With a legion of fans, an ever-expanding array of innovative products and an evangelical CEO, Apple has it all. The question is, what's the appeal for consumers and how long will it last? Rob Power investigates...

The Apple Effect

Mosey on down to your local coffee emporium and you can bet your bottom dollar that there will be at least one, indeed maybe a cluster, of beautiful people sat around doing some work and drinking coffee. You can tell they’re beautiful because they have Apple Macs, and seeing them sat there looking all happy and modern and tech-savvy makes you want a shiny white laptop that you can go and sit in Starbucks with too.

The day that you may have thought would never arrive has come – you’ve become an Apple fan. And soon, you shall give them all your money and become, at least temporarily (and maybe only in your head) A Better Person. It’s a strictly 21st Century phenomenon, and it’s spreading like wildfire. Which means it is high time for a closer look at the Apple effect and how it has revolutionised the mind of the contemporary consumer.

It’s hard to pinpoint when this silent revolution began, the sea change that saw consumers traditionally so dispassionate about the IT products they bought became so utterly fanatical about Apple. Probably the best place to start would be around 1998, with the unveiling of the iMac G3; instantly recognisable and easy to set up, its distinctive looks, alternative programs and interfaces set it apart from its rather staid looking competition right from the off. A series of redesigns saw the iMac evolve from the clunky looking, multicoloured monitor it originated as, into a Short Circuit-like bulbous based desktop – all sleek aluminium and adjustable flat screen – before reaching the simple and altogether more elegant iMac we know today.

What has remained consistent throughout Apple’s rise to dominance has been its attention to key areas that competitors had never attributed to the market. The aesthetic appeal alone has been enough to push Apple products to the forefront of consumers’ minds; they look the part – modern, sleek, MacBooks remain far more appealing to the eye than any other laptop on the market, whilst iPods remain hugely popular because they simply look and feel better than anything else available.

To a generation bought up to believe that by the year 2000 we’d all be living in space, Apple is the last embodiment of that ideal, because frankly its products look like they’ve been designed by the same guys who drew the Jetsons. A universal rule of retail is that primarily, customers buy with their eyes first, brains second, a fact that Apple has tapped into at every level, from the product designs themselves through to the packaging remarkably lacking in any sort of ugly brown cardboard or bubblewrap.

The inherent mystique of the brand is also an interesting factor in its intrinsic popularity. Tight lipped is not the word; like Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow, it’s all ‘my private life should remain private’ until the time comes to promote a new film or album, when all caution is thrown to the wind and the protagonists are more than happy to whore themselves to any media outlet that will cock an ear to their incessant caterwauling. So it goes with Apple. To the average journo attempting to write a piece about the company, no matter how complimentary, access to any sort of comment from within the organisation is precisely nil. Unless there is some shiny new i-thing on the horizon, Apple remains a resolutely closed shop, something that has made it seem mysterious and almost other worldly in an industry where usually, companies are more than happy to help out.

A pain perhaps to the lowly writer, but you can certainly see the logic in keeping the cards close to the chest. The rest of the market, the media and all its many fans are just as much in the dark about what Apple will produce from its magician’s hat next, bringing a level of anticipation and excitement to the arena than most in the market simply cannot replicate.

In the brand management sphere, if there is one aspect of the rise and rise of Apple that has truly differentiated them from the rest of the market, it is its marketing. TV ads featuring cult hero comedians and sillouetted dancing folk (slim, stylish, even their shadows are attractive) have spread the word that Apple is the acceptable face of IT geekery. In fact, it’s hard to associate Apple’s public persona with the staid image traditionally associated with the dour, grey image of the IT industry. By gearing itself towards the younger end of the market, Apple has successfully associated itself with youth.

Importantly, as the brand of choice for the media and music industries, Apple has positioned itself about as far away as possible from the traditional ‘9 to 5’, suited and booted, type of person. Apples are, apparently, for individuals, people who want their computers to be a reflection of their own individuality whilst still being able to cope with the stringent demands of their graphic design job.

Whilst to many people this might appear, understandably, to be a load of old tosh, there can be no denying the truth behind it. Apple is the choice of media types, musicians, and fashionistas, and not by accident, and it’s this link that has pulled in the business of the young and hip, or at least the young-ish and wishing-they-were hip.

Even the staff at the Apple store are happy, smiling, funky looking chaps and chapesses who are simply bowled over by the brilliance of their own company. The overwhelming feeling that Apple can simply do no wrong in the eyes of its fans surrounds you, yet stepping into any Apple store you get a good feel as to why they are so far ahead of their competition.

Looking like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, the Regent Street store in London is beautifully set out with plenty of well informed, enthusiastic staff on hand to demonstrate everything in Apple world with some aplomb. Innovative demonstration areas abound, and love it or hate it, you simply don’t feel like you’re in an IT retailer.

