Besides its ads, Apple says very little, confident numbers will do the talking. This no longer works as others have seized the opportunity to drive the narrative.
The day before Samsung's big Galaxy S4 announcement, Apple's VP of Marketing, Phil Schiller, sat down for an interview with Reuters and promptly committed what Daring Fireball's John Gruber calls an unforced error:
"...the news we are hearing this week [is] that the Samsung Galaxy S4 is being rumored to ship with an OS that is nearly a year old," [Schiller] said, "Customers will have to wait to get an update."
Not so, as Gruber quickly corrects:
But it ends up the S4 is — to Samsung's credit — shipping with Android 4.2.2, the latest available version. Not sure why Schiller would speculate on something like this based solely on rumors.
To Samsung's delight, we can be sure, the interview received wide coverage in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, just hours before the S4 was unveiled, complete with the month-old Android operating system.
This didn't go over well. Even before the "year old Android version" was exposed as unfounded conjecture, reactions to Schiller's trash talk were uniformly negative. Apple was accused of being on the defensive.
But, the true-believers ask, isn't this something of a double-standard? What about the trash talk Samsung ads that depicted the iPhone as old-fashioned and its users as either cult sheep or doddering golden agers, weren't they also a form of defensiveness? Why were Samsung's mean-spirited ads seen as fun and creative, while Schiller's slight misstep is called "defensive"?
Yes, Apple is held to a (well earned) different standard. Once a challenger with an uncertain future, Apple has become The Man. Years ago, it could productively poke fun at Microsoft in the great I'm a Mac, You're a PC campaign (the full series of ads is here), but the days of taking potshots at the incumbent are over. Because of its position at the top, Apple should have the grace to not trash its competitors, especially when the digs are humorless and further weakened by error.
Schiller's faux pas will soon be forgotten -- it was a minor infraction, a five yard penalty -- but it stoked my enduring frustration with a different sort of Apple-speak characteristic: The way Apple execs abuse words such as "incredible", "great", "best" when they're discussing the company's products and business.
My accusation of language molestation needs examples. Citing a page from W. Edwards Deming's gospel, In God We Trust, Everyone Else Brings Data, I downloaded a handful of Apple earnings calls, such as this one, courtesy of Seeking Alpha, and began to dig.
[Speaking of language faux pas, Deming's saying was shamelessly and badly appropriated -- without attribution -- by Google's Eric Schmidt in a talk at MIT.)
Looking just for the words that emanated from the horses' mouths, I stripped the intros and outros and the question parts of the Q&As, and pasted into Pages (which has, sadly, lain fallow since January 2009). Pages has a handy Search function (in the Edit > Find submenu) that compiles a list of all occurrences of a word in a document; here's what I found... .
- Across the five earnings statements, some form of the word "incredible" appears 7, 9, 9, 11 and 9 times. The Search function offers a handy snippet display so you can check the context in which the word was used:
- "Tremendous", in its various forms, appears 12 times.
- Amazing: 8
- Strong: 58
- Thrilled: 13
- Maniacally focused: 2
- All told, "great" appears 70 times. A bit more than half are pathetic superlatives ("great products", "great progress", "we feel great about..."), some are innocuous ("greater visibility"), but there's an interesting twist: The snippet display showed that six were part of the phrase "Greater China":
"Greater" or not, China is mentioned 71 times, much more than any other country or region I checked (Korea = 1, Japan = 6, Europe = 12).
(In the interest of warding off accusations of a near-obsessive waste of energy, I used a command line program to generate some of these numbers. Android? give me a second...4. Google=0, Facebook=4, Samsung=2.)
Now let's try some "sad" words:
- Disappoint: 0
- Weak: 7. Six of these were part of "weak dollar"; the other was "weak PC market". By contrast, only five or six of the 58 "strongs" referred to the dollar; the rest were along the lines of "strong iPad sales".
- Bad: 0
- Fail: 0
The dissection can go on and on, but let's end it with a comparison between "more" and "less" . Eliminating instances of less as a suffix ("wireless"), the result shows a remarkable unbalance: "more" wins each of the five sessions with a consistently lopsided score: 28 to 3...more or less.
But, you'll object, what'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.
In another of his sharply worded analyses titled Ceding the Crown, John Gruber makes the same point, although from a different angle:
The desire for the "Oh, how the mighty Apple has fallen" narrative is so strong that the narrative is simply being stated as fact, evidence to the contrary be damned. It's reported as true simply because they want it to be true. They're declaring "The King is dead; long live the King" not because the king has actually died or abdicated the throne, but because they're bored with the king and want to write a new coronation story.
I agree with the perception, but blaming the media rarely produces results, we shouldn't point our criticism in the wrong direction. The media have their priorities, which more often than not veer in the direction of entertainment passed as fair and balanced information (see Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman). If Apple won't feed them an interesting, captivating story, they'll find it elsewhere, even in rumors and senseless hand-wringing.
Attacking competitors, pointing to their weaknesses, and trumpeting one's achievements is better done by hired media assassins. A company, directly or through a PR firm, engages oft-quoted consultants who provide the required third-party stats, barbs, and encomiums. This isn't theorizing, I once was a director at a company, one of many, that used such an arrangement to good effect.
A brief anecdote: When Microsoft was Microsoft, Waggener Edstrom, the company's PR powerhouse, was an exemplary propagandist. I distinctly remember a journalist from a white-shoe East Coast business publication coming to my office more than twenty years ago, asking very pointed questions. I asked my own questions in return and realized that the individual didn't quite know the meaning of certain terms that he was throwing around. A bit of hectoring and cajoling, and the individual finally admitted that the questions were talking points provided by the Seattle PR firm. A few years later, I got a comminatory phone call from one of the firm's founders. My offense? I had made an unflattering quip about Microsoft when it was having legal troubles with Apple (the IP battle that was later settled as part of the 1997 "investment" in Apple and Steve Jobs). PR firms have long memories and sharp knives.
The approach may seem cynical, but it's convenient and effective. The PR firm maintains a net (and that's the right word) of relationships with the media and their pilot fish. If it has the talent of a Waggener Edstrom, it provides sound strategic advice, position papers, talking points, and freeze-dried one-liners.
Furthermore, a PR firm has the power of providing access. I once asked a journalist friend how his respected newspaper could have allowed one of its writers to publish a fellacious piece that described, in dulcet tones, a worldwide Microsoft R&D tour by the company's missus dominicus. "Access, Jean-Louis, access. That's the price you pay to get the next Ballmer interview…"
Today, look at the truly admirable job Frank Shaw does for Microsoft. Always on Twitter, frequently writing learned and assertive pieces for the company's official blog. By the way, where's Apple's blog?
The popular notion is that Apple rose to the top without these tools and tactics, but that's not entirely true. Dear Leader was a one-man propagandastaffel, maintaining his own small network of trusted friends in the media. Jobs also managed to get exemptions from good-behavior rules, exemptions that seem to have expired with him…
Before leaving us, Jobs famously admonished "left-behind" Apple execs to think for themselves instead of trying to guess what he would have done. Perhaps it's time for senior execs to rethink the kind of control they want to exercise on what others say about Apple. Either stay the old course and try to let the numbers do the talking, or go out and really fight the war of words. Last week's misstep didn't belong to either approach.
One last word: In the two trading days bracketing the Samsung S4 launch Schiller clumsily attempted to trash, Apple shares respectively gained 1%, followed by a 2.58% jump the day after the intro. Schiller could have said nothing before the launch and, today, let others point to early criticism of the S4's apparent featuritis.