In addition to being one of the world’s most valuable companies, Apple has been one of the world’s most valuable brands for most of the past decade. Now, however, there are signs age may be starting to take a second bite out of Apple’s famous logo. Where Macs, iPods, iPhones, and iPads are certainly embraced by youth all over the world, a new survey suggests Apple’s brand perception is most positive with folks aged 35 and over — and actually declining with the coveted 18 to 34 demographic.
Is Apple’s famously loyal customer base starting to show grey around the temples? And what impact could that have on Apple’s prospects — and products — as the company continues into the 21st century?
How YouGov’s BrandIndex works
News of the potential aging of Apple’s biggest fans comes from UK market research company YouGov. For several years, YouGov has been conducting qualitative BrandIndex brand perception surveys in an effort to understand how consumers in different marketplaces and demographics think about a particular brand — and its competitors. Of course, YouGov’s interest in this information is in selling the analyses to the companies that own those brands — and/or to their competitors — as a way of measuring the comparative “health” of their brand in key markets.
The BrandIndex measurement of the health of the Apple brand is pretty straightforward: YouGov just asks consumers “If you’ve heard anything about the brand in the last two weeks, through advertising, news or word of mouth, was it positive or negative?” If a response is positive, the brand gets a point. If the response is negative, the brand loses a point. YouGov then normalizes the scores to run from 100 to -100, meaning a score of zero would be an utterly neutral collective brand perception.
Changes in Apple’s brand perception
Although YouGov’s BrandIndex is primarily intended as a tool for the marketing industry, the company has been collecting BrandIndex data for a while — and the measure’s comparative simplicity gives it a degree of self-consistency absent in one-off surveys conducted by many market analysis firms. For instance, take a look at how YouGov’s brand perception measurement of Apple has changed over time: the grey line represents respondents aged 18 to 34, while the red line indicates respondents aged 35 and older.
Up until mid-2009, the 18-34 demographic consistently had a much more positive brand percent of Apple than the 35-and-over set. In the second quarter of 2009 the 35+ crowd surged and essentially matched the positive brand perception of the younger group — that would have been around the time Apple introduced the original iPad and the iPhone 3GS — but generally the 18-to-35 group had a more positive average perception of Apple.
At least, up until about mid-May of 2011, when the 35+ crowd began demonstrating a surge of positive regard for Apple. Although the 18-34 crowd also marked an uptick — corresponding to the release of the iPhone 4S — the 35-and-older demographic has consistently held a higher opinion of Apple than the younger set ever since.
(That massive dip in Apple brand perception across both age ranges around August 2010? That was the tempest-in-a-teapot over “antennagate“.)
Maybe those Genius ads were on target?
Looking at how Apple’s positive brand perception seems to be shifting to older customers, YouGov speculations that Apple’s recent “Genius” series of television advertisements — which were generally panned by digital media — may have been uncannily on target.
“It may make sense that the ‘Genius’ ads were airing during the Olympics, where the prime time audience is easily over 35 years old,” YouGov’s Ted Marzilli wrote. “It appears that the 35+ demographic, which includes Boomers 50 and over, may need more product hand-holding than the younger group.”
The U.S. television audience for the Olympics may well skew older, although preliminary Olympic viewership figures in the United States show NBC’s Olympic coverage dominating all age demographics. NBC was quick to claim that almost half of all Olympic viewers had watched the games on tablets. Given that smartphones and tablets have generally been more quickly embraced by younger users, presumably many of those tablet users were in the under-35 crowd. (The BBC, interestingly, only saw about a quarter of its audience tap in via smartphone or tablet — presumably because the BBC wasn’t operating on a tape delay and actually covered all Olympic sports.)
Couple the Olympics perhaps-older-skewing audience with the fact that the Genius ads focused on the Macintosh (which, despite the recent release of OS X Mountain Lion, is Apple’s longest-standing product), you seem to get a recipe for Advertising for the Aged.
The risks — and benefits — of being fuddy-duddy
It’s important to note that brand perception doesn’t always have a strong correlation to sales. On average, YouGov’s BrandIndex finds perception of Apple’s brand has been consistently highly positive for the last four years — although there is a downward trend that probably has a few of Apple’s advertising and marketing partners kicking around different ideas. Nonetheless, even if Apple’s brand perception is slowly dropping according to YouGov, the company’s sales and revenue are healthy. In testimony at Apple’s high-profile infringement trial with Samsung, Apple’s senior VP of worldwide product marketing Phil Schiller noted new models of the iPhone roughly sell the same number of units as all previous generations combined. That’s a situation any other company in the world would envy, and why negative perceptions about “antennagate” and supposed consumer disappointment about the iPhone 4S (when people were expecting an “iPhone 5″) haven’t made much difference for Apple, even in the short term.
Furthermore, there are certain advantages to appealing to older consumers. Older consumers tend to have more disposable income and be less price sensitive than young consumers, many of whom are in early stages of their careers (assuming they’re not living in their parents’ basement and trying to wait out the substantial youth unemployment that has accompanied the recent recession). Particularly with the Macintosh, Apple has historically made its money in the higher-end, higher-margin area of the market: the company has historically dominated the sales of computers priced at $1,000 or higher, fueling perceptions of an “Apple tax” built into the price of every Mac.
Having a positive perception among older consumers can also have indirect benefits to Apple’s business, since older user are more likely to be able to influence purchasing and technology policies and purchasing at schools, businesses, and enterprises. Instead of Apple devices getting into big organizations simply because they’re in employees pockets, positive perceptions amongst movers and shakers is more likely to get Apple gear officially sanctioned.
But it’s a fine line. Back in the old days, there used to be a mantra in IT departments that “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” Eventually, that became “nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft.” Although the phrase refers to the ubiquity and broad compatibility of the company’s products, it’s not a compliment: it basically means that product purchasing is being done on the perception of a brand and its stability rather than the technical merit, quality, or capability of a product. Purchases happened because they appealed to the fuddy-duddies, not because they were the best tools for the job.
IBM and Microsoft continued to enjoy strong revenues and growth long after their brands started to become synonymous with complacency — heck, Microsoft’s Windows empire is still hugely formidable amongst both businesses and consumers. But if Apple wants to avoid falling into the same morass of tired branding and even FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) as its customers get older, it may want to appeal to the same qualities that brought them to Apple in the first place — the ability to step beyond the status quo and “think different,” if you will — rather than treat seniors with disrespect and denigrating humor.
But, if that fails, Apple can probably earn lots of positive vibes by giving away iPhone bumper cases. It worked last time.