Apple’s Steve Jobs is perhaps the only current CEO whom superlatives like “visionary” and “icon” can be attached to his name without generating a eye-rolling. More than that, there is no other corporate executive whose persona was so entwined with a company’s brand as Jobs is with Apple (NSDQ: AAPL). So as Apple’s co-founder prepares to relinquish that position and take what is presumed to be a lower-profile chairman role, it’s worth wondering what that will mean to the maintenance of Apple’s stellar corporate image.
While Jobs wasn’t a fixture in Apple’s commercials in recent years, Jobs’ appearances at the Cupertino company’s annual developer conferences, WWDC, showcased the exec in almost rockstar or Broadway terms. And the excitement was then reflected into whatever new or updated products and features Jobs would be unveiling.
“In recent memory, there hasn’t been a leader more closely identified with a company’s success than Steve Jobs,” said Jordan Bitterman, SVP of Publicis’ Digitas. “He created Apple in his image, returned to revive it and oversaw unprecedented growth measures related to both brand and business. His steady hand on the tiller of Apple has been the single greatest ingredient for their success. While his departure is not unexpected and a succession plan has been formulating for a few years, separating Jobs from Apple will not be easy for consumers and business alike. When you look at that logo, you’ll think of Steve.”
The idea of Jobs and Apple together has been a source of strength for Apple since Jobs’ returned to the company in the mid-’90s. But after Jobs’ began battling a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2004, investors became increasingly anxious about Apple’s succession plans.
Jobs’ replacement, COO Tim Cook, took over for Jobs when he first left for an extended medical leave two years ago, has maintained a larger role in Apple’s operations. While considered a capable manager, he’s not expected to be able to embody Apple’s corporate image the way Jobs, the quintessential developer geek and an obsessed perfectionist, has. The immediate worry sent Apple’s stock down 5 percent in after-hours trading.
But that stock is expected to recover. And Jobs isn’t completely disappearing from the company. Ultimately, Apple’s strength is in the product line that it has marketed as cool and simple. On all fronts, it will take years for tablet competitors to catch up to the iPad and the iPhone.
Plus, Apple’s fan base is likely to remain as strong as ever. One possible analogy is the Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS) Company, where, interestingly enough, Jobs is the largest individual shareholder. That entertainment company was embodied by its “visionary” namesake too. As the image of Walt Disney, who died over 40 years ago, continues to influence his eponymous company, Jobs’ stamp is likely to continue to have a strong influence on Apple’s evolution. So with the company in such a strong position — for a very brief moment this month it flirted with topping Exxon Mobil in market capitalization — if Jobs has to bow out, his timing seems impeccable, as usual.
“No one has singularly defined elegance and simplicity in consumer tech than Steve Jobs,” said Tim Hanlon, former former managing director of Interpublic’s Velociter and Publicis’ Vivaki Ventures. “There are a ton of brilliant people at Apple, but without Jobs, much of the innovative soul will be missing. I doubt, however, that Jobs leaves the company without a ton of great new ideas in the pipeline yet to be ideated — and the legions of Apple loyalists he created will still benefit from his vision for years to come.”