Gamification Expert &

Behavioral Designer

yukai chou gamification

How Apple Inc. Harnesses Epic Meaning & Calling to create Loyal Snobs

Image of The giving tree giving an Apple Inc. Logo to a boy

(Below is a manuscript snippet of my book, Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Please subscribe to the mailing list on the right to order the book when it launches. This post may be moved into a Premium Area after a certain period of time).

Newton’s Pride is Not Just a Fruit. It’s Got Gravity.

Epic Meaning & Calling is generally best communicated during the Discovery and Onboarding Phase of a Player’s Journey. You want to communicate very early on exactly why the user should participate in your mission and become a player.

Apple Inc. is one of the rare companies that truly understands the Core Drive Epic Meaning & Calling, and they managed to instill that into consumers without it being user-generated, an open platform, or pushing for “a charitable cause.”

Every once in a while, I’ll have friends who excitedly tell me, “Hey Yu-kai, I am saving up to buy the next iPhone.” I would respond, “But you don’t even know what’s in the new iPhone! What if it sucks?” My friends would usually respond with, “I don’t care. I’m going to buy the next iPhone.”

Isn’t that a strange phenomenon in a world where electronic consumers are spoiled by all the options out there, with many alternatives touting the same or even better capabilities than the iPhone but only at a fraction of the cost?

Why are people so crazy about Apple products?

What we are seeing here are people who are self-identified as an “Apple Person,” and therefore they need to do what “Apple People” do, which of course, is to buy the newest Apple products.

This is also why you would regularly see hordes of “Apple Snobs” walking around and making comments like, “Oh, I never have that problem because I have a Mac.” “Hmm, well, that’s what you get for not using an iPhone.”

I myself have been guilty of this too (proudly!). When confronted with the argument that many Android phones have better specs and lower prices than the iPhone, my response has usually been, “Well, I don’t know about the specs, but I do know that, when I’m using an Android phone, I feel sad; but when I’m using an iPhone, I feel happy. Perhaps that’s worth something.”

So the Multi-Billion dollar question is: How does Apple do this?

Besides having a stellar and smooth product with an intense focus on the details of design, Apple has been one of the few electronics companies that actually try to sell a higher meaning.

Lets examine two of the most successful Apple commercials in history.

The Crazy Ones in 1984

The first Apple commercial that reached massive fame and success was their “1984” commercial which aired during 1984’s Super Bowl XVIII on CBS.

This is a build-up of the popular novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell, published in 1948 about a futuristic dystopian world where a unified society is controlled and brainwashed by a centralized government.

The Ad shows a diabolical black-and-white society featuring monotonous order and complete control, with a big screen displaying a “Big Brother” brainwashing a subdued and captivated audience. A woman in full color then runs out into the audience, throws a sledgehammer at the big screen, completely shattering it.

Then, a deep male voice says, “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”

Through this commercial, Apple reassures viewers that the world wouldn’t be controlled by “Big Brother” IBM, but would be liberated by Apple’s computers.

Even though Apple’s Board did not really approve of this commercial and was almost thrown into the garbage bin, when it finally aired, it became one of the most successful commercials in history.

In Electric Dreams: Computers in American Culture, published by Ted Friedman in 2005, Friedman talked about how powerful that one commercial was:

Super Bowl viewers were overwhelmed by the startling ad. The ad garnered millions of dollars worth of free publicity, as news programs rebroadcasted it that night. It was quickly hailed by many in the advertising industry as a masterwork. Advertising Age named it the 1980s Commercial of the Decade, and it continues to rank high on lists of the most influential commercials of all time.

Afterwards, Apple’s internal team calculated the amount of free airtime the commercial received and added together $150 million worth of free airtime because of it.

Within three months of playing the commercial, Apple would sell $155 million worth of Macintoshes, establishing itself as the revolutionary computer company on the block.

The second extraordinarily successful marketing campaign from Apple that resonated with people is the “Think Different” campaign.

“Think Different” is a commercial that ran in 1998, soon after Apple’s Founder Steve Jobs returned to Apple’s board towards the end of 1996.

At the time, Apple was a struggling company, and a dying brand. Steve Job not only cut Apple’s product from over 350 down to 10, he knew he had to reinvent the Apple brand.

And so Apple released their Think Different ad, toasting the innovators and dreamers of our society, “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes… While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

This series of commercials was a gigantic success. It won dozens of prestigious advertisement awards and made the Apple brand cool again. It tangibly spearheaded the transformation of Apple from a dying company to literally the most valuable company in the world within a decade.

