Does Apple need Social Media?

May 9 2015

The world’s most valuable company and the second-most valuable brand doesn’t have an official social presence. A decade after the rise of social media, a significant number of ‘digital experts’ still find Apple’s indifference to social platforms puzzling, to say the least. The notoriously social-shy giant hired some of the best talents in digital last year and begun spreading corporate messages through their executives on Twitter. Apart from owning the social network Ping, the monitoring company Topsy and using the platforms LinkedIn for recruitment and YouTube (were comments are turned off), Apple seems to refuse joining the rush to social. Its CEO, Tim Cook, publicly stated ‘We have no plans to be in the social networking area’, also referring to a hypothetical competitive attack against Facebook. A few questions might have popped up in your mind.


1) Why Apple is so adverse to social media?

There are at least four good reasons why an organization like Apple decides not to fully embrace social platforms. Each of following barriers to social business transformation is connected to peculiarities of the organization that significantly contributed to Apple’s success.

a. One-way approach to communication (Strong leadership and vision)

Apple is founded on the old communications model of ‘single narrator’ born from its former charismatic and visionary leader. This centralized one-way approach was always preferred to multiple narratives (holistic model), where anyone in the company is empowered to engage in two-way discussion with consumers.

b. Perfect execution as a shared value (Cohesive corporate culture)

Apple’s ethos of perfection in every single aspect of the business is part of the company culture build on a remarkable sense of secrecy, both internal and external. That goes against the trail-and-error approach required by digital media, antithetical to Apple’s corporate culture.

c. Maniacal message control (High communication consistency)

Social media requires companies to partially give up control above brand messages because of its uncontrolled and unpredictable nature. Apple has a legacy of extreme message control while social platforms demand openness and transparency.

d. Limited media exposure (Extreme loyalty level)

Apple products intrinsically build emotional bonds with consumers. Its business model has unquestionably produced the ultimate customer satisfaction turned into the strongest community of brand ambassadors. Because the most loved brands are usually the most hated brands by someone else, a drastic exposure of Apple on social media is likely to generate a high flow of negative discussions difficult to handle for anyone.


2) If Apple doesn’t use social media why should other brands?

Let me use a metaphor to answer this question.

I see a charming man with high performance running shoes walking in front of me. He has visible impediments in his movements. I have the feeling the problem comes from ill-fitting shoes that stop him from doing something basic like walking. I start wondering whether he appears to have motor coordination disorders due to problematic physical condition or simply to ill-fitting shoes. I suddenly realize how, in my daily context, these elements can be part of a metaphor that explains how incorrectly organizations are approaching social media.

To run a marathon, we need both healthy body and top performance shoes. In my metaphor, the ‘body’ represents the business organization (processes) and the ‘shoes’ refer to social platforms and tools (technology). A company ready to succeed in the digital environment is a social business (body) that has embraced the right technology (shoes) to build strategic relationships in the long run (marathon). Shoes are fundamental for a remarkable performance. However, if you face a bodily issue, having comfortable, expensive, and high-tech shoes will not help you in making smooth, agile, and systematic movements.

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At the same time, if your company presents structural problems that represent an implementation barrier to your social strategy, to be on social platforms and adopting tools for monitoring and managing conversations, will not generate significant value for your business. Most of the brands have issues with both the body, as they don’t have in place new processes to cure disorders (i.e. they are not ‘social business’), and the shoes, as they adopt social platforms and tools driven by wrong objectives (i.e. goal is not to establish and maintain long-lasting relationships). In my view,

if you want to stand still, walk and possibly run a marathon, you should spend resource finding the right cure to your body problems before you buy a new pair of shoes.


3) What’s the critical factor in your digital transformation journey?

Although processes (body) and platforms (shoes) are necessary to succeed in the digital era, there is a third element, perhaps the most important, often neglected by marketing managers. A ‘leadership team’, represented by the ‘mind’ in my metaphor, is responsible to set beliefs, ideals, values that translate into a strong vision.

