Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Apple doesn't get social? Wait a minute... think again...

Meet Apple’s secret family: The people Steve Jobs wishes you were  

- by Electricpig staff 

Steve Jobs is disappointed in you. Maybe he always will be. No matter how many iMacs, iPads and iPhones fill your home, and it’s all because you’re not one of these people.
Meet Apple’s secret family. They’re the finely honed faces of Apple’s marketing drive. Used to humanise Apple products, they’re seemingly fictional, and completely perfect in every way. Except, well, they’re not.

After consulting branding and social media experts, and even a prominent psychologist, we’ve uncovered a few chinks in the armour of Apple’s marketing machine. Read on, meet the family, and we’ll show how they highlight weaknesses in Cupertino’s otherwise faultless promotional prowess.

Apple’s family: The perfect adverts

Take a looksee at Apple’s marketing material and you’ll see countless happy faces beaming back at you. But those pictures don’t get there by accident, and neither does the wording Apple uses. Those faces are carefully chosen, and the language used to communicate with gadget fans even more so.

Nowhere is this clearer than in its TV ads for the iPhone 4. It was while watching the one titled ‘Every’ that we noticed a clutch of characters on-screen, showing up in a twitter feed perused by the faceless user. After a bit of digging, Apple’s perfect family is emerging. Even more intriguingly, you can meet them yourself: their profiles are still active on Twitter.

Say hello to the family
Neatly inter-linked as both followers and followees, Apple’s family is a tight-knit group. There don’t seem to be any strangers in their midst. To save you wading through all their profiles in detail though (there are at least six of them, and seven more that are mysteriously closed to public viewing), let us introduce you…

Kevin Dolan
Kevin Dolan is the only member of Apple’s Stepford creations that isn’t comprehensively dull. He likes sushi, but is a bit cack handed on the keyboard. Apple didn’t quite get the hip guy-with-an-afro thing down to a tee though, as Kev tweets quite a lot of bizarre updates, including “What upzzzz”. No, us neither.
He’s hard working though, or maybe hard playing… on September 2nd last yearhe pulled the second of two consecutive all-nighters. He’s a wild one.

Katharine Johnson
There’s no polite way to phrase this: Kate’s a bit of a dullard. She tweets that she’s “excited to see her sister” and that she ran 10k. Repeatedly. Although we wonder what she was talking about on September 2nd when she tweeted: “did anyone just feel that?” Maybe it was Kevin slamming the door after that second all-nighter…

Janielle Penner
Meet Janielle Penner. She’s an incredibly light tweeter, apparently because she’s too busy pulling a string of “all nighters“. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Either Apple’s marketers are getting lazy and hammering the copy and paste buttons, or her mate Kevin is a bad influence. Our money is on both: She’s even copied Kevin’s wording exactly.

Pete Figel
Pete’s a ladies man, only sending messages to female contacts and, seemingly trying to schmooze them at the same time. Sure Kate, Pete is wishing you well on your midterms, but what’s he really after? And does he know we can all see through his thinly veiled chat-up routine on a public Twitter page?

Alex Newson
Alex is a sports fan, and he’s also an optimist. Another light tweeter, posting just one message on September 2nd (just as Katharine felt the earth move and Kevin was stumbling back from an all-nighter). Still, at least he sees the sunnier side of life… Is that something Apple explicitly requires from its family members? We wouldn’t be surprised…

Julie Stumbaugh
Julie is an oddity. She seems to share the same appearance as two other people in Apple’s family. She, Gage Bock and Sarah Crosswell all look identical. Are there triplets in Apple’s idealised clan? Let’s hope not all of them are dreaming of Alex Newson.

And meet the black sheep…
There are also the following Twitter users linked to the accounts above, as friends, followers or followees. They, however, have their tweets protected. Still, we can tell they’re mostly the work of Apple’s marketers: some of them share the same profile pictures as our Apple family above.

Anne Oburgh
Sarah Crosswell (who now seems to have been deleted)
Brandon McGraw (who has the same profile picture as Alex Newson)
Todd Hind
Gareth Coffey (he’s in Sydney, but that’s all we know)
Melina Polly
Gage Bock (who has the same profile picture as Sarah Crosswell and Julie Stumbaugh)

As you can see, Apple’s built quite an intricate group, with different genders, ethnicities and interests. The question then, is why? Simply to plug gaps in the twitter app on its advert? It seems doubtful, as one of our experts explains later on, that could have easily been done by a designer. And why leave the profiles open, or even public at all?

