Tim Cook and Photo Ops

August 17th, 2016

At one time, Apple CEO Tim Cook was regarded as the man behind the scenes. But in the last year or two, he’s become quite the public personality, appearing on late night TV shows, financial news networks, and the U.S. Congress. That’s quite an achievement for someone who used to be the supply chain guy who usually made music with numbers.

At first, Cook’s presentations at Apple keynotes seemed amateurish, the slow delivery with the gentle southern drawl seemed awkward at best. But with experience — and no doubt lots of practice — he has become effective and sincere. Not that he deviates from Apple’s marketing message, but he delivers his spiel in a warm, friendly fashion, thus seeming quite credible overall.

He’s not another Steve Jobs, not even close, but he has managed to develop his public persona into a comforting presence. In addition to the obvious places, you’ve seen photos of Cook opening an Apple Store to launch a new product — usually an iPhone — or checking out the production lines at one of Apple’s contract manufacturers, such as Foxconn. In passing, I wonder how those employees actually react to his presence, or maybe he’s just presented as a visiting dignitary, so be nice to him or else.

Very recently, he was photographed on a sojourn to India trying to grab some business for Apple over there. Evidently he and his cohorts know how to play the political game, because there will be Apple Stores in India someday, and perhaps some manufacturing facilities too. Decoding the byzantine politics companies need to master to do business with  China and India will have a huge effect on the company’s sales and revenue.

So this week, the China Daily reported on Cook’s latest trip to that country, his eighth, where he visited a famous fashion designer. When you look at the photos — and I won’t waste space posting them here — you might imagine he was a visiting politician or show business personality rather than a famous corporate executive. Clearly he’s learned how to play the game.

But why did he play nice with a fashion designer?

Well, evidently the designer uses iPad Pros as part of the design process, no doubt with Apple Pencils. That is a worthy purpose for Apple’s high-end tablets. I thought there’d be a potential Apple Watch presence there, but maybe not. However, it’s also true that Apple’s sales in China dipped by 33% in the last quarter, and that hurts. Even though iPhones did quite well in the U.S. and parts of Europe — buttressed by the hot-selling iPhone SE — a lot depends on China. And such a falloff clearly had its impact.

So that explains the reasoning behind Cook’s visit. He’s seeking opportunities, and getting his name and his smiling face in the Chinese papers doesn’t hurt. He’s clearly learned a thing or two about the marketing game, about hanging with countries that don’t always act predictably or in the best interests of the United States. If Apple can boost sales in China and India, any falloff elsewhere would be more than compensated for.

This public persona is very different from Steve Jobs. Although Jobs was a folk hero to millions, he wasn’t a regular public presence. His appearances were under very controlled conditions, and where he gave TV interviews, they were usually brief. Well, except for those annual All Things D sessions Walt Mossberg used to hold when he was still active with the Wall Street Journal.

Cook has been busy smoothing Apple’s rough edges. The company is now a responsible corporate citizen more concerned with the environment than ever, and Cook has not been reluctant to take public stances on some issues in company blogs or in guest editorials for major newspapers. He grants in-depth interviews for a number of major publications, most recently the Washington Post. There are even apologies, not excuses, for such misfires as the first version of Apple Maps.

What hasn’t changed is that the company develops its best stuff in secret. When asked about purchasing this company or that company, Cook will admit that it’s done to acquire new technologies, and many of the features we take for granted today, such as the Siri personal assistant, were the result of such acquisitions. Ditto for Apple Music, which descended from Beats Music.

But when asked about future products, Cook follows the traditional company line. He may drop a hint or two here and there, but he will not reveal the existence of any product before its time. You could ask him 1,000 times about the Apple Car, and he might admit to an interest in the auto market, but he will not reveal what the company is up to or even confirm the existence of Project Titan. He does admit that the R&D investment is sharply higher than it used to be, which is clear evidence that lots of things are under development. It’s not just a car, but AI, augmented reality and lots of other stuff that few outside of Apple know anything about.

As with a skilled politician, however, Cook is always on message, always controlled. In that, he’s clearly learned a thing or two from his colleagues in China.

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