- Amidst ongoing backlash against tech giants, from Amazon to Facebook, Apple has managed to remain in the good graces of public opinion.
- In an interview with Business Insider, Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher said a combination of “intentionality and consistency” has kept Apple’s brand strong as other tech companies stumble.
- Apple has also benefited from its long company history, CEO Tim Cook’s extensive experience in the spotlight, and a business model that enables it to put consumers first.
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But, as the mood around tech has soured, one brand has thus far dodged most of the heat: Apple.
While tech giants like Facebook and Google navigate internal tensions and attempt to reassure users that their data is safe, Apple remains one of the most trusted tech brands. And unlike Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook has helped his company largely avoid President Trump’s wrath – while managing to not upset employees in the process.
To find out how Apple has kept in such good standing with consumers, employees, and investors, Business Insider spoke with Sandra Sucher, a Harvard Business School professor who has extensively studied why people come to trust brands.
Expectations versus reality
One defining feature that insulates companies like Apple is “the combination of intentionality and consistency,” according to Sucher. By clearly articulating its values and living up to them, Apple has earned trust where other companies have struggled.
Apple has certainly had its share of missteps, including criticism over its environmental impact and poor labour conditions in its supply chain. But in those cases, Apple has taken significant steps to address the issues. At very least, consumers perceive those steps as sufficient.
“They didn’t ignore it, they did actually try to make things better and to set standards that were more along the lines of what society would like them to do,” Sucher said.
More recently, as Apple has taken a strong public stance on protecting users’ privacy, it has also backed up those words by taking actions like limiting ad tracking in its Safari web browser.
Trust cuts multiple ways
Earning trust isn’t just about taking principled stands.
Sucher said that trust “has many different dimensions, so you can both trust and distrust a company at the same time.” In her research, Sucher has identified four dimensions: competence, motive, means, and impact.
Companies must do what they do effectively (competence), for the right reasons (motive), in the right way (means), and with the right outcomes (impact).
With Facebook, for example, Sucher said she trusts the company to competently design a social network. But that trust doesn’t necessarily extend to other things. “Do I trust them to come out with the new currency? Do I trust them to protect me from political advertisements that are blatantly wrong?” she said. “No, I don’t.”
Sucher also said that people often have different priorities based on their relationship to the company.
While consumers might focus on Apple’s competence in building smartphones, regulators are typically more concerned with motive and impact – like whether Apple is unfairly undermining competition.
“One of the joys of being a business is that you really do have to try and satisfy multiple and competing interests,” Sucher said.
Seasoned Cook in a heat-tested kitchen
Sucher also said experience has played a role in helping Apple navigate PR crises.
“Tim Cook has benefited from the fact that Apple has been in the spotlight for a very long time,” Sucher said. Steve Jobs and others at the company had already “carved out the terrain” before Cook even began as CEO, she noted.
Cook also stepped into that role with his own prior experience – and not as a founder – having joined Apple in 1998 after more than a decade at IBM.
“That’s different than if I’m starting this business from scratch, and as a leader, I have to decide what direction I’m going to take it in,” said Sucher, alluding to unique challenges faced by executives like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who have overseen the growth of their companies from the ground up.
Apples to oranges
While Sucher identified multiple ways in which Apple has responded effectively to criticism, she also said there are limits to comparing all tech companies together. Companies that mainly manufacture products, like Apple, face fundamentally different problems than companies with business models driven by ad revenue.
It also matters which “dimension” of trust is breached, Sucher said. People are more willing to accept apologies created by incompetence, according to her research, “because anyone can have a bad day.” But they’re less forgiving in cases that call a company’s integrity into question.
On the latter front, Apple has managed to fare better than many other top tech companies – at least so far.