The day my belief in Apple soured

I woke last Wednesday with a particularly strong case of morning glory. I was teaching an all-day MBA class, which meant my alarm sounded at six. But as I rolled over to turn off my beeping iPhone, I suddenly remembered it was that it was the 19th. It was iOS7 day!

The new Apple software had been heavily promoted over the preceding days so my early-morning start was a prime opportunity to get it ahead of the hordes. One click on settings, another on upgrade and a final acceptance click and the reliable old grey wheels of Apple’s software-update icon began to turn. “Ah Apple!” I exclaimed out loud as I bounced out of bed and into the shower, safe in the knowledge that as I enjoyed various ablutions, my trusty iPhone would be silently assimilating its new software.

Twenty minutes and half a sink of facial hair later, I was ready for the door but my iPhone was anything but. Despite downloading successfully, my iPhone was telling me that the software upload had failed. No matter how often I tried to re-install it, the same message reappeared. My iPhone remained stubbornly and disappointingly lodged in software purgatory between the mundane familiarity of iOS6.1.4 and the heavenly promises of iOS7.

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It takes me 20 minutes to walk to school. Last Wednesday I spent the whole journey pondering Apple and whether it was, to use the technical term, a bit fucked. It would later transpire that the download problems were caused by the 100 million people who were trying to do what I was trying to do while I was trying to do it. But as I walked up Leicester Street towards Melbourne Business School, I knew none of this. All I knew was that I could not upgrade to iOS7 and that did not make me feel good about Apple. It made me ponder my love for the brand. It made me reconsider its superiority

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The reality, of course, is that Apple was a victim of its own success last week. Too many people wanted its software. But that’s not the point. The point is that if the same thing had happened with iOS2 or iOS3 or any of the upgrades launched when the brand was imperious, my reaction would have been to assume the problem was caused by incredible demand, see it as a validation of my brand choice and walk up Leicester Street still entirely enraptured with Apple.

But last week was different. Perceptual blood was in the water. It’s been there since Steve Jobs died and since then all Apple’s new products became incrementally rather than astoundingly good. Or since the share price started nosediving and the media got a bit wobbly about the brand. So when my little grey upgrade wheels did not usher in a spanking new operating platform, I didn’t think: “Man, this must be great software because everyone is downloading it at 6am.” I thought maybe Apple has messed up. And that it may not be the brand it once was. And then I thought maybe I should think about that.

Of all the advantages of brand equity, one of the most underestimated is the way it impacts on our assessment and evaluation of a brand’s performance. There is no such thing as objective quality. Just the performance of a brand and its episodic experience, glimpsed through the lens of human subjectivity. Strong brands have the ability to tweak that lens ever so slightly in their favour and give the viewer a rose-tinted view of whatever experience they happen to be engaged in.

That’s why Guinness tastes better in Ireland. Why your new car’s inability to start must be a glitch rather than an engineering fault. And why, hopefully, you look at the ugly mug in the middle of this page and assume I know what I am talking about. Marketing Week is written exclusively by experts – right?

Brand equity tweaks the lens in our favour unless, of course, it starts to recede. And then the whole process reverses and the lens starts to tilt against the brand in question. Ryanair flights are always late. Stella Artois is always drunk by plonkers. England will always lose in the 89th minute to a heartbreaking goal, no matter how far ahead we were at half time. And Apple?

Well, that depends. Either the problems associated with iOS7 were down to popularity and success or because of decline and failure. Only you and your residual brand equity know the truth.

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