It remains The New York Times' most emailed story two days after it was published: "How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work."
The explosive article tells the story of how, early last year, President Barack Obama publicly asked Steve Jobs "what would it take to make iPhones in the United States." Retorted Jobs, reportedly: “Those jobs aren’t coming back."
It's no secret that many of "those jobs" are in China, where Apple is increasingly under fire about the working conditions facing those who assemble America's favorite tech gadgets. But it goes further, with Apple no longer feeling "an obligation to support American workers." It's a direction that threatens to turn the iPhone into the Hummer of its day.
All the qualities that have won Apple products hours of fan waiting time in queues and millions of column inches of invaluable free press also make the brand's products a favorite target for schadenfreude. Apple had its fanboys, but it also has those who love to hate it, including rival brands such as Samsung, which has been spoofing Apple fans in spots such as this:
With pieces like the one from The New York Times and a recent profile of Apple's China suppliers by NPR's radio show This American Life (a favorite of Apple fanboys), Apple brand managers should be concerned the brand is being set up to be the "next Hummer."
In its heyday, Hummer was the pollution-spewing SUV everyone loved to hate. The Hummer came to be ridiculed as both an overcompensation for under-endowed men (Arnold Schwarzenegger's endorsement nothwithstanding) and as the best example of the gas-guzzling middle finger American sentiment had for environmental impact.
The Sierra Club lampooned the brand with a website, hummerdinger.com. The spite environmentalists and Hummer drovers shared for each other flared at times, with the group Earth Liberation Front going so far as to set a Hummer dealership on fire.
Apple's iPhone brand is course not at this level of representation… yet. One thing Apple should keep in mind is that just because others are "just as bad," doesn't mean a single brand won't bear the totality of public sentiment.
Indeed, 2009 government fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions ratings for Miles Per Gallon City/Highway (MPG) and Greenhouse Gas Emissions (tons/yr), put the Hummer at 14/18 MPG; 11.40 t/y. That was better than the Cadillac Escalade (12/19; 12.20 t/y), the Land Rover Range Rover (12/18 MPG; 13.10 t/y), the Porsche Cayenne (12/19 MPG; 13.10 t/y) and the Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, which at 11/15 MPG and 15.20 tons/year made a Hummer look reasonable. None of those models ever saw the Sierra Club launch publicity campaigns against them.
Foxconn, the company that, on the cheap, builds Apple's iPhone also assembles consumer electronics for Dell, HP, Amazon, Dell, Nokia, Motorola, Nintendo, Sony and Samsung, accounting for, by The New York Times estimate, 40 percent of the globe's total. But the history of brand vilification is not one of parceling out, but instead one of consolidation.
What the Hummer brand did was come to embody a number of growing concerns amongst Americans, providing a single easily identifiable brand tagline for those concerns. Is it impossible to believe a continued barrage of such iPhone stories might see the gadget's name come to represent such growing concerns as eroding workplace standards, loss of American manufacturing, a rising China and a corporate America that no longer identifies itself as "American" but as global entities, an thus, feel no particular obligation to create jobs in any one country?
Apple has a chance to avoid this fate and it appears the brand understands this. After years of secrecy, Apple has agreed to release more information about its overseas suppliers. But the Times story proved not everyone at Apple understands the brand damage at stake. As one current Apple executive insisted in the brand's defense, "We shouldn’t be criticized for using Chinese workers. The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need.” Earlier, another current executive said, “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” And Jobs himself stated in 2010, following "very troubling" news of worker suicides at Foxconn, that even though it was "not a sweatshop" Apple was "all over" the employment conditions there.
That might be true. But if Apple hopes to maintain its stellar reputation, it has to understand that, true or not, those sentiments are brand poison in a nation (America) with record high unemployment, and workers ready to assemble iGadgets.