The family psychoanalysed

To get to the bottom of things, we consulted a range of experts. The first is Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths and the founder of, a social networking site that explores the connections between personality and musical preferences. He’s a renowned expert on personality, intelligence, creativity, social networking and consumer behaviour. You might also have seen him pop up on Big Brother, analysing the contestants.

We asked Dr Chamorro-Premuzic what he made of Apple’s family, and his response blew us away: “The key question is whether we (the audience) can successfully pick psychological cues (like personality, preferences, values, and brand identity) from a photograph. And the answer is astonishing: even the average layperson can read the social, emotional, and personal cues displayed by pictures of strangers, with the same accuracy as a trained psychologist!”

So those faces you’ve just met aren’t random at all, or even picked on their good looks alone. They’re designed to make you think happy thoughts about Apple’s products.

“The reason why marketeers have picked up on this is because we are living in the era of “conversational capital”, where word of mouth and “you-vertising” are the preferred mechanisms for brand and product promotion,” Dr Chamorro-Premuzic explains.

“[The Apple family] all refer to people who are young, urban, trendy, and also quite unique (there comes the Sushi). They are saying “we embrace individuality” (and Twitter is an individual platform) whilst focusing on a few rather obvious psycho-graphic and demographic types.”

Still not convinced a photo and a few words can convey that much meaning to you, even in a few seconds of an iPhone ad? Think again. Dr Chamorro-Premuzic explains Apple’s marketers will most likely have tested the profiles listed above before placing them into their commercials.

“The best way to analyse whether their strategy works is to have 20 or 30 naive viewers rate each profile in terms of certain personality characteristics and values (how smart, how friendly, how creative, etc), and then aggregate their perceived personality profiles for each trait… this is what their bosses probably did already (even if intuitively, as marketing often proceeds that way.)”

A brand in microcosm

So now we know the messages Apple’s family are designed to convey about themselves, what do they tell us about the Apple brand? We asked Jonathan Gabay, a creative branding exert, and founder of Brand Forensics to give us his take on the Apple family.

One of the first things that Gabay pointed out was that while the Apple family’s profile pictures span a multitude of skin tones and hair colour, they don’t cover a variety of age groups. Everyone in the Apple family is, unsurprisingly, young and beautiful.

“They’re perfectly framed faces,” he said. “That’s interesting. Look at the people who are following you [on Twitter] – not many of them have full, perfectly framed faces… They’re too perfect.

“It’s like the Tommy Hilfiger family – they’re all just so cool and good looking. It’s one thing to be aspirational but it’s got to be something that people can achieve. I find myself asking: do these people look genuine? Do they seem genuine?”

Scrutinising the Apple family in detail, Gabay singled out Kevn Dolan for critisism. His tweets of “what upzzzz!” and “lalala” triggered Gabay to claim: “The trouble with “What Upzzz” is that even for an old fart like me it’s outdated. We don’t say that anymore. It might seem I’m being facetious, but if it’s been carefully planned, then why is he saying something like that?”
Gabay agreed that when it comes to the detail, the Apple family is out of character with Cupertino’s usually pin sharp branding. Kevin Dolan tweets “lalala” twice, and if we’re honest his profile is bizarre. Is it an advert for Apple’s brand? Hardly. We’d even suggest it gives out a negative message: it looks lazy.

In general, the tweets of the Apple family are badly thought out, repetitive, and often don’t make sense. Even purely as a tool to create promo shots for the iPhone, Apple is shooting itself in the foot.

As Gabay explains: “Apple should be giving [its family] something more interesting to say.” This is a key point – shouldn’t Apple be leveraging these Twitter feeds better, and shouldn’t the tweets be more cohesive? Have we found the one area where Apple has done a half-baked job of its branding? 

What social media means to Steve Jobs

It should come as no surprise that the social media experts we spoke to weren’t too impressed with Apple’s fake Twitter avatars and sporadic updates.

“Aside from being lame, these fake accounts are OK as they’re not promoting Apple’s product,” said social media strategist Aurélien Fonteneau. “Nevertheless, they should update the bios on these accounts and explain that they are run by Apple for advertising purposes.”

