Has the Apple fallen too far from the tree?

“There’s a technical term economists like to use for this kind of behaviour,” says Edward Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of California and a former staff director at the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. “Unbelievable chutzpah.”

The behaviour he’s commenting on, in yesterday’s New York Times, is of course Apple’s alleged use of an audacious scheme to avoid billions of dollars in tax – one that takes advantage of different interpretations of corporate residency in the US and Ireland to effectively leave a sizeable chunk of its profits in a taxation no-man’s-land.

While I hasten to add that lawmakers haven’t actually found anything illegal in Apple’s actions – and let’s face it, they’re not the only household name hogging the headlines for purported tax dodging – that’s kind of beside the point.

As I’m wont to point out – and as illustrated by the CR Continuum in my book – legal compliance does not a responsible company make. Far from it, it puts you on the bottom rung of the sustainability ladder.

Much more importantly, it seems yet further evidence of Apple’s inexorable slide towards becoming the very thing it once pitched itself in opposition to. Once the David to IBM’s Goliath, Apple could now just as easily be cast as the bad guy from its iconic 1984 ad campaign. That campaign and the broader narrative arc it spawned – the giant-slaying challenger brand that dared to ‘Think Different’ – now looks increasingly divorced from reality (the supreme irony being that IBM now looks like the real progressive with it’s sustainability-driven narrative around building a ‘smarter planet’.).

As Futerra’s Ed Gillespie wrote in a great Guardian Sustainable Business blog a while back, Apple’s market dominance (leveraging control over multiple platforms), dubious practices in its supply chain, and the issuing of law suits left, right and centre – to which I’d add some very questionable design choices and these latest tax revelations – are hardly consistent with the image of the socially-conscious maverick cultivated by Steve Jobs.

If you’re thinking ‘So what?’ then think again.

All this talk of ‘brand’ and ‘narrative’ is far from the soft and woolly stuff some people would no doubt have you believe. It’s what made Apple, amply demonstrated by estimates of its brand value representing anything up to a whopping 44% of its market capitalisation.

Of course, the flip-side is that it can break them too. Especially for companies like Apple, reputational risk is very real. And signs are that, as the halo slips, the damage is already being felt.

$230bn has been wiped of Apple’s stock value since September 2012. It’s dropped from #5 to #26 in Forbes’ list of the world’s most innovative companies and, according to a survey by Added Value, consumers are considerably less “inspired” by Apple than they were three years ago. (Samsung, meanwhile, is now equally revered in the US and more consistently appreciated across the globe – especially in Asia – reflected in a 51% surge in its brand value, as reported in Millward Brown’s latest BrandZ study.)

Ed’s right. Apple’s lost touch with its story. And without the messianic figure of Jobs to give it the ol’ razzle-dazzle, to provide a human embodiment of purpose and a focal point for consumers’ love affair with the brand – its dominance no longer feels as benign as once maybe it did.

It’s beginning to look like A.N.Other corporation. And if it doesn’t act to rejuvenate its purpose and ensure congruence with its actions, well then the alternative narrative has already been written. It’s the one already doing the rounds: the one about the company whose Big Idea died along with its founder.


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