Apple’s brand hangs in the balance of its FBI standoff

Apple’s showdown with the FBI over access to an encrypted iPhone has been hailed by privacy advocates as a bold idealistic stand against the U.S. government’s overbearing mass surveillance system.

That may be so, but it’s also a calculated risk that benefits the company’s bottom line, its reputation in respect to its Silicon Valley competition and the carefully crafted maverick image that Apple has spent years building.

To re-cap: On Tuesday, a judge ordered Apple to give the FBI a specially designed piece of software meant to bypass the encrypted security of an iPhone 5C used by one of the killers behind last December’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

Apple refused, arguing in a defiant statement from CEO Tim Cook that the move would set a “dangerous precedent” for government data collection and put the security of all iPhone users at risk. Cook dismissed the government’s claim that the software would be only be usable on a single specified device as “simply not true.”

“The implications of the government’s demands are chilling,” he wrote.

The groundbreaking legal standoff, which some law experts and technologists have speculated could eventually reach as far the Supreme Court, is essentially the first real salvo in a long-simmering debate between Silicon Valley and Washington over what obligation tech companies are under to aid the government in monitoring for terrorist threats.

Apple has argued consistently that such access would intrude on user privacy and severely compromise security. By doing so — often with remarks couched in lofty idealistic rhetoric — Cook has built the promise of security and privacy further into Apple’s brand and bolstered the “Think Different” ethos that the company has always used to set itself apart.

Its defiance may have put it in the line of fire of U.S. politicians, government agencies and segments of the population who disagree, but it also gives off the crucial impression that Apple is putting its customers before all else.

That’s especially important overseas, where Apple now conducts the majority of its business and where people might be even more wary about a government having access to the intimate details of their lives.

Now that push is coming to shove, Apple has a huge business interest in following through with its fight.

“They can’t be the brand they claim to be if they back down on this,” said Susan Federspiel, strategy director at branding firm Landor. “They’re taking a principled stand right now and they’re really gambling that this strong pro-privacy, pro-security stance will reinforce the trust that consumers have in the brand.”

Apple’s populist roots

One of the reasons that Apple’s brand is among the most successful in the world is that the company has always effectively imbued it with a distinct ideology.

When Apple aired its now-famous “1984” commercial during the Super Bowl of the same year, it was more than just a head-turning way for an upstart computer company to make a national splash — it was also a statement of purpose.

Apple was positioning itself as the counterculture underdog — the rebellious woman with the hammer — against then-dominant IBM, which it brashly cast as George Orwell’s paragon of totalitarianism, Big Brother. The attitude was further reflected in Apple’s populist tagline of the time, “A computer for the rest of us.”

Even as it grew into the richest corporation in the world with luxury-brand products, Apple has tried to maintain that narrative whether its opponent is IBM, Microsoft or the federal government, as BrandBiz CEO and former Saatchi & Saatchi creative director Paul Friederichsen pointed out in a recent op-ed.

“It’s always been fiercely independent,” Friederichsen told Mashable. “And it’s important for the brand — which can have even larger implications — to maintain that kind of separation.”

But Apple has also effectively become the “Big Brother” that it originally sought to depose; it dominates the smartphone market by a huge margin, routinely pulls in more cash than any company in the history of capitalism and teams with some of the most exclusive luxury brands.

So how does it still manage to claim the maverick image?

A calculated risk

That narrative is now morphing into a fight much more aptly captured by that original commercial.

As consumers have grown more wary of tech companies logging away their personal details and governments monitoring communications, Apple has a distinct advantage over many of its Silicon Valley peers: Its business depends very little on advertising.

Unlike advertising-heavy companies like Google and Facebook, it doesn’t have as much use for your personal information, and it can keep its signature “walled garden” system wholly secure and mostly free from the interests of advertisers.

“They’re probably saying, ‘We have to be the protectors of our customers,” said Forrester analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo. “And to the extent that unlike Facebook and unlike Google, its users and customers are the same, they can really make that a competitive advantage.”

Google, Facebook and Twitter have all joined Apple in its stance this week, but Apple’s size and the exceptional security and privacy standards that its ad-centric peers can’t quite match have made it the clear leader in the fight for privacy and helps its “think different” brand live on.

Of course, Apple’s court battle doesn’t come without major risks for the company. The company is likely facing down a protracted legal fight that could span months and drive unwanted media attention. Should it ultimately fail, it’s likely to be detrimental to its business — especially abroad, where Edward Snowden’s bombshell revelations were said to have cost the company business contracts.

“They’re playing a very high-stakes game of chicken,” Friederichsen said.

Article Written By: Patrick Kulp