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Jan 2011

Are we too reliant on brand figureheads?

Posted in Business tactics | 0 Comments

This month it was announced that Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple and largely seen as the face of the entire company – similar to Bill Gates – would be stepping down from CEO duties and going on extended medical leave. That this is not the first time this has occurred has many people worrying about the future of the company. I’m going to summarise my response to his departure (with all respect to his ailing health):

So what?

Does it really matter? I don’t know about you, but the last time I checked Steve Balmer wasn’t driving the Gates-less Microsoft into the ground, and I’m fairly confident that Zuckerberg’s no longer as important to the company as people think he is. The fact of the matter is that the people around this person are just as important, and any one of them could do an admirable job in the CEO’s shoes. We’ve become so reliant on a culture of celebrity that we’re struggling to face a brand’s future without that familiar smiling face.

The CEO makes the big decisions, we know this. But everything else is ultimately overseen by their surrounding team of experts, managers and consultants. These people are more influential than anyone else, and the idea that the head honcho can’t be replaced is simply either bad career attitudes by those unable to get promoted at their company or paranoid rich people who’d rather not be seen as an overpaid nodding-and-shaking head.

Personally, I think it’s too late for Apple to change. No CEO is going to swerve them away from their current course, and we can be sure of the following, as they will always:

  • put out several versions of the iPhone every 12-18 months, increasing them in price,
  • continue to make MacBooks and iMacs more compact, better protected and the operating system more visually friendly whilst remaining powerful,
  • turn iTunes into a more social media experience, through Ping and possibly with a long-shot deal with Zuckerberg and the Facebook crew,
  • charge high prices for hardware that does it better than anyone else, annoyingly justifying their mouth-watering profit margins.

None of the above will change, because they’re not that different to any other company in any one of those respects. Of course phones are getting larger – compare the 90s’ Nokia 3210 with today’s HTC Desire HD and you’ll see a colossal size increase, but the phones are getting thinner. Eventually we’ll hit a plateau of sorts, and hopefully before we’re walking around with bits of silvery A6 paper welded to our hands, with Angry Birds 3D/HD 4 blaring out of Bluetooth surround-sound speakers.

With Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the picture shifts slightly. He, like Gates and Jobs before him, is the 2010 version of the 20something CEO with a huge, fit-to-burst wallet and an astonishing amount of influence over his sector of technology. But in 2050 when he starts to think about retirement, the press will once again mob the team around him and desperately attempt to find his replacement before HR does. Unless they’re running a book on the whole thing, I think it’s amateur dramatics at best, and worthless journalism at worst.

If you’re running a small business and you have the feeling the team of ten or so people working around you now will someday be your directors, your heads of PR and your consultants, bear in mind that you’re not invincible. Just because you’re the person grinning on-stage whilst displaying the latest overpriced doohicky everyone doesn’t need but will definitely want, doesn’t mean that someone else can’t take it off you and grin, perhaps even wider than you can, and with shinier teeth.

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