The billion dollar launch of the iPhone was met with petty complaints and indifference, highlighting the need for a Maslowian story-pyramid.
It’s a tech company’s definitive nightmare. Apple, one of the most valuable and influential providers of modern day devices is launching a brand new flagship product with all the corporate fanfare money can buy, and is met with little but indifference, unjust and petty complaints. Let’s be clear, the problem isn’t the product. It’s the story. Or rather, the lack of story. The good news is, any size company can prevent indifference through gradually elevated storytelling.
The iPhone 7 was arguably a very substantial upgrade both on the hardware and software side. But knee-jerk reactions and incorrect claims saturated the response from the market and covered the gamut of: makes “hissing” noises, sub-par glass, no headphone jack, black finish that cracks, short battery life, lack of a mechanical home-button—and of course relentless mocking of something we should all be grateful for: wireless headphones provided at no extra cost. Although some of the complaints had merit—the high replacement cost of the easy-to-lose headphones, for example—half of the reported issues weren’t even true, and benefits like waterproofing went overlooked. Many of the other “issues” should be good news… and that is just the point: Apple did not—nor did the new iPhone—get much love upon arrival. So what happened?
No story without conflict. Ever.
There were two things afoot at the launch of iPhone 7. Firstly, it was never made clear what problems all the new shiny features were solving. A basic lack of story for the audience to hold onto. We humans are evolved story-telling animals. Story is how we make sense of the world around us. When we are presented with an object or an event that we don’t understand—lacking story context—we will literally make story up to stave off any notion that the world is pointless.
There is a word for this: apophenia—to create meaning and patterns from random data. Humans do this incredibly well. We are narrative problem solvers.
So, at the Apple launch we were left with functionality without problems to solve. As such, new features will come across as eager heroes, swinging randomly at windmills. And no one likes an eager hero. We fault it. We mock it. Instead of rallying behind the good cause we distance ourselves. And this is exactly what happened with the iPhone 7 launch.
We are not choosing between brands, we are fighting for humanity.
This takes us to the second issue at hand: the lack of an Apple brand story that can evolve and elevate dynamically. Brands getting big in mature markets need to aim higher in the Maslow hierarchy.
Twenty-five years ago we would rally behind a shaky launch of Windows just to stick it to the man (sic!). The man we were sticking it to was IBM, and the centralized fascistoid computing that they promoted. The enemy was clear, and we were ready to fight. Then Microsoft grew and with our help became a very similar totalitarian play—and yes, all this echoes of the last scene from Orwell’s Animal Farm. We respond in kind by finding a new underdog to root for: Apple, a rebellious company offering of a hip, stylish and “human” alternative to the frustrations of more beige boxes and the fascistoid (and IBM-like) chanting of “Windows everywhere” slogans. The enemy had again revealed himself and we were crystal clear on what problem we helped solve by buying the next Apple device. We were not merely chasing between similar brands, we were fighting for humanity. Not so much today.
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
— Orwell’s Animal Farm
Apple is the biggest corporation traded in the free market. In addition, the practical need to upgrade ones technology to simply get work done has diminished significantly. We need additional reasons to act. We need reasons to care. Or more to the point; the urgency is gone and old problems feel solved. We take core functionality for granted. We need something fresh to give new products real purpose.
Let’s call this “Liedgren’s Narrative Pyramid,” shall we?
What do we do when real problems and purpose disappear? Good companies solve problems, and they tend to grow to a size where it is really easy to hate them for their success. One new way to approach this narrative dilemma is a hierarchical model much like Maslow charted for humans. You remember Maslow—a pyramid of human needs: from physiological concerns at the bottom, to safety, love, esteem and self-actualization at the top.
So, what would a narrative model look like for a brand operating in a world where choosing between one brand or another is rarely a question of life and death? A model that can elevated purpose higher on the pyramid when the basics are taken care of. Because it can’t be stated often and loudly enough: there is no story without conflict. And, the bigger the conflict, the bigger the story. This is all about elevating the conflict—or the problem—as the needs towards the bottom are taken care of and start to be taken for granted.
The narrative construct charts products and features on a gradually elevated scale according to what level conflict it concerns itself with:
Core function: messaging based on function that only this product can do. The problem is described to give context to the newly launched functionality. Easy. But why keep calling it problem and not opportunity? Because problem creates conflict and conflict creates story. Opportunity in branding is the pale and spineless younger cousins of the real actors: Problem and Conflict.
Efficiency: the product isn’t the only one to deliver the functionality but it does it better. Messaging moves from why we need to do it, to why we need to do it better.
Aesthetics: many products deliver the same functionality, but this particular one performs or appears in a more non-rational attractive way. Apple’s products look great. But so do many other products in the same category today. So we move up the pyramid seeking elevation.
Universal Values: broad concepts like freedom, simplicity, power, patriotism, independence work very well as they are non-specific. They are arbitrary in nature in a corporate world but often loosely tied to heritage or an opportunistically highlighted feature: Levis is American freedom with Walt Whitman’s voice booming over a celebration of a new America and the early hopes of Obama bound together with the slogan “Go Forth”—a carefully crafted continuation of the youthful exuberance and rebelliousness it is steeped in since the 50’s. Nike’s is individual determination “Just Do It”. Apple’s is… well, we are not sure about that anymore. The old slogan “Think Different” turns ridiculous when you sell 500 million identical iPhones in a year. This is where Apple is stuck. It needs a new promise that can infuse its products with fresh and higher level purpose. Granted, Apple is in a bind selling the same product across the world. Freedom, critical thinking, justice and equality are not actually universal values. The only universal value unfortunately is power. There are good reasons why jeans are banned in North Korea. And branding based on say the brilliant but old “Think Different” is not going to sit well with the growing market in China.
Spirituality: it is unlikely that any product will fully satiate any universal value, but that doesn’t preclude it from offering a hint of spirituality. Translate this to Apple; a faith based manifestation of select universal values. Faith doesn’t have to be just in a divine creator. For Apple it can’t. But there is faith in trusting that a positive non-material value will prevail. Celebrating such promise visually – giving an abstract universal value a non-functional space, that is exactly what Apple could and should do to re-capture its own brand spirituality.
“There are good reasons why jeans are banned in North Korea.”
The narrative promise of a product or brand will naturally be stronger if all levels of the pyramid connect and make rational sense in a competitive context. When product features and messaging ladder up to universal values. The premium camera company Leica is a master at this: actually reducing the number of basic features in new releases to put focus on core photographic values held as universal values all should strive for. For two thousand dollars more the usual screen on the back is removed to “reduce” distractions from the “essence” of capturing images. And for another one thousand dollars, the Leica logo has been removed to make your street photography less conspicuous. Brilliant and very confident story-telling with brand merging heritage, story, technical features and a truly elevated and relevant promise.
There is nothing off-the-shelf or marketing cliche about crafting these integrated narratives. It takes real work to distill, synthesize and broker between the millions of options and restrictions in a creative way that also makes for good story. Yes, we all know what it looks like when story isn’t present or stuck too low on the narrative pyramid. But telling the right and fully integrated narrative well, that’s brave work calling for a much more elevated spirit.