Apple, culture, and the importance of knowing who you are.
by Olivier Blanchard | September 21, 2016
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This won’t take long. Something caught my eye today that I think deserves a brief mention.

My digital friend Robert Scoble shared a story earlier today on Facebook about Apple reportedly being in talks with McLaren, the performance car manufacturer. Here’s the link. Here’s another. Now… the article is nebulous at best: It doesn’t really confirm or deny any rumors about Apple’s interest or non-interest in the automotive market, specifically about self-driving cars or otherwise. Whether or not Apple truly has sidelined plans to develop a smart car is up in the air, and my guess is that Apple observers will be speculating about this for some time. And no one outside of Apple and McLaren appears to know why Apple might be talking with McLaren at all. All we can do is speculate, and the math is this: Apple is talking to a tier one performance car manufacturer. Maybe. About something.

But what Apple is or isn’t doing isn’t really today’s topic. Today’s topic is about direction and positioning, and it begins with reactions to this bit of news. I noticed a pattern of reactions on Robert’s thread that felt like push-back against any kind of partnership with the two companies, and the objection raised by these reactions-turned-comments resonated with me.

The objection, paraphrased and shortened for clarity, was this: Another elitist move by Apple.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with McLaren, the company basically builds supercars. McLaren isn’t BMW or Mercedes. It isn’t Jaguar or Bentley. It’s McLaren. Here: Go take a stroll around their digital racetrack. Supercars are kind of like yachts in a way: Most people don’t own supercars. Supercars aren’t even luxury cars. They’re the luxury cars of luxury cars. They cater to the 1% of the 1% of the 1%.

The word that keeps coming up is “Elitist.” When I first read it, my mind didn’t immediately flash to supercars though. It flashed to every story about rent and property values in the Bay Area being so insane now that even well paid executives feel that they can’t afford to live there anymore. It flashed to every story about tech billionaires and their mind-boggling combined net worth. It flashed to the very unique Silicon Valley universe of self-driving cars and robot security guards, and ambient sci-fi-like technology that hasn’t really reached the rest of the country, let alone the world yet. My mind flashed to a socioeconomic microcosm inside of which a new class of very well-to-do tech executives and investors currently lives – one which exists in parallel to the luxury and exclusivity of the oil fortunes of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and which has very little in common with the world that most Apple users actually live in.

Speaking of technology vs. oil, here’s a quick chart that helps tie those two industries nicely in the context of this discussion.


Every summer for as long as I can remember, Cannes (France), where my parents have retired to, has been a playground for these fortunes, and a showcase for their yachts and collections of brightly skinned supercars. Like clockwork, July marks the arrival of literal containers carrying dozens of custom Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, Aston Martins and other six-figure driving toys. The luxury hotels there welcome their exclusive guests, whose superyachts spend most of the day conspicuously anchored in the bay for all beach-goers to marvel at. Their dream cars line the Croisette for the better part of a mile, and the grinning heirs of heirs of heirs drive around in endless circles, proudly revving their shiny V8 and V12 engines in traffic, to the adulation of little boys and photo-snapping passersby.


Again, “elitist” is the term that keeps popping up in Robert’s comment section. It resonates with me because I know what McLaren means. It’s more than the brand and the cars themselves. McLaren is a universe – a universe that exists well outside of Apple’s market and beyond the experience of Apple users. Even if Apple were to want to partner with an automotive company to create the Apple Car it reportedly doesn’t want to build anymore, McLaren would be an odd choice. Some might rationalize that Apple would be right to partner with such a high performance auto maker, and they would have a point, but this isn’t merely a performance and technology equation. It’s an economic and cultural one as well. Apple’s branding may be monolithic, but its commercial ecosystem isn’t. It’s complex and nuanced. It’s about identity more than it is about circuit boards. When you’re Apple, identity is everything, and “elitist” isn’t the keyword you want your market to associate with your brand.

