Apple's silence cedes market narrative to rivals, says expert

Lauded mystique isn't enough as Apple faces competitors like Samsung that won't play the quiet game

Apple's noted silence has hurt its mystique and caused it to cede the "cool" factor to competitors, a communications expert said today.

"It's what Apple didn't say that made them so powerful," said Peter LaMotte, an analyst with Levick, a Washington-based strategic communications consultancy. "They were so silent that it created an entire industry of rumor mongers."

Now that silence hinders rather than helps Apple, LaMotte argued. "The Apple mystique protected them from a need to engage in the conversation. But the mystique has worn out. They used to own the 'cool' factor. Not anymore."

LaMotte was reacting to comments made last month by Jean-Louis Gassée, a former top-level Apple executive, who said that Apple had "lost control of the narrative ... [and] let others define its story."

Gassée worked at Apple until 1990, and finished his career with the company as its head of advanced product development and worldwide marketing. He was forced out by then-CEO John Sculley and replaced as head of marketing by Philip Schiller, who still holds that post with the Cupertino, Calif., company.

In turn, Gassée was reflecting on the launch of Samsung's Galaxy S4 last month -- the smartphone will go on sale in the U.S. later this month -- and what he saw as a clumsy putdown by Schiller, who knocked the Galaxy S4 for allegedly relying on a year-old version of Android, which in fact was not true.

The episode, Gassée said, reflected poorly on Apple and illustrated how rivals, much less reticent than Apple to toot horns, have commandeered the conversation about mobile. Apple, meanwhile, has remained silent.

Part of that may be timing: Apple has not hosted a product launch event for more than five months, when it introduced the iPad Mini. And its next expected event, the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), is two months away.

LaMotte, however, thought Apple's problem was deeper rooted. "I think it really comes down to the fact that Samsung is making a product that is seen by many as comparable in technology to the iPhone," LaMotte said.

Schiller's attempt to disparage the Galaxy S4 on the eve of its introduction backfired because of Apple's longstanding reliance on tight lips. "When you have been historically silent, even a few words is a substantial change of philosophy," LaMotte said.

And people noticed. Many commentators, including the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, pointed out how unusual it was for Apple to speak up, and because of the timing, interpreted Schiller's remarks as defensive. Analysts said it showed Apple's concern about the competition, something it rarely admits even exists.

Apple needs to ditch its longstanding reticence and get in the game, LaMotte said. "We will always recommend that it's better to be in the conversation than not," he said. The way it is now, he continued, Apple's letting others create the narrative. "If Apple's not in the back seat, they're in the passenger seat, and Samsung is driving the car," LaMotte said.

Apple doesn't have to be defensive, or take cues from Microsoft, which has run an attack ad-based campaign against Google since late last year, by going negative. But it should do something, LaMotte urged, if only because it's battling a flood of messages from rivals who use social media, blogs and other outlets in addition to traditional advertising.

"They're trying to fight off basic social media tactics," LaMotte said, hinting that such a strategy was futile.

Even its ads, said LaMotte -- himself a former ad executive -- now take the wrong approach, sticking to products and their features.

"Apple always added to their mystique through their advertising," he said, but noted that those ads -- such as the "Get a Mac" campaign that pitted John Hodgman, playing an always-inept PC, against unruffled hipster Justin Long as a Mac -- bolstered Apple's cultural image more than focused on products. That cultural image -- what LaMotte called its cool factor -- has fueled Apple's revenue-making machine, he argued.

"Ads should focus on the brand identity of Apple, the cultural attachment that its users have with the brand and the products," said LaMotte.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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