The last post sparked a wave of insults in my direction. The ratio of comments to readers was ridiculously high. I stumbled across a fanboy hive apparently, and like a bear digging for honey I got swarmed. Thankfully I have thick fur.
It makes me wonder though, what is it Apple does to cultivate that kneejerk response? Some people would argue that they make consistently great products. I personally would say they make consistently good products, and very few great products, and are great at marketing. They belong in the pantheon with Budweiser in that regard. But even if you call their products great, that doesn’t explain it. There are other brands that do this, but almost none achieve fanboyism to any real extent.
Toyota is a good example. Their cars are the best (by every objective measure and most subjective ones) in just about every class they’re in. And their luxury brand, Lexus, makes works of art on wheels. Go read a Lexus forum or just talk to random owners (which is a less self-selecting group) and you’ll see what I mean. They all love their cars. They all will go right back to the dealership when it’s time for the next one.
But even there, you won’t find the almost slavish devotion you do with Apple fanboys. If you make fun of an ES350 on an auto blog, they’ll shrug it off and smile, thinking to themselves “remember that while your Bimmer is in the shop, because it’s going to be there a lot.” They won’t hunt you down on your website and accuse you of wanting to dislike a Lexus before you even bought one. The number 1 item in every “top 10 ways to get your article on the front page of Digg” blog post isn’t “praise Lexus”.
So what does Apple do differently? Their products, to some significant percentage of their user base, aren’t just computers or phones, they’re a lifestyle. Insult the operating system and you insult the owner. The only other two examples I can think of this are sports and religion. That’s how big Apple has become in the minds of many of their users. Not all, and probably not even a majority, especially if you count people who only own an iPod. But enough that you can’t write a blog post that says anything negative about Apple without being accused of trolling. Surely nobody could prefer Windows to OSX and then write about it for any other reason than to gain comments and readership on a personal blog with no advertisements.
Apple has created a club, and the people in it genuinely look down on others for not being a member. Anyone who uses Windows, they believe, is just too dumb or tasteless to know what they’re missing. It couldn’t possibly be that different tools are better for different uses, and that Windows is actually just better for what most people want to do. It’s that they’re inferior, sheep blindly following the flock, and if they’re lucky maybe one day they’ll graduate into paying double for their computers.
I honestly don’t know how they’ve pulled it off. One friend said “design and an unwarranted sense of self importance.” That’s definitely got something to do with it. I think it also has something to do with the audience as well. I’m guessing they appeal to people who don’t generally care for either sports or religion, and maybe everyone just needs something. If you’re not too concerned about the whole Jesus thing, and you don’t really care about the Packers, then Apple’s got a Macbook Pro for you.
But most important, I think, is the club. You have to convince your users that they are superior to your competitors’ for no other reason than the fact that they use your product. The only company other than Apple that I know of that has a significant number of fanboys is Facebook, and they do this as well. Just as one commenter egotistically said that high school students will one day graduate from Myspace to Facebook, your company should position itself as the more mature, distinguished choice.
Facilitate a sense of community within the club too. Convince them that if they buy your Macbook, they’ll be in a small, select group of people for having done so, and that maybe when they walk into a Starbucks and use it to check their email they’ll sit right next to a good looking woman who is also in the club. It’s not as blatant as saying “drink Keystone and hot chicks will want to sleep with you”, but it’s the same principle, and it’s incredibly effective.
It’s worth exploring, because if you have a brand, that vein is clearly worth tapping into. I don’t think it’s anything they’ve accomplished intentionally and I don’t think it is possible to willfully replicate what Apple has done. As Greg McAdoo would say, great surfers don’t create waves, they just ride them. But Apple seems to have genuinely created one. (I guess in the surfer analogy, Apple would be the moon’s gravitational pull.) And you can’t do that purposefully, but it is probably possible to surf the wave. And maybe, if you play your cards right and get incredibly lucky, you’ll make your own.
On the other hand, there is the fact that both companies that do this are in second place. Facebook is catching up (globally at least, not in the market that matters) but Apple is not, and it is perhaps telling that Apple has a much larger number of fanboys. Perhaps the entire strategy falls apart when you are the leader, and Facebook will rely less and less on it as they approach that position. Perhaps Apple will as well if they ever pull it off. It makes sense really. How can you argue that you are above the hoi polloi when you are the common man’s product of choice?
I wonder if Microsoft missed a golden opportunity to turn the tables on them with the Zune. In the mp3 player market, Apple is the 800 lb gorilla. Microsoft dove into the market with the same “products for the masses” attitude that they dive into everything else with. Maybe they could have, instead, positioned themselves as the distinguished product.
It might not have been that hard. The Zune has Wi-Fi and at the time, the iPod didn’t. They could have made it able to receive internet radio stations. They could have tried to integrate Sirius or XM that way too, I think both broadcast through the net, or maybe set up deals with other great content providers like CNN or NPR or The New York Times.
And most importantly they could have attacked the iPod at its weakest point: DRM. The iPod is a fantastic device as long as the following two things are not true:
1. Your media collection is not larger than the iPod’s storage, at which point choosing which songs to put on the device is a nightmare. That one’s not a problem for many people, so there’s not a ton of room to attack it there.
2. You start running into DRM headaches when buying new iPods or computers, or reinstalling OSes. Or you want to do anything with your music other than put it on an iPod or listen to it in iTunes. This is inevitable.
Microsoft should have made their Zune store entirely DRM free. In fact, they should do this now, while it’s still a selling point, and not allow any form of DRM on their devices. This is the one gripe that you find most frequently if you search for “iPod sucks”. Microsoft could have said something to the effect of “You’re not a kid. You don’t need anyone telling you what to do with your music.”
Microsoft is so used to being the “common man” company, the Miller Genuine Draft, and being assaulted by the Apples of the world that they just assume that role even when they have a chance to be Sam Adams. They do the same thing with the Xbox 360, touting how much cheaper it is than the PS3. One of their higher ups even said you could buy a Wii and an Xbox for less than a Playstation. Why not, instead, tell people that the Xbox is actually the better product?
So I think how to generate that fanboy reflex is worth thinking about, especially when you’re not the market leader. It’s something that I haven’t given enough thought to lately, and probably should.