The Alchemy of Apple’s Strategy

Apple created a culture of freedom and playfulness out of a product philosophy of absolute control. It was all about trust.

If I told you about a regime that was run by a notoriously secretive autocrat who locked out all democratic suggestions or changes and brutally suppressed the press, would you link it to the Dalai Lama?

Mohandas Gandhi?

Nelson Mandela?

Jackie Robinson?


I’d have to agree. When your mind turns to suppression, control, and dictatorship, you certainly don’t think of people who represent broken barriers, peace, and freedom.

So how did Apple under Steve Jobs take an approach that was straight out of the totalitarian playbooks and turn it into the most celebrated consumer strategy of all time? How did Apple back up—earn, if you will—its association with the trailblazing freedom fighters above, writ large in its “Think Different” campaign?


Trust is what allowed Apple to turn the grayest iron curtain of strategies into the most golden consumer product reputation possible, and trust is what enabled the alchemy of Apple’s strategy. That’s the genius of Apple over the past 20 years.

But Apple is only part of the story here.

The larger story is about why and when control can be exercised over customers (and other followers like employees, vendors, and partners). Control is an expression of power, and power, in the commercial world, is something that is derived from consent. It’s derived through trust.

Consider some of the ways Apple exercises its power:

  • Apple exercises a fanatical commitment to controlling the customer experience – a bit of corporate DNA born directly from the personality of Steve Jobs. Apple tightly controls the product, its customer interface, what peripherals work with its products, and what software runs on its products. It maintains a closed ecosystem.
  • Apple tightly controls messaging, going so far as to sue young bloggers who speculate too correctly about the next product release.
  • Apple is renowned for its aggressive supply chain management, at times driving suppliers out of business through punitive control.
  • Apple uses its massive media appeal to aggressively and maniacally extol the “next great thing” from its own pipeline and subtly denigrate the features its competitors roll out. Who (above a certain age) can forget the “been there, done that” meme from Apple acolytes when Windows 95 launched…?

But this authoritarian behavior comes with a promise: an exceptionally clean (and generally delightful) customer experience. That’s the promise—a distinctive and exceptional experience. And so far, it has been a credible one.

Consumers cede control to Apple and, in return, Apple has delivered on its promises. Like many movements that start small, Apple’s resurgence started with roughly 5% of the PC market – a core group of fanatical followers who had ceded control years ago. Today, an astounding proportion of mobile, music, and computer consumers have bought into the strategy of ceding control and relying on trust.

Apple’s strategy has been one of offering consumers overwhelming simplicity, the message being: Simplicity sets you free. But as we’ve seen, simplicity comes with a tradeoff: a loss of choice.

The Concept

The reality is that Apple has illustrated a very valuable, stable approach to customer engagement and strategy. The degree of control a company seeks to apply to its customers’ experiences successfully relates directly to how much trust the customers have in the company.

I highlight successfully because plenty of companies have tried to control all aspects of customer experience without trust and failed. You can only pursue this strategy for a short while. Companies (and as you know, I relate these concepts to leaders as well in most of my writing) that attempt a high control strategy with low trust must either build trust quickly or stop. Such a strategy is an example of an unstable equilibrium. Customers (and followers) leave you when you are in their kitchen too aggressively and without welcome.

Throwing all this into a matrix (because who doesn’t love a good matrix?) we get something like this:


These lessons apply to management and leadership as well. As we gain more trust, we can take more control, but when we lose trust, we lose our ability to exert control. The uniqueness of the experience we provide is both a route to building trust with those who matter and a route to highly profitable relationships.

What’s the message for executives thinking about their business, talent, or organizational strategy? Well, it’s pretty simple:  You can be an autocrat, but you’d better have the trust of those around you that that outcome will lift all boats, or else you won’t build anything enduring.

The takeaway: Don’t forget trust.

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