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For those watching the 'Tech Wars,” it's becoming pretty obvious that the battle is heating up. Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are all developing products that directly contend with those of their illustrious competitors. The Kindle Fire, Apple's Map product, Google+, and the rumored Facebook Phone all point to a need to attack as a means of defending turf.
This is not the way Apple in particular has competed so far, however, and for that reason Apple is the most likely to be hurt by this approach. Apple has been accused of copying products and then making them more desirable. Whether this is true or not -- and I think it's true -- does not diminish the fact that you've purchased an iPad (even though it was more expensive than the Kindle Fire), because every other tablet is now thought of as a “lower tier” attempt at an iPad (Steve Ballmer’s announcement on Monday is a case in point).
A lot of Apple's success with its products since the second coming of Steve Jobs has come from these three things:
1. The ability to create well designed products and, more importantly, market these products to emotional purchase-triggers, to which we all respond without much thought
2. The charisma of its leader (otherwise known as Steve Job's distortion field)
3. Competing on battlefields that have been defined by Apple
On all three points above, Apple is starting to struggle and fail. The impact might not be evident right now but will become apparent for the following reasons:
Reason 1: Laddering down in their marketing message: In market research there is a technique known as laddering, which is based on the Means-End Theory of consumer decision-making. In layman’s terms, there are different reasons why we buy, with the lowest reason on the “ladder” being product attributes. The attributes of the product provide some benefit, which influences our values or beliefs, e.g., we buy HDTV because the picture quality is better. The highest ‘rung on the ladder’ are emotional benefits for buying, e.g., you buy a well-written birthday card for your mother because the words of the card make you feel good (and will make your mother love you more). Functional benefits lie between product attributes and the emotional.
The last few years of staggering success for Apple have coincided with a focus on competing, as evidenced in their marketing, by highlighting the emotional benefits of their products. The “independence” you get from buying an iPod. The “future” you were touching by playing with the iPad. But watching the new ads for the MacBook Pro 2012, however, you are left with no doubt that the “Retina Display” (a product benefit) is the main point of competition.
On the contrary, the elderly mum is not buying the iPad because of Facetime or its retina display. (Watch this Emotion Based Ad for the Ipad). She's buying because she can better connect with her grandchild through Facetime.
As Apple ladders down, we will start to lose the “mystique” that made people queue up for nights in advance to get their products. In my view, this is the main thing that will lead to Apple's decline if left unchecked.
Reason 2: The 'Soul' is truly gone: Behind Steve Jobs' design obsession was the operational genius of Tim Cook to make it all happen. It’s no slight on Tim Cook to say he's different from Steve Jobs, because he just is. But for all his operational genius, what people bought (and are still buying but only for so long) was the design thinking behind the products Apple gave the market. We didn't buy MacBooks because the Foxconn factory could churn them out. We bought because Steve Jobs (and Jonathan Ive in the background) “made” us believe we were part of a movement bigger than just another machine, with an operation system like any other. And that “soul” is gone. It might not be evident yet in the product line, but with twoannouncements and no iPhone 5 or anything to make us aspire to, it will surely start to show...
And hence the move to competing on the product benefits (from reason 1 above).
Reason 3: Competing on someone else's battlefield: “...and therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.” Sun Tzu
Apple removed Google Maps from its products. It is one single act but its significance should not be understated (and even Apple is not understating it). Apple did this to directly compete with Google. Apple is now allowing Google to determine the battlefield. And even letting Google determine the weapons of choice. This is a losing strategy for any company -- even Apple, with its army of super smart employees.
Things are looking great right now for Apple, but the confluence of these things will lead to a sure decline. All that being said, if iPhone 5 incorporates payment systems (disrupting a system and innovating) with amazing user experience (and design) that make people feel 'secure' about the action (emotional benefit).… then it's likely game-on for Apple again.
Ps: post inspired by my wife and sister-in-law, real customers who are not in the tech scene but care about their products