Whether writing about the iPhone sales slump or product developments, or anything else Apple-related, the story is ultimately about brand.

There's the storied history, although Microsoft is older. The return of Steve Jobs to run the beleaguered company, although he had been pushed out because he was so bad at delivering results at the time. There was the myth of perfect products, no matter what went wrong with them. Compare repeated problems with overheating and even recent injuries from iPhones with the burning battery problems of Samsung's Galaxy Note 7. Samsung recalled all the devices. Apple has weathered that storm repeatedly over the years. Even when the iPhone 4 had antenna problems, Jobs almost got away with blaming users.

Can't touch this

Apple has had an untouchable brand for decades. In fact, the term brand is insufficient for such attraction, like Harley-Davidson for many motorcycle enthusiasts. These are companies with a mystique. For the devotees, there is no questioning of the company and its choices. Similar to what you see in some political contests, people readjust their thinking to continue their support, readjusting reality to fit what they want and expect. It's a more generalized version of the Steve Jobs reality distortion field that depends on the willingness of the audience to suspend disbelief.

The willful suspension of disbelief is a key to live theater. People see a play and then pretend that the sets are real worlds, that the actors are actual people living through events. It is no coincidence that the approach Jobs took toward promoting Apple, and himself, was so theatrical.

But over time, things changed at the company. New products failed to deliver the level of appeal that the iPhone provided. Massive success made it increasingly difficult to surmount previous expectations. Other companies that made mobile phones caught up to Apple. By expanding its popularity into a much wider consumer audience, Apple no longer was an object of adoration by fans. Now it had to satisfy the real world. And then, carriers got tired of subsidizing phone sales, particularly as they didn't necessarily need the iPhone in the way they once did.

Things get ... ordinary

The loss of iPhone unit growth, along with the level of profit and revenue that followed, snapped the mystique. Tech writers were no longer rubes to suggest the company had weaknesses. In fact, such criticism gained a degree of popularity. Last night I caught part of the Charlie Rose show to hear a group of white men pontificate about the upcoming iPhone 7 -- and question where Apple was going. This morning, it was a local radio station with a host wondering about the need for a waterproof iPhone and recognizing that mandatory wireless ear pieces would likely cost a premium as Apple-authorized-only would be the commanded route to listening.

Even if the iPhone 7 is a relative hit (which I suspect might be the case), even if Apple again grows its sales (conditions in China and the lack of carrier subsidies suggest that former levels may be impossible to achieve), the magic has dissipated. Getting it in the first place was a matter of timing, perseverance, brilliant marketing, and the luck of being in the right conditions. Mystique is a collective action and experience. Once gone, regaining it may be impossible.

Published on: Sep 7, 2016