It’s hardly surprising that a place like Duke, as a research university, engages with what’s conventionally called, in these parts, the “real world’—as if there’s something surreal or unreal about the campus world. But it’s worth noting that scholars at the Fuqua School have a record of studying the workings of the real world’s most valuable company. That, of course, is Apple. And its CEO, Tim Cook, happens to be a 1988 Fuqua graduate, an occasional speaker at the school, a current Duke trustee, and, as announced in January, Duke’s graduation speaker.
Writing recently for Forbes, Fuqua professor Christine Moorman explores what makes Apple “one of the greatest marketers of all time.” Apple, she observes, can make the occasional stumble. Consider the admission that it slows older phones; critics complained, even as the company said the idea is to prevent shutdowns and crashes. Still its successes provide a template ready-made for the business-school classroom.
For example, create an “experience ecosystem.” Apple ensures that the universe of Apple-mediated behaviors continually expands. That happens, in part, by fostering a community of evangelists. Apple has been turning its retail locations into lively “town squares,” and nurturing future users through free coding classes for kids. As for the products, simplicity is central. In the Apple ecosystem, design is all about making products—showing off as they do a minimalist aesthetic— intuitive, meaning that, as Moorman says, “there is tremendous attention to every last detail,” even the experience of unpacking your purchase.
“Experience” comes up a lot in Moorman’s analysis. Apple markets itself not as a technology company, but rather as a company that awards you benefits and responds to your aspirations. So if you’re keen to pump up your phone with more memory, Apple will emphasize that it’s not the gigs that count; it’s all of those additional photos, texts, and videos you can experience.
Part of the Apple advantage, in Moorman’s view, is doing what’s right as a company. Just before the launch of Apple Music, Taylor Swift publicly lamented that artists—particularly starting artists not yet on the touring circuit—would be hurt by the payment plan. Apple changed course. Similarly, the company has resisted law-enforcement efforts to have it unlock the phones of, say, the suspect in the San Bernardino massacre. Such a stance responds to the concerns of its consumers around data privacy.
That notion of Apple as a good citizen comes up in the work of another Fuqua professor, Aaron Chatterji, who has been teaching a class about activism among chief executives. With the perceived fraying of traditional checks and balances, he says, a lot of business leaders are feeling an obligation to speak out—which can be fraught as well as appealing.
In one research project, Chatterji asked those in a survey group whether they supported Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He wondered: If you share concerns that the law might allow discrimination, would it matter whether those concerns are pegged to a local politician, the CEO of a local company, or Cook as Apple’s CEO? Support for the law declined steeply and roughly the same when it came from any of those three leaders. Opinions are pretty entrenched, but when a CEO like Cook speaks out, there’s at least “some power” to the message.
Digging a bit more deeply, Chatterji assembled another group of respondents to figure out how likely they were to buy Apple products. Some were told beforehand about Cook’s strong views against discrimination; some were told about his business philosophy; some weren’t given any additional information. It turned out that when Cook was contextualized as a leader standing against discrimination, people were more likely to buy Apple products—a response mostly driven by those who already agreed with his views.
When Cook speaks to the newest graduates this spring, his message may reflect these insights from Fuqua: It’s one thing to build a product. It’s another, more powerful thing to build a community of stakeholders.