As a teenager growing up in Africa in the 80’s, I had no idea what an “Apple” was, what a “Macintosh” did or who “Steve Jobs” was…but I sure as hell had seen (via pirated VHS tape) the iconic “1984” commercial from that years Super Bowl

Apple started my love affair with Challenger brands

It was Challenger brand advertising at its very best. Defiant. Opinionated. Unapologetic.

“1984” and Pepsi’s “Choice of a New Generation” campaign from that era sparked a love affair with Challenger brands that still burns bright.

Fast-forward to 1997 – now at Ogilvy & Mather working on the prestigious IBM account – I have another piece of advertising magic framed on my wall.






The sheer poetic majesty “Think Different” campaign became my yardstick for every piece of IBM copy I reviewed. There was no one on the team who didn’t yearn to write copy like this;

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.

To paraphrase Simon Sinek’s brilliant work, this was the perfect articulation for why people buy Apple – and why, certainly in 1997, Apple was the poster child for Challenger brands.

From Challenger to Incumbent

Today Apple is probably the most envied – though not necessarily respected – brand in the world. Steve Jobs has become a posthumous business guru talked about in the same reverent tones as Gandhi, St Jude and Mother Teresa. Apple stores and the Genius Bar have redefined retail. iTunes redefined the commercial music business. In a perverse way, Samsung’s Galaxy S3 parody merely highlighted the zealotry of iPhone buyers everywhere.

And, one of the funkiest comparisons I’ve seen is this blog which highlights all the things that Apple is worth more than. All of the prescription drug sales in the US? The entire US aircraft carrier fleet?

At the time of writing, Apple is trading at $507 with a market cap of $478 billion.

That’s no small potatoes.

Why the beef then Hilton?

Challenger brands are an ethos, not a reflection of market share

Many folks mistakenly assume that Challenger brands are only for those trying to become #1. That it is your relative market share that gives you Challenger brand status.


As I’ve written previously, Challenger brands are an ethos, a state of mind. A deliberate strategic decision to act in a certain way. A disciplined manner in how you chose to behave – and, importantly, not behave. It has bugger all to do with you being #2, #5 or #27 in a category.

To that end, there is no reason why Apple can’t still act like the Challenger brand that spawned “1984” and extoled us all to “Think Different”

So where’s the evidence?

If I were to characterize the Apple of old with today’s Apple, I’d say they’ve started to exhibit the type of largesse that typically overwhelms incumbents. That, secure in the slavish devotion of Apple acolytes, they’ve lost sight of what made them one of the original Challengers.

Incrementalism versus Innovation – Apple’s recent launches have been minor modifications versus the traditional big leaps of old. Confident their fans will buy anything new they launch (see Samsung parody) Apple deliberately keeps technology back for their next release. Is there any reason iPad Mini release 1 doesn’t have retina display like all their other tablets? That major iPhone releases seem to happen within shorter and shorter cycles?

Pushing proprietary systems – The new Lightning connector is the best example of this. After a decade of using industry-standard USB and Micro-USB connectors, Apple has introduced a proprietary system for iPhone5 and all future releases. The outcry has understandably been enormous (read the comment section of this TechCrunch blog). Many are, rightly IMHO, calling this a money grab by Apple. An opportunity to spur a new market in peripherals, connectors, docking stations and to eschew industry standards. Ask any Sony consumer how much they liked being locked into a proprietary walled-garden set of technology.

Corporate hubris – The much-publicized Apple Maps debacle – and subsequent apology from Tim Cook – marked a huge mis-step in Apple’s famed design. Perhaps more worrying is the vicious patent court battle between Apple and key competitor Samsung which seems more about creating an Apple monopoly (read brilliant synopsis here in Forbes) than anything to do with protecting Apple IP.

When a company stops acting as scrappy upstart and becomes bullying behemoth, then you’ve definitely lost your Challenger creds.

Can Apple become a Challenger again?

Some might argue that it is irrelevant if Apple starts acting like a Challenger brand again. They are debt-free, their pipeline is supposedly robust and their 2012 Christmas performance was decent. So why worry?

The worry is that their competitors – Amazon with Kindle et al and Samsung – are taking a real bite out of them (pun intended). Both are acting in the scrappy Challenger fashion that was formerly the mark of Apple.

A satirical story broke in the days following the Apple/Samsung patent ruling. Supposedly Samsung sent a convoy of trucks to pay the fine in nickels and dimes. The story went viral even though it was blatantly untrue. In my opinion, it went viral because that’s the type of Challenger attitude and gumption that people now ascribe to Samsung…and they see Apple as the bullying incumbent.

For Apple to go from Challenger to Curmudgeon is an enormous change in popular sentiment.

My personal hope is that Apple gets their Challenger mojo back. That the people who brought us “Think Different” can reinvigorate that attitude. The starry-eyed African teenager that still resides in me would love to see it again.

What say you? Is Challenger thinking important or irrelevant in Apple’s future?


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