How Apple Zags when Others Zig

March 7th, 2012   •   no comments   


Even Apple’s advertisements are radically different (source of image)

It is interesting to note how contrarians thrive better than rule book followers.

Continuing on my theme of “Zag” as a business strategy, consider Apple. The darling of the digital world, Apple overtook huge oil conglomerate Exxon Mobil to be the world’s most valuable company last year.

With Steve Jobs and now Tim Cook at the helm, Apple has poo poo-ed virtually every advice dished out by marketing, PR, management, and business gurus in the last few years. Consider the following:

1) Instead of cultivating the media, Apple has gained notoriety by shunning requests for information while maintaining a top secret operation. Till today, people are still determining if the purported “leaks” of an iPhone prototype left in the loo are intentional or just an urban legend.

2) Going against the grain, Apple does not encourage its employees to talk about the company’s products or culture on any social media platform. In fact, its internal policies on employee communications appear rather harsh and draconian.

3) Everybody knows that Steve Jobs ruled the roost at Apple with an iron-fist. In an age where gurus are preaching more power to the people, Jobs has maintained a command-and-control approach in how its products and services are rolled out with an eye on virtually every detail. The stage is always his at the launch of new products at the CES show.

4) According to Steve Jobs, Apple does “zero market research”. Quoting from Jobs himself:

“We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do. So you can’t go out and ask people, you know, what’s the next big [thing.] There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, ‘If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse’.”

5) Apple owns its entire system, from its operating system, application platforms (like the iTunes store), technology and interfaces. Anyone of us with an Apple device knows how fiendishly difficult it is import a movie in a different format to an iPad or iPhone which only plays limited formats. And yes, they hate partnerships and strategic alliances!

How does the world’s most beloved technology brand do it then?

1) Focus almost all your energies on designing and building an insanely great product, right down to the nitty gritty details. Under Jobs’ seemingly obsessive leadership, every detail is thoroughly scrutinised to ensure that they meet high quality standards. An example was how he spent 30 minutes debating the shade of grey for the bathroom signs in Apple stores!

2) Hire the greatest team of talents in the world and cultivate them like crazy. Everybody knows that Apple does not just pick anybody off the streets with an Ivy League MBA. The selection and interview process for Apple can be rather gruelling.

3) Build a strong corporate culture with robust core values. Much has been written about Apple’s culture of innovation, which prides itself on empowering employees to create great products. Quoting from Jobs again:

“My job is to not be easy on people. My job is to make them better. My job is to … take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better, coming up with more aggressive visions of how it could be.”

4) Ignore everybody else – competitors, customers, shareholders – except your employees. By eliminating all distractions and adopting an almost “Zen” like approach in its business strategy, Apple succeeds in creating aesthetically beautiful and functionally superior products.

5) Differentiate your products and services from everybody else. A key competitive advantage of Apple’s computers, smartphones and tablets are their abilities to challenge conventional wisdom and norms. This constant push towards being an innovator has them leading the pack and blazing the trail for others to emulate.

As we think about Apple’s experience, consider what we can “think different” in our business area from what other’s are doing. What breakthroughs can we design into our products and services that are unmet by the competition? How can these ideas be implemented? As Apple has shown, zigging while the rest of the world is zagging, may sometimes be a superior business strategy.

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