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Art as Apple Strategy

Much has been written about Apple’s recent resurgence but, in many ways, the key to Apple’s success can be expressed in a single word: art.

Art is something we often think of as being sequestered away in a museum, separated from our daily lives, and certainly kept at a great distance from anything to do with business. Conventional wisdom has it that art cares nothing about money, and business cares all the world about it, so trying to mix them together will only ruin both.

Apple, however, has proven that nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s look at how art has shaped Apple’s business strategy and ultimately led to the success it currently enjoys in the marketplace.

1. Artists as Customers. From the beginning, the Mac has appealed to artists and creative professionals, and Apple has always kept this key market segment squarely in its sights. I was reminded of the strength of this appeal when, due to a corporate reshuffling, I recently found myself situated in the midst of a new group at work. Now the corporation I work for long ago banished all things Apple from its realm: even the CEO couldn’t get hold of a Mac, should he be seized by this desire. But the new group I found myself next to was a Creative Services group, and guess what they all had? Macs, of course. They simply couldn’t imagine working without them.

And, of course, as the Mac and iLife and professional products have evolved to support digital photography, digital music creation and digital video production, Apple has systematically extended its appeal into these new areas as well.

2. Products as Works of Art. While many computer and electronics makers have reduced their products to mere commodities, competing primarily on price, Apple has steadfastly positioned their products as unique objects, even when priced competitively with similar products from their more cutthroat competitors.

This is a hard thing for business analysts to understand. Over the course of the iPod’s astonishing five-year run of market domination, observers have repeatedly stated that Apple’s success would be short-lived, greeting each new model with unfavorable reviews, based purely on their price-to-performance ratios. But they have consistently been wrong, precisely because Apple products are quite intentionally more than the sums of their parts. What they have, that their competitors lack, is not only an aesthetic appeal, but a design approach that places a sense of unity and cohesion above all else. Listen to Steve Jobs on the subject:

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.

“The fundamental soul of a human-made creation…” – these words would sound familiar coming from someone talking about a breathtaking work of art, but they are unparalleled coming from a CEO talking about his company’s products.

3. Products for Art Delivery. Other companies have conceived of their hardware and software in technical terms: digital processors for transmission of audio streams and video streams, custodians only of bits and bytes. With iTunes, the iTunes Store, the iPod and now the Apple TV, Apple has instead aligned its vision accurately with the values of its customers and its content providers: its mission is to deliver art, from artist to audience. So while other companies offered subscription services for music, thinking that art could be bought and sold by the pound, Apple alone realized that each album, each track, each video was a unique work of art, whose value was entirely in the eyes and ears of individual beholders.

4. Apple as Artist’s Friend. Ask any painter why they picked a certain gallery to present their work, and one of the first things out of their mouth will be the appreciation the gallery owner had for the value of their work.

Essentially the same principle explains why Apple was able to strike a deal with record companies to launch the iTunes Store, where other companies had tried and failed.

The extent of Apple’s influence in this sphere is hard to overstate. Apple has recently been the target of many complaints about the proprietary and closed nature of its digital rights management scheme (meaning that only Apple products can play material purchased from the iTunes store). Steve Jobs responded to his company’s critics with a suggestion of his own, posted on the Apple Web site, characteristically titled “Thoughts on Music”. His idea? To remove all digital rights management and allow all content to be copied without technical restraints.

After Jobs’ thoughts were posted on the Web, one could almost hear the collective intake of breath from around the world: was he mad? The major recording companies agreeing to release their collective stranglehold on copy protection for their catalogs? This would be akin to the British navy turning over their entire fleet to Blackbeard. What could he be thinking?

Steve Jobs posted his thoughts on February 6, 2007. On April 2, Apple announced a breakthrough deal with EMI records that would make their entire catalog DRM-free, at a higher audio quality, and at a slightly higher price. There is probably no other CEO in the world who could have brokered such a deal.

So, if Bill Gates, Michael Dell and other competing CEOs wish some advice on how to counter Apple’s increasing success, they might consider these words from author and painter Henry Miller, writing in 1957:

Men are not suffering from the lack of good literature, good art, good theatre, good music, but from that which has made it impossible for these to become manifest. In short, they are suffering from the silent, shameful conspiracy (the more shameful since it is unacknowledged) which has bound them together as enemies of art and artist. They are suffering from the fact that art is not the primary moving force in their lives. They are suffering from the act, repeated daily, of keeping up the pretense that they can go their way, lead their lives, without art.

April 30, 2009

Next: Purpose-Driven Documentation