Implementing social processes and platforms is often half of the digital transformation effort.The other 50% of the effort involves changing leaders practices, behaviors, and mindset.

The factor ‘mind’ explains those rare cases in which an exceptional leadership team can drive a company towards success by compensating for a rather rigid, hierarchical, closed organization (body) and lacking technological capabilities(shoes). A leadership team is the true brain of an organization, the only element with the ability to overcome any barrier and to function almost by itself. Thanks to their sheer grit and determination, some leaders own superpowers that allow the organization to ‘run’ under any circumstances, even with body problems and/or no shoes.

Apple’s approach to social media reminds me of Alex Zanardi, former Formula One driver who cheated death losing both his legs during a CART racing in Germany forth-teen years ago. Alex returned to professional motor racing after his horrific accident. Even more, he recently remerged as a champion cyclist ideating himself a carbon fibre racing bike designed to fit him like a ‘Cinderella shoes’. He sought to utilize some of the design technologies used in motor racing in ideating is racing chair. For example, he introduced a data acquisition system that keeps him abreast of the energy he is using. Alex won the New York marathon in 2011 and two handcycling gold medals in the London Paralympic games in 2012. After one Olympic competition he confessed that when he raced 21 years ago in the same circuit he went five times faster but, differently from before, this time he won.

Similarly to Alex, Apple has an uncommon drive to succeed.

Despite its organization might not show characteristics of a classic social business (body) and it refuses to invest into social platforms (shoes), its leaders’ superpowers (mind) make the organization succeed in unconventional terrains where others systematically fail.

Any Apple activity creates an experience that speaks about sense of community and brand proximity. Having an additional channel like Facebook, for the sake of following a trend, would add little or no value to its overall branding strategy.

In addition, I believe that leaders’ optimism is also a fundamental factor for success. After a brilliant victory, Alex Zanardi said: ‘I never looked at my accident in Germany as a disaster. Everybody can ask themselves useless questions – Why me? What did I do wrong? – but that’s an absolute waste of time […], I focus on the future’.

I am constantly exposed to managers that describe the social/digital capabilities of their organization in a dramatic way: ‘we are not very good in digital’, ’deep down we are not a social business’, ’we are a rather traditional company’, etc. This pessimistic mindset produces severe consequences for the entire business. In a context where everybody is learning and very few are leading, to consider yourself physically unable to walk, makes you automatically out of the next competition. You do not even qualify for the race. It is important to realize how this deficit is not necessarily related to a problem in your body or shoes, but rather in your mind. Ultimately, your mind controls your body and all your movements.


4) Is Apple a social business after all?

Social media is the technology that enables the creation of personal and long-lasting relationships with consumers.

Apple is definitely a social business that builds one-to-one relationships in ways and terrains other companies cannot even conceive, showing that you don’t necessarily need to be on social media in order to be truly social.

In primis, Apple revolutionized the concept of customer experience and build relationships with its customers through its quality products where social connotations reside in. Every company should strive to increase the level of loyalty by making products that people love.

In secundis, Apple invested decades and billions in cultivating the strongest brand community of brand ambassadors of all time and it can rely on having lovers going to war for it, even without a social media strategy. Apple understood that brand communities are made by people. The role of the brand is to support their creation and growth. Communities are communities, whether they are online or offline, visible or invisible, technology enabled or not. In all cases, connections between people are real, they do exist.

In terzis, platforms in which Apple builds relationships are simply born differently (see the Apple Store experience). At the base, the company builds attachment with consumers by providing three higher level benefits in the form of services:preferential treatment, social recognition and social relationships (see my previous post for more details).

First step in any digital strategy definition is the understanding of ‘why’ you want to employ a transformation journey. That describes the value Apple and its consumers would receive from being on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter.

What would Apple gain? What would its customers/stakeholders gain? Probably not that much.

Alex Mari

CEO BrandMate App