Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

5 warning signs that Apple has lost its magic

August 31, 2011: 6:26 AM ET

"The product pipeline will take years to screw up," says Bob Hoffman. "The ad pipeline can be screwed up in no time."

iPod poster. Source: Apple Inc.

Bob Hoffman is pessimistic about the future of Apple (AAPL) without Steve Jobs at the helm.

The San Francisco-based advertising executive who writes a blog called The Ad Contrarian and a slim volume of aphorisms by the same name doesn't buy the consensus that, as he puts it, "Jobs built a strong culture, hired smart people, and taught a way of thinking that will serve Apple well in the future."

Hoffman believes that genius is, in a word, nontransferable.  He thinks it likely that Apple will continue to shine for a few years while the initiatives that Jobs started are still in the pipeline, but then, as he puts it, "the startling brilliance will slowly fade."

How will we tell if he's right or wrong? Watch the ads. Jobs was not just a technological visionary, says Hoffman. He was also the best ad man of his generation. The first clues that "dull hands have grabbed the wheel" will show in Apple's advertising.

Watch, he says, for these five tell-tale signs: (I quote)

1. Creeping Brandism: The Apple brand was built bottom-up. That is, the products defined the brand. Virtually every Apple ad was about a product, not  the brand (okay, there was "Think Different" but that didn't last.) Keep an eye out for the erosion of this discipline.

2. Agency change: Vapid marketing people relegated to the background all these years by Jobs' dominance may suddenly start flexing. They wouldn't dare contradict Jobs' legacy, but they could accomplish the same thing by undermining the agency.

3. The Tortured Logic of Account Planning: Look for ads about you the consumer instead of Apple products. Look for moronic online "engagement" gimmicks. Or look for social media pandering.

4. Complications: Part of the brilliance of Apple advertising has been its simplicity.  Keep an eye out for complicated ideas or ads with more than one product.

5. Media: Apple has used online media sparingly. The preponderance of its advertising has been conducted in traditional media -- TV, print, and outdoor. Watch to see if Apple suddenly starts going all trendy and new age in its media choices.

"If you start seeing any of these signs coming out of Cupertino," Hoffman advises, "sell your shares."

For the rest of his advice, read Advertising and the future of Apple. Via Daring Fireball.

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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