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17 Jan 2015

What Steve Jobs hasn’t done for Apple

There’s a school of thought that the owner of a business should be the face of the company and, no doubt, there are plenty of examples where that is a very effective strategy.

In some businesses, consumers will definitely feel more comfortable in the belief that they are dealing with a real, knowledgeable and invested human being, rather than a faceless corporation interested only in making them part with their money.

But what does it say about the rest of the talent within the company – and the quality of its products or services – if the value proposition and the attraction of dealing with that business relies heavily on how impressive a personality (or salesperson) the boss is?

Just as importantly, what does the future hold for a business that will be greatly diminished once the owner is no longer as fully invested?

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg – all prominent front-men of their respective companies. But are/were they too prominent?

Jobs, for example,will always be remembered as a true legend in the field of consumer technology as well as a charismatic evangelist who changed the face of product marketing, and both of those aspects of his DNA became Apple’s trademark characteristics, too.

However that led to Apple being perceived as very much Jobs’ personal baby, meaning that since his death, the company has lost its “magic”, and most observers believe it will never be able to get it back.

Similarly, when Bill Gates stepped back from Microsoft’s day-to-day operations it also started to lose its magic touch (giving the Jobs-led Apple a much easier run, which it was able to take advantage of).

Gates’ successor, Steve Ballmer, has a public image that is little more than that of an upbeat, yelling and motivational presence, which put a somewhat weird face to the post-Gates Microsoft.

Perhaps now that the extremely low-profile Satya Nadella is in the CEO’s chair, the public impression of Microsoft will be able to shift further from being the Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer Show and more towards a focus on its products, services and innovations. I mean the guy has been in the job for nearly a year and who even knows?

It does make you wonder what’s in store for Virgin post-Branson, though.

Twitter, having four “fathers”, is seen as being a team effort and therefore none of Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone or Evan Williams is prominently associated with the company’s public profile. The brand stands on its own (having a catchy name and logo hasn’t hurt).

If you were to ask a regular person “who is the founder of McDonald’s” or “who is the CEO of IBM” you would probably get a long silence and a blank look.

Companies like McDonald’s, General Motors, Coca-Cola, or Wesfarmers leave a true generational legacy by putting replicable systems in place to become self-sustainable, without having to rely on dramatic innovations, charismatic front-men or some super game-changer event that garner huge publicity and the accompanying buzz.

It’s the company and the brand that people relate to and have confidence in rather than a person.

This is particularly relevant to the technology sector. Not to discredit the need for innovation, but in terms of sustainable business, I’d argue that implementing systems created by brainpower is a far more reliable business model than bidding on those brains to power up at will.

Coincidence or not, KFC’s frontman logo for some reason also “loses the magic” to McDonald’s golden arches…

Seems like a unshakeable business trend isn’t it?

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