Have you noticed something unique and interesting about these ads?

Neither of these campaigns actually talks about computers or electronics. They don’t talk about specs, RAM, color screens, or computers. You’re not even sure what they sell if you are unfamiliar with the company.

They sold a vision.

When people connect with a statement like, “Because of Apple Computers, 1984 will not be like Nineteen Eighty-Four,” many started to think, “Wow! That’s amazing! I don’t know what they do, but I want to be part of this!”

How do you be part of it? You buy the Macintosh computer.

Similarly, when people hear the deep wise voice conclude with, “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do,” they get inspired and think, “Yes! I’ve been hiding my true passions to conform with the mediocrity expected of me. I want to be the crazy one that changes the world!” And of course, the way to think different and change the world is to buy an iPod and have 1000 songs in your pocket.

See the power of Epic Meaning & Calling? When every other company is selling how amazing their computers are, Apple sells a vision worth believing it.

Interestingly, when Apple was designing the Think Different campaigns, their first rule was that there would not show any of their products in the commercials. That is so counterintuitive, yet very Human-Focused.

As long as Apple can continue to make people think that it is a vision worth believing, their customers will continue to “be Apple People” and buy Apple products. But if one day Apple does something stupid and breaks the trust of being a vision worth believing, people will stop that frenzy about their products and will begin to look at the specs again.

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10 responses to “How Apple Inc. Harnesses Epic Meaning & Calling to create Loyal Snobs”

  1. Never know that 2 commercials until I read Yu-Kai’s book. CD1 is the closest to my heart and soul. This is a very good example of how CD1 can built in brand. Love this brand more after reading this.

  2. @ yu kai chou,  hi yu kai i am enjoying your articles..i just started yesterday…and today i am glued to my system..reading ur articles…i m truly gamified,,,m loving the game (of reading and knowing more about it) good work.

  3. MarkSchreiber Well put. “.. thought they could ram amber on black screens down our throats ..”

  4. Well done!

    Loved –> “..participate in your mission..”

    beautiful! –> “..when I’m using an iPhone, I feel happy. Perhaps that’s worth something.”

    When I see the “Think different”, I think ‘How can I contribute?’ each time.

    Besides being a Gamification (leader? explorer? what am I?), I am an iOS developer for the iPad and iPhone. I learned much from this article.

    One tip: change “..was that **there** would..” to “..was that **they** would not show..”

  5. I’ve been with Apply since the Apple II. Here’s why: 
    *Jobs was arrogant, but Apple wasn’t arrogant. Microsoft and IBM were arrogant. They cared about enterprise and developers. Apple was the first tech company to care about ordinary users, and especially to care about what artistic people wanted. The others thought they could ram amber on black screens down our throats and we just had to live with it. Apple thought computers weren’t just for men with slide rules and tortoise shell glasses.

    *Apple isn’t Zappos or Nordstrom, but they’ve always had the best customer support in tech. I’ve had my problems with them, but I’ve also received free replacements. The Genius Bar is subject to a lot of jokes, but where is the Microsoft equivalent?

    *They always innovated. There was always something new in the works. ATT didn’t change their phone design for 30 years, and Microsoft would still be DOS if it weren’t for the Mac.

    *Their products are more expensive, but they last longer. I’ve had a motherboard go bad, but never a disk drive. I’ve bought probably 50 machines and that is the only one that failed. 

    *Their products are better designed aesthetically. I just bought my first iPhone, and comparing it to other smartphones I just find it more beautiful, more solid, with attention paid to the littlest detail. I’ve had a Kindle and Nexus, but the iPad is far better designed aesthetically, in my view.

    *They get cool. Apple skews young. They like women and girls, especially with the intro of the iPod. I don’t think Microsoft was ever a company that thought about or identified with teenage girls. 

    *You’re right about the Vision with a capital V. I always felt other computer companies existed to make our lives worse – in other words, to make it easier for bureaucrats and employers to create mindless tasks for us to perform. Traditional computers made us more like computers. Apple made computers more like us. That’s why a lot of the early adapters were artists and writers like myself.

    Think about it, was the typewriter a liberating technology? I preferred to type my novels, but many writers clung to handwritten manuscripts even into the 70’s.  

    I think more often than not typewriters were a tool that enabled bureaucracy, much as the fax machine does now. Suddenly you could request documents in triplicate, and companies had rows of secretaries typing in an inhuman chorus.

    I understood the 1984 commercial. It was personal to me.  We think of tech now as enabling personal expression and fulfillment. But it wasn’t always like that. Apple made it so.

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