But the decision to leave its profiles live mystified our experts. “I really don’t understand why they’re creating fake accounts when they could simply ask an in-house designer to create fake Twitter pages,” Fonteneau said.

“But I guess that this “silence” strategy is part of Apple’s arrogant communication strategy. And they’ve proved in the past that their responding process isn’t adapted for social media,” he added, citing Apple’s handling of the iPhone 4 scoop by Gizmodo, and its fallout.

And Fonteneau wasn’t alone in criticising Apple’s social media strategy. “Apple doesn’t understand social,” says Farhan Rehman, a social media strategist at London agency Total Media, and advisor to the Social Media Week London event taking place this month.
“The people that put that together don’t understand social or how it’s being used by people. All they’re trying to do is show the features of their technology by showing something that looks human, but isn’t real.

“There was a huge opportunity there that they completely did not use, in terms of promoting real people, either celebrity, or causes… Potentially if Apple had chosen to use that advertising space for something other than self promotion, they could have orchestrated it with a couple of partnerships, and constructed the conversation between accounts that were actually being used.”

Rehman concedes that fake accounts work in the context of the print and video ads they appear in, but says Apple’s missing the point and failing to demonstrate an implicit awareness of the technology it is promoting: “OK, yes people might say things like this, it works for the purpose of their advert. But in terms of anybody who is curious and wants to know a bit more…it talks again about the disconnect Apple has with how people use social media.”

Apple’s family: What’s next?

We know what you really want to know from Apple’s family though. It’s not to do with sushi, or family, or pulling all-nighters. You want to know when the iPhone 5 and iPad 2 will be here, and you’re in luck: There are some clues about what’s coming next from Apple hidden deep within their behaviour.

Kevin Dolan and Gage Bock’s accounts have been discussing concert photos with each other a lot, but curiously those pictures keep disappearing. That could tie in with the rumours that the next generation of iOS devices will come with new photo sharing smarts to hijack the buzz from services like Instagram and Foursquare.

Likewise, the family’s fitness fixations could indicate more running and fitness features coming in future Apple devices, in the wake of Nike+. Many of the Apple family talk about their running exploits and boast about them to each other. Most family members bang out 10k runs with startling regularity. There’s no space for slackers obviously.
There are also many, many shy members of the Apple family who are on Twitter, but lurking behind locked accounts. Is that because they’re discussing or testing Twitter-enabled features Apple would rather we didn’t peek at?

Those Apple family members with open accounts have found themselves racking up followers despite their low tweet counts, with their composition split between other Apple accounts, confused civilians and that old Twitter reliable: pornbots.

Apple has been here before: The extensive family tree

This isn’t the first time Apple has dabbled with fictional characters, designed to shift units from stockroom shelves. Before the days of Twitter, Kate and John Appleseed paved the way for the Apple family we know today. They’re essentially the grandparents of Kevin Dolan and all his pals, and occasionally make guest appearances too. More recently, we’ve seen Jane Appleseed pop up on iPhone 4 promo shots.

Occasionally, when Apple needs someone to call in an ad, or to feature in a FaceTime still, John, Kate and Jane are usually its go-to folks.

The real John Appleseed (aka Johnny Appleseed) was an American pioneer who introduced apple trees to large swathes of Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. He became legendary for his generosity and, most importantly for Apple, the symbolic power he gave the fruit.

While John Appleseed’s ancestry is deep rooted in American history, the identity of other members of the Apple family isn’t as clear. Back in 2007 journalist Erica Sadun claimed that she had traced Apple’s family naming source to a small Australian High School in New South Wales. She found a host of names featured in Apple adverts there. There was a John Appleseed, a Shaun David Taylor and a Sharon Anne Diversi whose name she claimed Apple had turned into Anna Haro.

However, that theory doesn’t necessarily hold water, and there’s every likelihood that the current and past members of the Apple family (besides good ol’ John Appleseed) get their names from a random name generator.

Interestingly, Apple has been creating fully functioning accounts for John Appleseed. When the first generation iPhone launched in 2007, it was possible to call John Appleseed’s number and receive a recorded message that said: “Hello, you’ve reached the brand new iPhone of John Appleseed.” You were then pointed back to It seems John Appleseed is as serious about his privacy as Steve Jobs who, incidentally, isn’t on Twitter. Unless he’s Pete Figel in disguise.

Reporting by James HollandBen SillisJennifer Allan and Mic Wrigh

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