Can the Apple Brand Thrive After Steve Jobs?

Industry Watchers Weigh in on the Future of the Iconic Company Without Its CEO

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Can Brand Apple survive without Steve Jobs? The maker of the world's most coveted electronic devices is about to find out.

Jobs announced today he's stepping down from day-to-day management of Apple until June while he copes with a health problem he called "more complicated than I originally thought."

Steve Jobs
Photo: Shaun Curry
Steve Jobs
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The move came on the heels of months of speculation on Mr. Jobs' health, fueled by gaunt public appearances, his decision to pull out of the keynote for the MacWorld Expo last week and the company's vague admission last week that Jobs had been suffering from a "hormone imbalance."

The fear that this signaled a return of the pancreatic cancer he was treated for in 2004 reverberated among Apple faithful, shareholders and the economy of ancillary businesses built around Apple's revolutionary products and services.

Mr. Jobs led a turnaround at Apple starting when he returned in 1996, transforming it from a struggling maker of niche personal computers into a mainstream lifestyle brand that represents the best of whatever category it enters, from personal computers to phones to music players.

Along the way, the Steve Jobs and Apple brands became synonymous in a unique way in American business. Mr. Jobs is to Apple what Richard Branson is to Virgin, Jay Chiat to TBWA/Chiat/Day or perhaps Jack Welch to General Electric.

The question is, whether in the 12 years since he returned to Apple, has a culture been built there that can survive him? "The good news for the Apple brand is the one thing he has done is created an organization to deliver Apple-ness brilliantly," said Allen Adamson, managing director of the New York City office branding firm Landor Associates.

One could look at Mr. Jobs' other revolutionary company, Pixar Animation Studios, which has maintained its uniqueness after Mr. Jobs even after it was absorbed into the Walt Disney Co. Part of that was due to the Pixar creative team, led by Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter.

By most accounts, Apple has that team in place and Mr. Jobs' role is that of an editor, parsing the ideas brought to him by his team. Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook has led the company before, during Mr. Jobs' treatment for cancer; Jonathan Ive is the designer behind Apple products; and marketing director Phillip Schiller took Mr. Jobs' place delivering the keynote at the MacWorld Expo.

One way to prepare for Apple sans Mr. Jobs would be to bring some of these execs, especially Mr. Ive, who is responsible for the look and feel of the devices, to the fore.

"Certainly it would have been interesting to learn a bit more about the chief of design," said David Murphy, co-president and director of brand innovation at Minneapolis-based Barrie D'Rozario Murphy. "It would have added more depth and texture to the Apple brand because he and his teams and Steve Jobs have created some beautiful products."

For the better part of 12 years, Apple has benefited from Mr. Jobs' instincts, his ability to communicate and his iconic status. Now they're coping with the downside of having an iconic leader: Someday, they won't be around.

"Eventually all leaders leave and its incumbent upon every company to make sure that all key stakeholders understand the quality and depth of the team behind them," said Michael Kempner, CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.' PR shop MWW Group. "Yet, we don't know who they are because they have been kept hidden for so many years."

Most believe that if Mr. Jobs' absence is indeed just six months, there might be impact to the stock, but no impact to the brand. "If anything, it stirs up more buzz about him and the company and his role at the company, maybe to the benefit of the brand, but to the detriment of the stock," said Andrew Murphy, analyst at Piper Jaffray. Mr. Murphy said Apple has had a succession plan for some time, but hasn't made it public.

But Apple will have a tougher time if Mr. Jobs' health forces him out of the company permanently. "If he were to leave it would be very complicated; Apple has the most unique, compelling, consistent voice of any company," said Alan Siegel, founder of branding firm Siegel & Gale.

"There's a underlying sense amongst some of us in the Apple community that Jobs may never return as the company's CEO, and that he's slowly saying his goodbyes," said Kasper Jade, editor of Appleinsider.com.

Apple has shown its brand can survive a product that bombs, such as Apple TV, but all eyes will be on the next few product rollouts, without Mr. Jobs. That will be the most important signal as to whether there can be an Apple without Steve Jobs. Said Mr. Adamson: "The next two or three product launches will be critical -- will they have the Jobs magic?"

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Contributing: Abbey Klaassen, Rita Chang and Michael Bush

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