Apple's diminishing 'cool' image is a serious problem

A youth-oriented marketing group says Apple is losing its cool factor. Empirical evidence doesn't say so.

Conventional wisdom says there's no quicker way for something to lose its cool than for a teenager's parents to also like it. Whatever it is – music, a TV show, technology – when kids see their parents like something, it's over faster than you can say it’s "so yesterday."

Apple is a company that always had the cool factor, as opposed to Microsoft's necessity factor. You needed Microsoft – Windows and Office, mostly, but there was also Visual Studio, SQL Server and Windows Server, among others—but you didn't need Apple. You just wanted it. MacBooks are the laptop of choice for the conspicuous consumer at your local coffee shop. White ear buds dangle from half the people in the gym; the only question is, are they using an iPod or iPhone?

But that cool may be disappearing. With the dissolution of Steve Jobs's reality distortion field, and some serious missteps since his passing, Apple is coming down to earth and the question now is how hard the landing will be.

Buzz Marketing Group, which focuses on younger demographics, found in a recent survey that Apple's ubiquity has soured the market for kids who need their parents to buy the phone for them.

"Teens are telling us Apple is done," Tina Wells, CEO of the youth marketing agency Buzz Marketing Group told Forbes. "Apple has done a great job of embracing Gen X and older [Millennials], but I don’t think they are connecting with Millennial kids. [They’re] all about Surface tablets/laptops and Galaxy."

There's a lot to dissect in that quote, so let's get started. Wells tells me that for the longest time, the post-Millennial generation rated Apple at the top of its want list. More than 90% of kids surveyed wanted an Apple product, but only 30% actually got one.

Around 2010, with the introduction of the iPad, things began to shift downward. Only 60% of kids surveyed wanted an Apple product. Apple had been around so long, been so ubiquitous and hadn't really done anything new that it was getting stale, she said.

The bloom is far from leaving Apple's rose. I live in the more suburban part of Orange County. There are three high schools within five miles of me. So when I go out and about, I see an overwhelming number of teens, and they all have iPhones. I thought San Francisco was iPhone Central, but it has nothing on the OC. I am a complete oddball sporting a Lumia phone (actually, the "sporting a Lumia" part is unnecessary). The few times I have seen a Galaxy S III, it was used by an adult. That said, at least one market research report says Samsung's market share doubled in 2012 to 46%

As for the Surface part, Wells said people have been talking about it. However, she did warn that "just because people talk about something doesn't necessarily mean they will buy it."

That's certainly the case in Surface, because people sure aren't buying it. There were reports last November that build orders were cut in half due to poor sales. At best, IHS iSuppli estimates Microsoft has sold 1.3 million Surface tablets. Now, UBS analyst Brent Thil has issued a report stating that Microsoft has sold a million Surface tablets. Apple sells that many iPads in a week.

I do think Apple has its problems, too. Tim Cook is a capable CEO but has the charisma of a house plant, and he’s running a company built on image. Scott Forstall was Apple's best post-Jobs talker and he was shown the door. Siri and Maps would never have happened under Steve Jobs. While the iPad Mini has done well and opened up new markets, the iPhone 5 underwhelmed. Worst of all, it’s stock prices recently reached its lowest value in almost a year.

And then there's the sleeper issue. The Samsung lawsuit is turning into a bigger PR boondoggle than Siri or Maps. Apple may have won in court but from the bitter sentiment I've seen on message boards, it's losing in the court of public opinion.

Non-Apple fans are really put off by the suit, especially given Apple's history. It's the company built on an OS concept Steve Jobs famously stole from Xerox PARC, and here they are suing a smartphone company for copying their idea? With Samsung gaining market share so quickly, there will quickly be more Samsung adherents than Apple.

Silicon Valley history teaches us that companies fail more often from their own missteps and their inability to adequately respond to them in a timely manner. Even companies Microsoft is accused of destroying often screwed up badly in the face of competition.

Both Microsoft and Apple are under pressure now, except Microsoft is losing its aura of necessity while Apple is losing its cool factor. But necessity will get you a lot farther than cool when you sell seriously overpriced hardware in an economy that's in shambles.

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