Was April 23, 2010 the day that Apple jumped the shark? Others have said it before, but this has nothing to do with iPad product design and all to do with public perception. We won’t know for sure until several years from now, but here’s my suspicion and why.
What Am I Talking About?
“Jumping the shark” is when a once-popular TV show tries absurd plot turns or casting changes to re-attract viewers as its ratings drop. The idiom comes from a September 1977 episode of Happy Days, where the flailing show had the Fonzie character water-ski over a shark. It’s now seen as a sign that it was all downhill from there.
Was Apple Abusing Public Resources to Settle a Private Grudge?
Did Apple use their position on the REACT strike force‘s advisory committee to sic the police on a prominent tech blog that broke the story about the company’s yet-to-be-released iPhone 4G? It’s not a hard stretch to imagine.
I’m all for companies protecting their legal rights, but that’s something to resolve in civil court, not by sending the police to break into Gizmodo journalist Jason Chen‘s house and confiscate his computers on April 23.
Public perception’s a big deal…especially for a consumer brand like Apple. It’s not the first time a media darling stumbled irreparably in a matter of days–just look at JetBlue.
JetBlue’s Fall from Word-of-Mouth Grace
When JetBlue took off in 1998, the media and customers hailed the discount airline as revolutionizing air travel in the United States. My coworkers in New York raved about the company’s low fares and in-flight satellite TV.
I believe this halo effect lasted until February 14, 2007, when a snowstorm kept passengers on the tarmac for up to nine hours, followed by a multi-day cascade of 1,700 canceled flights and 130,000 stranded passengers due to the weather and a crew scheduling meltdown.
In 2004 or 2005, I nabbed a front row seat when JetBlue founder David Neeleman spoke at the Learning Annex. He sounded like a smart guy who’d synthesized a lot of good lessons in his career to create a great company. But Neeleman stepped down as CEO in May 2007, three months after the Valentine’s Day debacle.
Was the resignation entirely due to the public relations meltdown? No, but I’m sure the airline’s operational slipup accelerated the company’s “maybe it’s time for a post-startup CEO” decision.
Three years later in 2010, JetBlue continues to provide solid service but they don’t seem to attract the same fawning word-of-mouth. In retrospect, I believe the 2007 operational meltdown was the PR sign that JetBlue had “jumped the shark.” As the saying goes, “A reputation can be built in a lifetime and destroyed in an instant.”
A Cautionary Tale?
I’m a minority Apple shareholder, so I hope I’m wrong. Apple has emerged from more-dire situations before. But this is a perception-of-fair-play thing.
It’s easy to criticize and it’s hard to build a sustainably successful company. But Apple and JetBlue are a warning to us all: No matter how strong your brand, one or two big mis-steps might be your company’s first steps toward jumping-the-shark mediocrity.
What does Apple need to do to maintain its long-term reputation?