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The Overdog’s Dilemma: What Happens When Challengers Win?

Does the recent commotion about the shortcomings of the new iPhone seem out of proportion to both the problem and the newsworthiness of the whole affair? When’s the last time you saw so much energy devoted to a cell phone that drops calls? And yet, there it is, front and center in the public consciousness.

And yet, from a story perspective it makes perfect sense. This isn’t really about a phone that drops calls, it is about a status shift in an iconic brand. Apple spent decades as the counter-culture underdog of the tech world. Steve Jobs was the freewheeling, self-proclaimed pirate (“It’s more fun to be the pirates than to be the navy”) who thumbed his nose at the stuffy conventions of the IBM and Microsoft establishment, building fun, cool computers that broke the rules for the benefit of the audience.

But a series of truly disruptive innovations, beginning with the iPod, has changed the role that Apple plays in the drama of the category. Apple successfully challenged the old definition of what a computer could be and thereby cemented its position as the thought leader in the tech category. In the long running battle between Apple and IBM/Microsoft, Apple won–so much so that it felt like an amusing bit of trivia when Apple’s market cap actually surpassed Microsoft’s recently.

While winning thought leadership has clearly been a good thing for Apple, it also comes with some fairly significant challenges. The chief one is how it affects the brand story. How can Apple be the underdog-pirate-challenger on which it has built its identity when it is now the king of the category? Everything Apple does and says is interpreted differently when it is the winner. Aggressive actions that would have seemed perfectly *in character* for a scrappy underdog fighting the oppressive big guys, take on a whole new aspect when those big guys are on the run and the world is lying at your feet. We’ve seen this happen many times–whenever a challenger wins. As far as the brand is concerned, it is just doing what it has always done, but from the audience’s perspective, it is playing a different role now and it needs to act accordingly.

That new perspective was painfully apparent at the press conference where Steve Jobs, previously seen as a charming and entertaining rouge for his in-your-face arrogance, tried to defend the new iPhone.

It will be very interesting to see what happens next in the unfolding story of Apple, but it is our suspicion that, unless they can come to terms with their change in status and circumstance, they’re going to be in for some rough sailing.

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