Photo: King Kong
The former head of Apple’s products division, Jean-Louis Gassée, shreds the company in his column on Monday Note this week, focusing specifically on Apple’s PR strategy.
Apple has made the same mistake that many companies whose businesses have gone from feisty underdog to incumbent market leader have made, Gassée says:
Apple has failed to adapt its PR strategy to its new reality as the market leader.
As evidence of this, Gassée first points to the embarrassing attack on Samsung and Google that marketing chief Phil Schiller delivered last week. This gaffe, in which an unprovoked Schiller trashed Apple’s competitors in the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, was seen by most observers as a classless mistake–one that left Apple looking defensive and desperate. The move was so startling that Apple guru John Gruber, who is normally the company’s fiercest defender, called it an “unforced error.”
Then, Gassée points to the language Apple uses in its conference calls to pat itself on the back for its products and performance.
Instead of letting the products and performance speak for themselves, Gassée observes, Apple hyperbolizes them with strenuous repetitions of meaningless adjectives like “great,” “incredible,” and “fantastic.”
In the years when Apple’s products and performance truly deserved these adjectives–which, for several years there, they did–this language was justified.
But now, Gassée says, such frequent use of these words just makes the company sound desperately promotional and detached from reality.
To support this assessment, Gassée analysed the language in Apple’s last 5 earnings call transcripts by plugging it into his (Apple) word processor and searching for key terms.
He found that the following words appeared the following number of times:
- “Incredible” — 46 times
- “Tremendous” — 12 times
- “Amazing” — 8 times
- “Strong” — 58 times
- “Thrilled” — 13 times
- “Maniacally focused” — 2 times
- “Great” — 70 times (includes some instance that weren’t self-promotional)
Now, most companies present an enthusiastic and self-promotional front on their conference calls, in part because they know their employees will be listening and they want the employees to feel good about their work.
But there’s enthusiastic and self-promotional, and then there’s Apple.
Meanwhile, despite enduring many (unofficial) disappointments and missteps over the past year, Apple did not take the opportunity to bolster its own credibility.
The following negative words, for example, appeared the following number of times:
- “Disappoint” — Zero times
- “Weak” — 7 times (but 6 of these were used to describe things outside Apple’s control, such as “weak dollar”)
- “Bad” — Zero times
- “Fail” — Zero times
Now, again, you might say that it’s Apple’s job to toot its own horn, and there certainly aren’t a shortage of folks out there ready to call the company on any mistake.
But here’s the problem with Apple’s approach, according to Gassée:
[W]hat’s wrong with being positive?
Nothing, but this isn’t about optimism, it’s about hyperbole and the abuse of language. Saying “incredible” too many times leads to incredulity. Saying “maniacally focused” at all is out of place and gauche in an earnings call. One doesn’t brag about one’s performance in the boudoir; let happy partners sing your praise.
When words become empty, the listener loses faith in the speaker. Apple has lost control of the narrative; the company has let others define its story. This is a war of words and Apple is proving to be inept at verbal warfare.
Gassée’s basic argument–that Apple’s role has changed and therefore it’s PR strategy must change–is one we’ve made before. This is a rough transition for most companies (Microsoft, for instance, struggled with it for years), but eventually, one hopes, Apple will get there.
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