer hide behind the oft-used underdog, startup excuse that may explain away mistakes, bad planning and service blunders. When a company fails to recognize this inflection point, its brand credibility is at stake, and its subsequent market share can be directly tracked to its handling of any major crisis or service issue that follows.

Imagine if, in the wake of the recent braking controversy, Toyota had attempted to "aw shucks" its way out of the matter with a simple blog statement, followed by a dutifully contrite Twitter message explaining away the matter as a mere aberration, and promising better performance in the future. As the number one carmaker, this would have been unacceptable. Thankfully, Toyota remains competitively aware of its position and went beyond mere contrition and engaged in major restorative action (free repairs), outreach (trip to address the U.S. Congress) and innovation as brand reinvention (the new Tesla tie-up).

Consumers are acutely aware of this inflection point. They instinctively understand that smaller companies have growing pains that may, in some cases, deserve a bit of patience on their part as loyal customers. Conversely, when a company reaches a certain size and market footprint, customers rightfully hold those brands to stricter standards and will usually vote with their wallets if it becomes clear that a company doesn't respect the patronage that put them in a leading market position. The future history of a company is usually dictated by how a company navigates and frames (internally and externally) the unexpected pitfalls that inevitably befall every commercial concern.

The CEO of e-commerce giant Zappos, second-generation Taiwanese-American Tony Hsieh, understands this dynamic and focuses a great deal of his energy on ensuring that Zappos users benefit from the company's transparent approach to customer satisfaction. With over $1 billion in annual sales, Hsieh maintains that Zappos is "a service company that just happens to sell shoes."

When it comes to this kind of customer-first operational ethos, it is now obvious that Apple, despite its recent boost in market cap over Microsoft, is doggedly committed to maintaining its boutique brand logic that puts the the company's reasoning and internal imperatives far ahead of its customers.

There are numerous examples of Apple's boutique brand logic to draw from the company's recent history, but the most interesting came to light just a couple of days ago during the launch of the iPhone 4. The trickle of trouble began as users started reporting phone reception problems when holding the iPhone 4 on its sides and bottom, areas which also act as antennas for the mobile phone. Scores of users reported their signal bars going from five bars to two, or in some cases zero, significantly damaging call reception. What seemed at first like a mere quibble by Apple-haters soon turned into a legitimate, confirmed problem picked up by most of the major technology news sites.

Finally, days after the initial report, Apple finally released a statement to tech site Engadget addressing the poor signal reception issue: "Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone. If you ever experience this on your Phone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases."

This is, essentially, a non-answer. For those of us living in the 21st century, it's common knowledge that various issues can block or reduce a mobile phone's signal (walls, bodies, basements, etc.). But simply telling consumers to avoid holding a commercial product in a natural way during use is quite absurd. When one pays for a mobile phone, one should be able to use that phone while holding it in "any" position--full stop. Only the arrogance of a boutique brand could produce such a cavalier response to what is, at best, a major design flaw and cause for a refund, and at worst grounds for a class action lawsuit.

Just a couple of days ago, Omotesando was besieged by legions of Apple loyalists waiting overnight in front of the Softbank store to be one of the first to get their hands on a product that isn't even known to be scarce in terms of availability. This scene played itself out across the globe from Tokyo, to London, to New York. Thus, while the offense against Apple's consumers is indeed great, it may be that after spending hours on line and panting via Twitter about their new acquisition, many iPhone 4 consumers may simply be too embarrassed to raise their voice and demand satisfaction.

This is probably what Apple is counting on. And, as a long time Apple consumer myself, I can attest that this approach has worked in the past. But the past is now prologue, and Apple is a different, much bigger, much more influential company than it was before. Ignoring product issues and consumer complaints simply won't play in the big leagues. Unfortunately, Steve Jobs is infamous for his stubborn adherence to this boutique brand mentality. And this is just the opening Google's Android, as well as local players like Docomo, may have been hoping for. While Apple plays the boutique brand game, and in the process walks away from its doorway into the real consumer mainstream (in much the same way it did when surrendering the consumer PC operating system business to Microsoft's Windows decades ago) other smartphone players now have an invitation to step up and be the service-oriented smartphone leader Apple refuses to be.

Sexy products are great, but companies that offer solid products wrapped in fantastic service are the ones that generally prosper over the long term, fueled by the trust and loyalty of their customers. While Apple tries to convince us that there are surface areas of a mobile phone forbidden to touch during use, other companies will likely step up and shed such arrogance in order to meet the needs of the consumer mainstream. So the good news is that, regardless of who has the biggest market share or market cap, the real winner will be the consumer.
-Adario Strange

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This is a well-written analysis of what's been going on. I found your analogy to the way things went with the PC particularly interesting. While I hope it doesn't come to pass, I have to say I haven't been at all impressed with the support I've had for my Mac and I see the same mentality you're describing behind their refusal to address the support of their products.

I have never understood the obsession that some people have with Apple products. My user experience and support have been far from good. For example, I have a number of problems with Itunes updates throughout the years that I have had an IPod, and now an IPhone. I definately will look at Android-based products once my current contract runs out. Apple is arrogant, and the analysis in this article about the threats to their position is correct. This is what Jim Collins discussed in his book "How The Mighty Fall." It will be interesting to see if the other companies take advantage of Apples' misstep with IPhone 4.