A STOP IN TIME

The world lost a great visionary yesterday. The immeasurable loss of Apple co-founder and recent CEO, Steve Jobs, who died at the age of 56, after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer, is almost palpable. The vast reaction from the public, from people like Obama and Bill Gates to various celebrity personalities, shows just how influential he was and the enormous impact he had on people’s lives.

Steve Jobs was a talented and innovative, creative genius. He took personal computing to a whole new level with the launch of the Apple II in 1977, brought legal digital music into the mainstream with the iPod and iTunes, and practically reinvented the telephone as we know it with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. Not only was he pivotal in the development of all three, he inspired and elevated the level of design in consumer electronics across the board.

Apple’s company statement, following Jobs’ untimely death, read,

“Those of us who have been fortunate enough to know and work with Steve have lost a dear friend and an inspiring mentor. Steve leaves behind a company that only he could have built, and his spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple.”

So with the passing of someone so iconic, who essentially embodied the entire Apple brand, the question becomes, what does the future hold for Apple? Does this mean the end of an era of greatness, or the beginning of something new?  Many branding experts believe Jobs’ death will create a vacuum that the company will struggle to fill and give major rivals like Samsung, Amazon, Google and Sony, a chance to catch up.

Earlier this week, Apple made it to Interbrand’s top 100 list of most valuable global brands, rising in value by 58% in just the past 12 months. This marked the first time Apple had made it into the top 10, driven by the success of Steve’s efforts with the iPad, iPhone and iTunes. However, this week Apple also unveiled the latest version of the iPhone, which, unusually, failed to excite fans. And in another unmistakable sign of increasing competition, Amazon announced its new tablet, the Kindle Fire, with release at a far more market-friendly price of $199.

Steve Jobs represented the spirit, the vision and the promise of the Apple brand. Through his imaginative products and inspirational leadership, he made Apple one of the most successful brands in the entire world. However, Apple has come to be almost synonymous with Steve Jobs. He has essentially been Apple’s chief brand ambassador. So much so that when Jobs announced his medical leaves from Apple, the stock suffered. When he finally resigned in August earlier this year, Apple’s stock was down  7%. So there is concern that the association between the brand and it’s CEO was so tight that any separation of the two may prove to be detrimental to the overall brand equity.

However, one of the most important influences of a CEO on his company is his involvement in the creation of a corporate culture. Apple is an employer that has only one thing in mind: customer based experience and its internal philosophies and work environment exemplify that. They ask employees to ‘prepare to be inspired,’ particularly given their obsession with getting every last detail right. They say it best themselves:

Less of a job, more of a calling. Working at Apple is a whole different thing. Because whatever you do here, you play a part in creating some of the best-loved technology on the planet. And in helping people discover all the amazing things they can do with it. You could call it work, or you could call it a mission. We call it a blast.

License to change the world. We make things that make an impact. Like when someone creates their first video with iMovie. Surfs the Internet — the real Internet — on an iPhone. Or uses the built-in iSight camera to video chat with their grandchildren. Making it all happen can be hard work. And you could probably find an easier job someplace else. But that’s not the point, is it?

The big question is, should a CEO become so synonymous with a brand the way Steve Jobs has with Apple? On one hand, it can be a source of sustainable competitive advantage. One other, there is the unknown potential of erosion of the established corporate culture under new leadership. Which path will it be for Apple? I suppose only time will tell.

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