At first, it was funny to hear insurers, IT firms, and startups with no revenues compare themselves to Apple. Since the iPod launched in 2001, I’ve seen hundreds of presentations that liberally use “learnings” from Apple. 1) The word is LESSONS, not “learnings”, my Hillbilly friend. 2) The comparison feels as fresh as that Michael Jackson impression your spouse has been doing since you started dating. 3) Drenching slides (or products) in an iconic brand’s juices won’t transmit innovation, like some benevolent plague. If that were possible, we’d never stop harvesting and packaging Brangelina extract. It’s time for an intervention. Here’s why brands must find their own voice (and scent)…and keep those synthetic Apple fumes from turning into laughing gas.
The ‘why you’re not Apple’ checklist:
I know I’m not alone. We’ve all been to the same Apple-laden meetings…er, orchards. How did those comparisons work out? Did that company become the most valuable in the world? Did that product become iconic and emulated by every company in Korea? Or, did it live and die in its sad PowerPoint tomb.
Using Apple as a model is the business version of ordering jeans after seeing them on Kate Upton. They might not look the same on you. Like Kate, Apple is a unicorn. It defies so many conventions that deconstructing its lessons is silly, unless it’s the last thing between you and a lonely Saturday night at Harvard Business School. To quote my friend and fellow innovator Stephen Shapiro’s book, Best Practices Are Stupid.
It’s not that your company can’t be Apple. It’s that your company absolutely, positively will never be Apple. I’m not discounting your skill or vision. I’m simply acknowledging that Apple’s success is a witch’s brew of leadership, timing, technology, and culture. All those variables can’t be replicated.
I love helping companies create transformative businesses, but it’s important to understand the culture before blindly bulldozing a major innovation through. Along with individual measures like my 9 Corporate Personality TypesTM, I also assess each company’s Innovation Quotient. Results range from “cosmetic” to “disruptive”. Here is a simplified True/False version – juiced up to Apple’s lofty standards:
1. My company’s CEO is an iconic, visionary taskmaster who has full clarity of what our next big product/service will be and is unafraid to make enemies to create it.
2. Senior management is willing to miss multiple quarterly targets to deliver our long-term vision.
3. Our new products regularly reach iconic status and are hotly anticipated by media.
4. People aspire to own our products and relate to them as extensions of themselves.
5. We have far more negotiating and pricing leverage with partners, suppliers, and distributors than our competitors.
6. We have more than $50B in cash available for acquisitions or major strategic investments.
7. We have more than a million customers who will passionately debate and defend the merits of our products (at the risk of losing sleep, friendships, and possibly, chances to procreate)
8. More than 25% of our revenues come from completely new business lines launched in the last 5 years. (No, re-painting some geriatric product purple does not count.)
9. Our top business lines (those representing over 10% of sales) are #1 or #2 sales leaders in their categories.
10. Our margins are the highest in our industry.
If you answered “true” to fewer than four of these, you can appreciate how many stars must align for a serious comparison to Apple.
You’ve hurt my feelings…now what?
Apple breaks every “rule” of innovation and marketing. Should you? Maybe. It depends on your company’s unique situation, what it’s trying to accomplish, and resources it has available. You’re welcome to cry on my shoulder about it. For now, here are a few suggestions:
- The best benchmark is you. Not to sound like a Buddhist monk, but looking at your neighbor’s bigger house or sexier spouse will lead to depression, not innovation – especially if that neighbor is a unicorn or Kate Upton.
- Vision cures all. Vision is the most powerful filter through which you can sift every opinion, benchmark, and data point to decide what to implement and what to discard.
- There are four exceptions when you could reference Apple in presentations:
- Your product or service runs on, integrates with, or competes with an Apple product
- You are (or will) do business directly with Apple
- Your team member(s) worked at Apple
- You include Apple when analyzing the technology landscape. (Use sparingly and acknowledge that they’re the unicorn in the room.)
A Final Irony
Perhaps there’s a better reason to retire the Apple comparison now. Even Apple won’t be Apple forever. Transformative innovations only come along so often, even to Apple. With Steve Jobs gone and ferocious competition from Samsung, Google, Amazon, and others, staying on top will be harder than ever. According to Yale Professor Richard Foster, the life span of the average company on the S&P 500 has dropped from 67 years in the 1920’s to 15 years today. Who knows, we might be a few years away from Apple using your company’s “learnings” on its slides.
Seriously, please forget that word…
Steve Faktor is founder of IdeaFaktory innovation incubator, author of Econovation and global keynote speaker. He is the former Head of the American Express Chairman’s Innovation Fund and ex-senior innovation executive at Citi and MasterCard. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ & email.