Here’s an exclusive excerpt from a new book about Steve Jobs and Apple by ex-advertising Mad Man, Ken Segall. The book is called Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success, and it’s on sale tomorrow. In the excerpt, we learn about Steve Jobs’s great reaction to criticism of the infamous hockey puck mouse, how he responded quickly to mistakes, and his attitudes toward the “brand bank.”
The Mouse That Didn’t Roar
One of Apple’s best-known failures is the “hockey puck mouse” that shipped with the original iMac and the Power Mac G3 that soon followed. Even die-hard Apple fans hated it. It was round—and the problem with round is that you can’t tell which way it’s pointed. So people sitting down to do some work often found their on-screen cursors moving around in unexpected directions. Why Apple never figured this out before shipping it is a mystery. The hockey puck mouse gave critics more fodder to argue that Apple was obsessed with form over function.
A few months into the hockey puck mouse’s life, before a Macworld event in New York, Steve Jobs invited me up to his Manhattan hotel room to go over some ads in progress. After we had finished the review, we got to talking about other things, and I couldn’t resist bringing up the mouse. It was on my mind because the press was getting nastier, and as an iMac user myself, I had given up on it and bought a more usable mouse.
I gave Steve some of the brutal honesty he appreciated. I told him that the brand was really taking a hit because of this adventure. But what really bothered me was how we were treating the pro users. It was bad enough to give this mouse to the iMac buyers (who were mostly home users), but those who bought the Power Mac G3 were pros. To them, this simply was a nonstarter. A mouse this clumsy just wouldn’t be an acceptable tool for people who spend entire days finessing their work.
“I think this mouse is actually an insult to the pro users,” I said. There was a short period of silence as Steve sat there, unsmiling. For a second I thought I’d overstepped my bounds. Then, expressionless, he looked me in the eye and said: “Fuck ’em.”
He let me stew on that for a second or two—then he started laughing. He loved his customers, pro and otherwise, and he was just having a little fun with my moment of discomfort. He knew darn well that Apple had made a mistake, and the company had started working on a replacement mouse immediately. Then the boyish, excited Steve kicked in and started telling me about the new mouse. It was going to be awesome, a transparent laser mouse that was super accurate. The pros—and everyone else—would be delighted with it. Apple had already moved way beyond its mistake, even if the solution hadn’t been made public yet.
In an interview, Steve Jobs once said:
Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.
Simplicity doesn’t like to get tangled up in old problems. It vastly prefers to look ahead. Though it may be painful to admit mistakes, customers appreciate this kind of honesty. When the new mouse was unveiled, the hockey puck mouse became a distant memory.
The Power Mac G4 Cube was another of Apple’s classic blunders—even though it was such a marvelously designed system that it became part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. The problem with the Cube was that it was just too expensive. Try as they might, Apple’s engineers couldn’t get the price low enough. Steve received this news immediately before one of our regular agency meetings, and he was visibly shaken by it. He had poured his heart into the G4 Cube in the hope that it would be affordable for consumers, but instead it would have to be priced more like a pro machine. In his depression, he acknowledged that this could easily lead to failure for this product. And indeed, he ended up killing the G4 Cube just a year after he unveiled it.
This was another example of Apple acting with great speed to fix a problem and move on. The G4 Cube became a blip in Apple’s history, and the vacuum it left was quickly filled by other innovations.
Like Money in the Brand Bank
It’s because a company is likely to experience both success and failure along its trajectory that Steve Jobs was a firm believer in the concept of the “brand bank.”
He believed that a company’s brand works like a bank account. When the company does good things, such as launch a hit product or a great campaign, it makes deposits in the brand bank. When a company experiences setbacks, like an embarrassing mouse or an overpriced computer, it’s making a withdrawal. When there’s a healthy balance in the brand bank, customers are more willing to ride out the tough times. With a low balance, they might be more tempted to cut and run.
Steve went on record many times about the importance of building a strong Apple brand. And he benefited from having a high balance in the brand bank many times. One of the most negative stories in recent years was the now-famous “Antennagate” controversy. When iPhone 4 was launched, Apple was battered by journalists and influential bloggers over what was perceived to be a flawed antenna design. Despite the heavily negative press and ridiculing by late-night TV hosts, Apple’s customers remained true. Now that episode is remembered only as an example of overreaction, with virtually no long-term impact.
Having a high balance in the brand bank makes all the difference.
Excerpted from Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success by Ken Segall, by arrangement with Portfolio / Penguin, Copyright (c) Ken Segall, 2012.