What Apple Should Learn from Richard Nixon

Last Updated Aug 11, 2010 1:52 PM EDT

Apple (AAPL), which has one of the strongest brands in high tech, has faced over the last few months many challenges to its positioning and image. Problems in product quality, engineering and design, customer service, security, and relationships with government regulators have become common topics in the media. Apparently CEO Steve Jobs has decided to address these as he has other issues through the years: by ignoring what he can, by turning any necessary correction into a spin-controlled marketing event, and by trusting that the customers will stick with him, because he offer what they really want.

However, the strategy that worked when Apple was much smaller and had a tight and well-defined customer base is no longer valid. The company has intentionally reached a broader consumer market -- a smart and sensible strategy, given Apple's strengths and general market conditions in the computer business. But with bigger reach comes the law of consumer reticence, or, as President Richard Nixon called it, the Silent Majority. Whether the business is electronics or politics, a large portion of people remain quiet. But this silence often connotes disapproval, rather than approval. Fail to hear the quiet, and you end up in trouble.

Historically, Apple has been good about projecting the image it wished through a hyper-secretive corporate culture, clever manipulation of the press, and a rabidly loyal fan base. But over the last two years, issues surrounding its consumer electronics products -- iPod and iPhone -- have commanded more attention:

  • Apple tried to explain away serious device overheating. However, the issues remained and now the company will replace iPod nanos in Japan after regulators there focused their attention on consumer complaints.
  • Researchers have uncovered huge security flaws in iOS, so Apple's reputation as a provider of safe platforms is out the window.
  • Congress has continued to put pressure on Apple over privacy issues, and the company also caught regulators' eyes over antitrust and business practices.
  • The iPhone 4 problems -- antenna, proximity sensor, and discolored displays, to mention a few -- have been unusually glaring. On the antenna front, the free iPhone case fix program had a lot of operational problems itself. Rather than the 3 to 5 weeks it was going to take for customers to receive their cases, it's now stretching out to well over two months. (A reader who owns an iPhone 4 sent his acknowledgement email: case order placed July 24, ship date October 20, with expected arrival by October 23.)
The increased evidence of product problems and Apple's own fallibility come exactly as the company's expansion into broader consumer electronics really takes off. Apple has continued to use its approach of ignoring problems, then denying their existence, then trying to blame others, and then attempting to spin the entire situation into one where Apple acts magnanimously and customers are grateful.

However, these aren't the same customers as before. Traditional Apple fans are vocal about their perceptions of the company. That's rare among consumers as a whole. Most form the de facto silent majority. The problem is that issues build up without an obvious clue and suddenly there's a big problem. After all, the consumer electronics industry is really dependent on fad and fashion. Remember, there was a time when Walkman radios were ubiquitous.

It is possible to deal with problems before it's too late. A company can undertake customer satisfaction surveys and focus groups, create user advisory panels, learn to give an effective and meaningful apology, and similar steps. Yet all that requires and admission of imperfection, and there is scant chance Apple will ever do that while Jobs is in charge.


Image: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.