I’m not here to be a culture warrior, and I really don’t have a problem with elitism in academia, technology, literature, medicine, finance, or any other field or corner of society. It can be grating sometimes, and it can take on rather ugly incarnations, but it isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing. One might argue that elitism has its place, and that’s fine. It’s just that for all of its marketing and design refinement, the magic of Apple is that it is and always has been a populist brand. A premium populist brand, but a populist brand all the same. Apple doesn’t market itself like Cartier or Hermes. It isn’t the Yves Saint Laurent of technology. Apple doesn’t put on airs. Its Apple Store employees don’t buzz you in. It is the brand of the creative class, of coffee shop solopreneurs, of media-savvy technologists. In all the ways it achieves superiority over its rivals, it is still accessible. That accessibility is what makes it work, what makes it cool, and at the heart of that accessibility is its product price points. Apple can afford to push the pricing envelope, like most lovebrands, but that envelope will only stretch so far. If Apple starts pricing itself out of the reach of the average consumer and fan, the result will be resentment.

Resentment from consumers isn’t how you build loyalty.

Elitist. That word… It keeps nagging at me.

I look at Apple’s amazing new campus, and the socioeconomic bubble of the Bay Area tech culture, and the latest $600-$1,000 price-points for the new iPhone and the $500+ Apple Watch Series 2 (do we need to talk about airpod pricing?), and all of that combined, when I hear McLaren thrown into the mix, makes me wonder if perhaps Apple isn’t slowly steering itself into a positioning ditch. What works in Palo Alto or San Francisco isn’t necessarily what works in Atlanta or Boston or Denver, let alone Munich, Brussels and Madrid. This is not a mere detail.


Here is where I am going with this:

  1. By courting McLaren (for whatever reason), Apple might be sending the wrong message to its consumers, many of whom are already wondering if Apple’s pricing and product strategies aren’t slowly leaving them behind.
  2. Lately, Apple seems to have started losing sight of who its customers are and how their economic experiences are changing.
  3. I am getting glimpses of an echo chamber effect whenever I listen to Apple execs talk about their product strategy. There appears to be an imbalance between how much talking and listening are involved.
  4. There’s premium, and there’s luxury. Apple is premium, not luxury. (It’s more BMW than Rolls Royce.)
  5. “Elitist” is one way to put it. “Disconnected” is another.
  6. Pushing too far into “design for the 0.0001%” territory is going to turn people off, which makes talks of any kind with a McLaren instead of an Audi or a Ford or a Tesla take on a negative vibe. Apple is about design and innovation, and self-expression. It’s about culture and its tribe. It isn’t about chasing super cars and yachts, or aligning its brand with ultra-exclusive “elitist” brands. “Elitist” sticks. It’s contagious. Case in point: the mere mention of chats between Apple and McLaren immediately raised the specter of elitism. That didn’t just come from nowhere. Apple is already moving in that general direction, and the market is sensing it.
Apple can probably afford to become whatever it wants, but… can it? We are already seeing cracks in that theory: “Elitist” isn’t the kind of reaction you want to incite from your market. If the sentiment among consumers is that Apple is shifting towards designing products for the tech billionaire class and the celebrity jet set instead of designing products for the rest of us, it will start to see loyalty erode, which isn’t good at a moment in time when so many competitors haven’t only caught up to Apple but appear to have overtaken it in key areas, starting with product features.
Whether there is something to these rumblings or not, there is a very real risk for Apple here. On the PR front, a little transparency, clarity and reassurance wouldn’t be a bad idea. On the product side, making sure that Apple doesn’t forget who its real users are would also be prudent. Just something to think about.

About the Author

Olivier Blanchard has extensive experience managing product innovation, technology adoption, digital integration, and change management for industry leaders in the B2B, B2C, B2G sectors, and the IT channel. His passion is helping decision-makers and their organizations understand the many risks and opportunities of technology-driven disruption, and leverage innovation to build stronger, better, more competitive companies.  Read Full Bio.