How Apple Controls Perception, Reality

So I'm not really an Apple guy. It isn't that I dislike their products, or even have a particularly strong opinion on the whole "Now you're an Apple user" cult that seems to happen. I think it really comes down to me seeing past the advertising veil. They've managed to take an industry where you have almost limitless consumer choice and reduce it to "us vs. them"

And they're great at it.

Who is Apple's biggest competitor? If you answered "Microsoft", you're wrong. But that's OK, it's what they want you to think. And they spend untold sums every year to make sure you keep thinking it.

When you really get down to it, Apple competes with other systems integrators and hardware companies; Dell, Sony Computer, Lenovo, HP, etc., companies that are, in many ways, not terribly different from Apple. They take all the same parts (even processors!) and stick them together in the same kind of boxes. They offer a range of similar products at similar prices, dip their toes into other markets, offer similarly built gear, and so on. So why play on a level playing field, when you can stack the odds?

The greatest myth that Apple has maintained is that you are choosing between Apple and Microsoft. This allows them to draw comparisons that feature them in an extremely positive light, and severely limit your choice as a consumer. When you have a problem with your Apple computer, you call your Apple help line, visit an Apple store, or send it to an Apple repair center. Ever try to get Microsoft on the phone to help you with your Dell? Apple marketing has convinced users it is because the software giant doesn't care about them, and pawns off support and responsibility. Every comparison they make in their commercials builds on the idea that your choice is Apple or MSFT. Because if you were really choosing between Apple, HP, Lenovo, Dell, Sony, Eee, Asus, and a handfull of other companies, you'd pick Apple a lot less. They effectively shrunk the market to two players: Apple and "everyone else".

Let's get a quick fact out of the way, because it is difficult to really delve much deeper into this without it. Apple has about 4% of the computer market. That's it. They've heald steady at that number (+ or - 1%) for the last decade. Through all their ups and downs, they've never crossed 5% and never dipped much below 3%. They're a small player. But they have one thing that Dell and HP and the rest don't: the brand.

Apple has arguably the most powerful brand in computing and consumer electronics to date. They have managed to make their users feel better for using Apple products, superior to those who do not. Take a look at their long-running campaign, the "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" ads. Have you ever wondered why those ads exist? Is it to introduce a new product? Is it to recruit new users? No. It is to fluff up the egos of Mac users, reinforcing the idea that they are in an elite and select group (one that is larger than it really is), which has somehow seen beyond other computers to the perfection that is an Apple product. They are not just the overweight middle manager in a suit: they are the freedom loving, college-dropout pothead on the right. They are young, fasion conscious, and popular.

Apple ads are also a forum to spread misinformation about competitors and half-truths about Apple. Vista crashes a lot? Sure. Apple is immune to computer viruses? Why not? The ability to run Windows on a Mac is a feature, but the inability to run OSX on a PC is a shortcoming of Windows? Wow, I guess so! Apple commercials are strictly about building an emmotional relationship with the consumer and increasing the preceived value of a product. $2k for a computer you can buy anywhere else for $1500? That's a hard sell. But $500 to feel like you've made the "smarter" choice? Well that's just a good deal.

I could go on and on, but I'll leave you with one last point: Apple prides itself on a minimalist approach to design, because complex computers are "scary" and unfriendly. This limits the things you can do with them. But as an entire generation grows up around computers, do you think Apple can maintain "simple is better" forever? Or will an OSX machine seem too "childish" by the time you hit 15? Only time will tell, but I think they have a big problem on their hands in the next few decades. That is if they make it that far.

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