Apple had a difficult year in 2007 but weathered the challenges generally rather well. While the company does not really sell to the enterprise, a number of things it does showcase both the right and the wrong things to do when approaching a market, particularly today's market. As we get ready for the MacWorld vs. CES battle, let's chat about this.
What Apple Does Right
Marketing: Apple understands the need for demand generation marketing. An Apple advertisement tends to focus on the one or two things that a buyer would find attractive about a product. iPod ads are basically people having fun with the product. They don't talk about features much and tend to avoid technology like the plague because buyers are seldom easily motivated to buy technology; they are motivated to buy products that solve a problem, or that they think they will enjoy.
In many ways, this is marketing 101, but it's far more difficult than it looks because it doesn't give credit to the features and the people who created the product, which is often important to the folks inside a tech company.
In addition, marketing leads a product. When a product is conceived at Apple, folks are thinking about how it will be sold. This is almost the exact opposite of most technology firms, where marketing only gets involved when the product is near final. That is why so many products seem to come to market seemingly incomplete. The customer defines what "complete" is, not the developer. Marketing should, but seldom does in firms other than Apple, bridge that gap.
Advocacy: Apple nurtures its advocates. In its stores, it has "genius bars" where advocates can congregate. It uses its advertising dollars to target and support its advocacy sites, some of which appear to operate as part of Apple's marketing machine while seeming independent. This last appears brilliantly done. Only occasionally, like with the Think Secret shut down and the PC World resignation, do you get a sense of the behind-the-scenes power plays Apple appears to regularly implement to ensure it is portrayed positively. It has both a carrot in that it rewards with free products those that cover it positively, and a stick that can go beyond its marketing spend.
Buyers rely on people they trust to make product decisions. The Apple advocate was critical to both Apple's survival in the 90s and its success this decade. I'm not aware of any other company that puts the kind of effort into grooming and maintaining its advocates that Apple does.
Out-of-Box Experience: Apple presents its products to customers in an elegant fashion. Opening the box of an Apple offering is a surprisingly good experience. Unlike other PC vendors, it doesn't load its hardware with hard-to-remove third-party offerings, which can contribute to crashes or a poor initial experience. It doesn't load on third-party brands either. From the outside to the inside of the box, it conveys the high quality of the experience. Few companies do better in this regard. Even Microsoft has used it as a guideline for how things should be done. This now famous video was created internally at Microsoft to drive a needed change; if you look at the Zune packaging, you'll see that group, at least, apparently learned the lesson.
Complete Offering: Often products are held to release dates and when they make it to market, they aren't finished. Apple seldom makes this mistake. Generally, it will delay a product rather than release it early incomplete. The first iPod and iPhone were complete offerings when they came out; this created a solid foundation for future products. When a product is released incomplete, people form their initial impressions on that release and may never come back to future offerings, or will develop a pattern, based on that initial offering, of looking for the shortfalls rather than the successes.
Partnering: There is a saying in Silicon Valley that "no one ever partners with Apple twice." Apple seems to have the motto that anyone that partners with it deserves what they get. The tech market is littered with companies like IBM Microelectronics, HP, Motorola and PortalPlayer that have painfully learned this lesson. Microsoft was the only company that materially came to Apple's defense when Apple's future was at most risk, and Apple is the only partner/competitor Microsoft has that does attack ads on the company. Even retailers who resell Apple products have taken exception to Apple's behavior towards them. At a time when Dell is actually doing well in this space, Apple still appears, based on channel feedback, to be the vendor that these folks most hate, providing significant opportunities to Apple's competitors.
As we move through this decade, partnering with companies like AT&T and Disney will be critical to Apple's continued success. The inability to partner well will undoubtedly create a significant drag on that success. Microsoft's success is directly connected to its massive number of partnerships.
Untrustworthiness: While other vendors try to let their customers know what is coming, Apple is both secretive and misleading. Being secretive actually works for the company because you don't know what is dropped out of offerings. Apple can better position products if it creates the first impression. But, the move to Intel and flash-based MP3 players was preceded by statements that it wasn't ever going to make these moves (even though it was planning them at the time). Trust is a critical asset with any vendor. If you bleed out that trust, you can find your non-advocate customers (which make up most of your market) become very disloyal.
In the consumer space, where the customer is already very fickle, this hasn't yet been a huge problem, but were Apple to do this in the corporate market, it would find market share increases very difficult to come by. Microsoft is another company that has had trust problems, and it was a decrease in trust that contributed significantly to IBM's decline in the late 80s. With the exception of the 80s, IBM has always had the lead in this area, but is being challenged by HP and Oracle. Microsoft has always tested as both one of the most and least trusted companies in the segment (and is the only company that seems to have this massive dichotomy in perception by customers).
Public/Analyst Relations: Apple has one of the worst PR organizations in the segment. Surprisingly enough, Google seems to be chasing it in this regard. While this isn't a problem when things go well, when things don't, coverage can quickly spin out of control. Offsetting this somewhat is that a lot of prominent journalists are Apple users and many of these are Apple advocates. Apple remains the only firm that PR folks I know avoid because they fear they will damage their careers.
This is more a policy problem than a people problem. Much of the bad press Apple has experienced over the years can be connected right back to its inability to do good PR. PR is a critical resource that is often poorly coordinated, under resourced, lacks the appropriate support by the executive staff, and is measured against impossible metrics. This is one area where Apple is not a good example. One of the companies I've used over the years with regard to PR excellence is Oracle (though that may be changing), and with industry analyst relations, HP (the HP guys have left and reformed SageCircle).
Understanding what a company does well and doesn't do well can both help you with regard to what you emulate and how you work with the firm. Companies that build solid products but market or do PR poorly will require you to take up the slack when you justify your purchase of their products. Companies that partner poorly should have you avoiding products that depend on that partnership or anticipating partnership problems and factoring them into what you do with the offering. Companies that you know have strong advocates may require you look to make sure the person you are depending on for a recommendation is doing so based on the merits of the offering, not their personal attachment to the vendor.
Like building a friendship or a marriage, knowing as much as you can about a vendor -- or as a vendor, knowing what the best practices are (the equivalent of knowing to put the toilet seat down) -- can lead to much better and much happier relationships.