The products themselves are without a doubt masterpieces of design. Simple to use, easy to set up, people that had previously battled through hours of complicated set-up procedures on PCs are still regularly shellshocked by the user-friendly nature of iMacs. We are all aware of the other benefits as well, especially in these dark, post-Vista times when operating systems have the capability to baffle and confuse. Apple’s latest OS, Leopard, carries on in the vein of those which went before it – again, easy to use, easy on the eye, easy-going software for easy-going people, yeah?

Setting up and running a PC without any problems at all used to be the strict preserve of those who knew the secrets and held the keys to the magic kingdom where everything ran smoothly. Anyone can set up and run an Apple, it’s that simple, and thrown into the bargain is the knowledge that it will rarely crash, and is almost impervious to nasty viral infections that can be caught from even the most innocent internet browsing.

The real question is though, how long can this Apple-oriented dominance last? A significant backlash against Apple clones, snapping up anything with the sacred logo on it and defending it, no matter what the faults – and no matter what they say, there are faults – is already in full swing. The sort of person who buys blindly on brand loyalty is, by some estimations, unthinking and losing out both monetarily and with the technology they are acquiring.

Yet with more and more homes converting to iMacs, iPods are being snapped up as strongly as ever – thanks in no small part to constant innovations with the products – and even iPhones demonstrating that no market is safe, it’s hard to see how the company will slip up. It now, surely, has to be more a case of competition catching up, then learning and improving upon the Apple model, than somehow overtaking it overnight. The odds on Apple releasing a dud product, so nearly the case with the iPhone, are perhaps higher the more it diversifies, but such a large and affluent fanbase, often blindly devoted to the company, should see them through even the roughest of patches.

Another certainly very timely factor in all this has to be the economy, and with the credit crunch becoming more and more of a pressure on people’s pockets, the relatively high price of Apple products might well force even the staunchest of fans to seek out cheaper alternatives. A brand that has managed maintain price integrity across the board, keeping products at the prices it chooses, without causing uproar amongst its loyal fanbase, has to be admired, yet as the time comes for the great unwashed to start seriously counting the pennies, how long can it be before the realisation that similar (in terms of hardware at least) products are available at a much lower price?

In other words, just how much longer can Apple hoodwink the nation into paying a premium for the logo and lovely white branding when PC World can offer a computing package that will do all that is required of a laptop for much less outlay?

And for all of its suave sophistication and media-savvy marketeering, there are still vast swathes of the market that remain utterly unconvinced by Apple. One glaring example of this is gamers, who have been almost completely put to one side by Apple as it pursues the fashion conscious media market. Games software for Apple computers remains almost laughably thin on the ground, and so far behind the rest of the market’s releases that it almost defies the point of re-programming games to make them Apple compatible in the first place.

It can also be difficult for any company or brand to assess accurately just how long its shelflife with the public is. Once ubiquity is achieved, there is often a clock that starts ticking, counting down to the day when, finally, everyone has simply had enough of seeing the same logo and its related products. Apple by no means forces itself down the throats of the public, but with aspects of its marketing having been mocked by some, and many detractors keen to draw attention to the alleged unreliability of some Apple products, perhaps the threshold of public patience is approaching.

The anti-Apple lobby is also a growing one, a network of stalwarts dedicated to unveiling the ‘truth’ about the company, as if it were the Empire and they the Rebel Alliance, gunning down flagship products with timely laser bolts of scathing anti- Apple propaganda. Focusing mainly on product faults, and taking great time to product lengthy tracts denouncing Apple as a false idol, these online anti-Apple pirates are quick to portray the company as a money-grabbing tyrant, determined to brainwash us all into thinking that the Ting Tings are acceptable.

As with any ‘lifestyle’ brand, there are those who simply do not want to conform with some marketing man’s idea of what counts as ‘cool’, nor do they see sense in shelling out hard-earned cash to become another Mac clone.

There can be no doubt that Apple and its approach to the market is no longer as new nor as innovative as it once was. Whether this is indicative of a star on the wane is not quite so sure. Apple has built an empire by cleverly and insightfully playing the market, and dedicating itself to becoming a universal brand that is, above all things, accessible and functional. That this trend would suddenly stop seems a nieve thought, and the Apple empire certainly looks firm in its foundations.

On the flipside to this though, there can be no doubt that anti-Apple sentiment is growing, and that competition is catching on – and catching on fast – to Apple’s methods. Yet, with so many already invested in the Apple brand, and many more by the day swallowing its message that you, too, can become a hip urban laptop-slinger, we can all be sure of one thing, and that is that Apple is not going to be disappearing any time soon. And you can be sure it has plenty more tricks to dazzle us with tucked safely up its sleeve.

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