Steve Jobs: Selling Aspiration

Apple stores marry temple-like sanctity with designer retail

Steve Jobs resigned today and there has been much written about the ‘visionary’ CEO as the shares of Apple have dived. Jobs was certainly a brilliant CEO after being reinstated as leader of the the company in the late 1990s (he was fired by the board some years earlier) he not only revived a dying computer company but engineered Apple’s leapfrog over the seemingly all-powerful Microsoft to become one of the biggest companies in the world. Apple now rules the consumer electronics industry but Jobs’ impact, I think, really owes much to an industry far older than consumer electronics: fashion.

Much has been written about Jobs’ impact on the technology world. When Jobs took over Apple for the second time he introduced the iMac to the world: a simple all-in-one computer with a futuristic bubble design in candy coloured perspex. This new approach to computing -thinking about industrial design as much as what’s inside the box- revolutionised the consumer electronics industry. But what is really intriguing about Apple under the leadership of Steve jobs is his central place in the aura of the company and its conflation of design and marketing.

Jobs’ sent Apple’s fortunes into the stratosphere by aping (consciously or unconsciously) the high fashion industry which thrives on two central principles: sell aspiration and never listen to customers. Apple products sell to people the person they want to be. It’s not insignificant that the iPad in the poster has a TED Talk video playing because Apple is selling a lifestyle: the owner is sophisticated but not obscure (geeky), just like the product, just like TED Talks. When you buy Gucci or Ralph Lauren, you buy into a fantasy and the same goes for Apple products. While Microsoft brought computing to the masses by cheaply licensing its OS to competing manufacturers, Apple remained a tight grip on all its products and systems, limiting its hard-and-software ecosystem: to use Apple, you must embrace Apple. Apple products have always remained expensive, but not prohibitively so.

Part and parcel of selling aspiration is the second principle: don’t listen to customers. Steve Jobs is notorious for dismissing customer requests and complaints and puts little faith in focus groups. This is because Apple and the fashion industry know that aspiration does not come from your needs, neither does it even come from your wishes, it comes from where you would like to be placed in the world and only someone else can provide that for you.

Update: Steve Jobs died yesterday (06 October 2011), genuinely sad news, especially given that he died young. But I can’t help thinking that he deluge of internet tributes to Jobs was a little disturbing, particularly those that credited him for “inventing” the Macintosh or the iPhone (others invented these products, Jobs sold them). While certainly charismatic, probably a nice guy, it’s a shame that a CEO of a multinational whose role was essentially that of a salesman is wept over and the subject of candle-lit vigils outside stores. I’m sure Jobs himself would find it rather silly.

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One thought on “Steve Jobs: Selling Aspiration

  1. The mystique goes on even after he has stopped. There are so many things we can learn from this extraordinary man. We weep for all men and women who pass before their work is done. His work goes on in eternity. Just don’t be afraid to take the stage!

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