THE MONKEY’S PAW OF RELEVANCE

Blog posted on May 28, 2021 Marketing

Most CEOs would probably trade a kidney for the cult following Apple has amassed. But no one is queuing up to fill Tim Cook’s shoes at the moment, for two reasons: a court case around the Apple Store, which kinda frames Apple as a bully (not very on brand) and a leaked internal letter requesting Apple make a public statement about Palestinian human rights, among other things. The letter states,

“Apple’s words and actions have the power to change lives. We believe this because we have seen Apple do it many times.”

ROCK > Mr. COOK < HARD PLACE

The conundrums they face are a stark reminder that cultural equity comes attached with challenging conditions, including decisions that impact much more than sales targets. They impact lives, communities and society in general. Every option before Mr Cook (including doing nothing) is likely to generate negative responses from people who currently quite like buying Apple’s products. It’s why some people burned their shoes in response to Nike’s 2018 ad featuring Colin Kaepernick.

Without impact, cultural relevance has no meaning, and therefore no value and no point. A cynical marketer may argue the point is profits and that relevance’s ROI is measured in sales, not social impact. But that approach has limitations. Doing good may be good for business, but letting the bottom line shape position is a surefire way of restricting impact. And then relevance becomes redundant. It’s a self-defeating strategy in the long run.

HAVING A PURPOSE AND MAKING A PROFIT

Ben & Jerry’s Head of Global Activism Strategy, Chris Miller, points out in an interview with HBR,

“It’s important that your position be rooted in something you deeply believe. People can disagree with our point of view around ending cash bail or the fact that the president needs to go, but they’d have a hard time suggesting that we’re doing it to sell ice cream.”

In a recent newsletter, Alex Smith writes about brands being “hattable”; the idea that a person puts on a branded cap because of what it portrays about their personal character and values. Bringing it back to Apple, their response is newsworthy because it will reflect what it means to be a fan of their brand. Can you love and use their products while disagreeing with their brand position? Maybe. Would they be as successful if people didn’t “love” their brand as much? Maybe not.

Apple’s response to the letter will impact their next quarterly earnings. It will also alter who decides to wear a hat bearing their logo, and wait in line for hours to be first to buy a new product. Which of these outcomes has the most influence on their decision will play a big part in Apple’s future, as they decide whether their social impact is in service to their profits or adjacent to them. Their relevance certainly doesn’t hinge on one decision, but they will certainly be asking themselves what they want “I’m a mac” to mean.

Expectation is the consequence of relevance.

It’s a powerful marketing tool and it comes with a price. It’s the difference between cheerleading from the sidelines and leading in the field. Be prepared to do the latter. Being relevant means difficult choices thrust upon you about complicated topics you may not want to (or know how to) address. Hence the title of this piece (explainer link here, if you need it). If it’s relevance you’re after, best be prepared for everything that comes with it.