Ravi Mattu, Financial Times: Putting the customer first

Apple's ability to communicate with its audience sets it apart from most other businesses.

Spend any time with senior executives, business thinkers, consultants, academics or management gurus, and discussion will inevitably lead to Apple.

Whatever the business challenge - innovation, disruption, creativity, marketing, design, comms, retail - every conversation about how to do it well ends up with a group of serious adults shaking their heads in incredulous awe at the geniuses in Cupertino.

How has a single company whose products appeal to a small - if devoted - niche of consumers, whose systems are largely closed and whose co-founder and iconic CEO was a micromanager who was known to rant at staff, garnered such a lofty reputation?

Because Steve Jobs excelled at defining the purpose of his company - to be a manufacturer of desirable, aesthetic products that make life easier; making sure that ethos resonated across it and to consumers; and always remaining focused on challenging conventional thinking - and bringing his firm along with him.

To get a sense of how this manifests itself, consider two key events from 2001: the birth of the iPod digital music player and the announcement of the company's first retail store.

Apple did not invent the MP3 player but its version of it did revolutionise the industry. The small and elegant device, like all Apple products, was super user-friendly and intuitive to use. You did not need a manual to figure out how to make it work - a persuasive proposition.

Crucially, despite its hugely successful launch, the firm continued to innovate by creating new versions of the product, and developing new services and products such as iTunes, the iPhone and iPad, which built on its stunning success.

A similar tale is told by the Apple Store. Few could have predicted that a technology company could change shopping. Yet Apple Stores have queues forming round the block when a new product launches and are always jammed with customers - despite the fact that consumers are often able to buy the same products cheaper elsewhere. And, according to many trend watchers, Apple's retail experience is influencing how other, more conventional retailers are rethinking their approach to the shop.

In each of these cases, Apple was not the first mover but came up with the package that challenged the conventional way of doing business. That is another key to understanding the company's enduring appeal: its image as a disruptor.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than with iTunes. While the music industry was wailing about piracy and the challenge of getting consumers accustomed to getting everything for free online to start paying, Apple just did it. Launched in 2003, within seven years it had served its ten-billionth download and was the number one music vendor in the US. All of this was done with the music industry onside and by offering a product that consumers wanted and that fitted in with their lifestyles and changing mores.

For so many business leaders who have struggled to figure out how to make the web pay, Apple's success is not just admirable but inspiring.

Few companies have been able to define such a brilliant brand proposition, disseminate it across an organisation and deliver it so effectively to consumers. Few companies have been able to innovate and improve their product offering as consistently or as well. And few companies have remembered that good business ultimately comes down to one thing: the customer. Impress them and you are more likely to impress those nodding business thinkers and executives, and the odd cynical journalist, too.

Ravi Mattu is the editor of the Business Life section of the Financial Times

Thought Leadership credentials

  • Apple's slimline packaging is not only eye-catching, it also helps to cut its carbon footprint. For example, the packaging for iPhone 4 is 42 per cent smaller than for the original 2007 iPhone, meaning that 80 per cent more iPhone 4 boxes fit on each shipping pallet.
  • The Apple Store on Fifth Avenue - The Cube - is said to be one of the most photographed landmarks in the world.
  • Despite being the second largest firm in the world by market capitalisation, Apple's current board of directors - eight including former US president Al Gore - is among the smallest in the Fortune 500.

From PRWeek’s ‘What is a Thought Leader?’ supplement

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