The rise and sudden fall of Apple's brand reputation

Why Apple lost more ground this year in the Harris Poll's "reputation quotient" survey than any other tech brand.

In 2009, two years after Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, Apple was ranked No. 14 in the Harris Poll's annual RQ (reputation quotient) survey. By 2012, it was No. 1 and it remained one of top 5 U.S. brands for four out of the next five years.

But something about the Apple brand soured last year, according to Harris. Between 2017 and 2018 the company Jobs co-founded fell from 5th place to 29th, the biggest one-year fall from grace in percentage terms of any U.S. company except Johnson & Johnson. The chart below shows the ups and downs of five top tech brands: Amazon, Apple, Google Tesla and Facebook.

Click to enlarge.

Note: The survey was conducted over four weeks between December 2017 and January 2018 — before the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica revelations and after Elon Musk launched a Tesla into space.

It's tempting to dismiss any survey that can be so easily manipulated by a showboat like Musk. That would be a mistake. This is a big poll—25,800 adults—using methodology Harris has honed over nearly two decades. It's a two part process: First Harris asks a scientific sample of the general public to identify the most visible ("top of mind") brands, then its asks respondents to pick out the companies with the best and worst reputations along six dimensions, from emotional appeal to financial performance. Apple fell last year in all six.

Harris Poll reputationClick to enlarge.

These scores should be cause of real concern in Cupertino. By one measure that Tim Cook talks a lot about, social responsibility, Apple fell from a high of 81.6 in 2012 to 75.7 in 2018, a 7% drop in the space of six years.

Apple even took a hit in "financial performance" last year, dropping 4.8% despite record results.

"This is counter-intuitive, as Apple is having a great year on the market," says Libby Rodney, Harris' chief strategy officer. "But this is the voice of everyday consumers. They're smelling that the iPhone X is too expensive. They're thinking: 'Apple has lots of cash on hand, but what are they doing with it?'"

Rodney, who has worked in the past on GoDaddy TV commercials and the rebranding of Time Warner, had a lot to say about why Apple's reputation has suffered. From my notes:

Apple has been getting away from what consumers find valuable about the company. When Apple was No. 1, it was redefining categories. That was the fundamental value it brought to the party. When it introduced the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, these were things we’d never seen before—innovations on a whole new level.

It's more than just "what has Apple done for me lately," says Rodney. It's about how Apple's day-to-day narrative compares with those of other tech companies. For example, she says:

From Amazon, we're getting a constant stream of little stories: "Now we're going to lower the costs at Whole Foods. Now we're going to ship to you within two hours. Now we're building a cashless store."

Elon Musk is doing the same thing on a different level. "This is the future," he says. "We're going to Mars!"

The bottom line, says Rodney, is that Apple hasn’t done that as much as the public expects them to.

See also: Why did Apple’s reputation quotient fall from grace? I have a theory...


  1. Jonathan Mackenzie said:
    And to be clear the winner was Amazon. The same Amazon some folks are starting to compare unfavorably to Walmart.

    There is no doubt in my mind that Apple’s brand has suffered. But it is not clear to me this can be explained clearly in the elements the poll is meant to measure. Just what is it others are doing that is so much more environmentally conscious than Apple? Just what kind of “safe investment” do these other companies provide that Apple doesn’t? Is it really better to work at Amazon?

    I think that Apple has frustrated a lot of loyalists with buggy software and frustrating encounters with goblins that were one the exclusive domain of Windows. This would explain some decline in the brand. But if you look at the other factors like the ones I mention above, it’s hard to make a logical case for Amazon ahead of Apple. And of course logic had nothing to do with it. Apple is simply losing some of its mojo.

    I’m also skeptical that their cash pile has much to do with it. They were a huge company with a huge cash hoard during the years they ranked on top. I don’t hear much complaining from any of my peers about Apple’s cash. I do hear complaints about reliability.

    March 21, 2018
    • Richard Wanderman said:
      Indeed. Apple could fall a great deal more and still be the greatest company on earth.

      What irks me is that they have the resources to fix the few things that are outstanding. For me, software quality is #1 as I’m a user first. Compared to any other company their software is incredible, but it could and should be better.

      I think their brand fall is all about narrative (read PR). They tend to let stories get away from them.

      March 22, 2018
  2. Ken Cheng said:
    Lots of tax repatriation and iPhone battery slowdown stories all cast Apple in a negative light last quarter.

    March 21, 2018
    • Gregg Thurman said:
      Exactly. The media narrative ABOUT Apple has become quite shrill the past few years with no counter narrative coming from Apple.

      The constant stream of “can’t innovate anymore, false reports of production problems, false reports of supply constraints, bungled attempts to mediate old battery weakness”, none of these things bring cheer to the masses. But still they buy the products, because no matter how they feel about the company they recognize its products are better than the alternatives.

      March 21, 2018
  3. Gary Morton said:
    There are interesting notes in the other comments about short term happenings for Apple during the time period of the survey that likely explain much of the abrupt fall. Battery/Throttling issues and a corporate apology, negative media coverage, etc. Readers should note that there was also Tim Cook’s announcement about the massive investment Apple would make in the US with repatriated funds. Those leaning Republican probably viewed this announcement slightly positively. Those leaning Democrat, however, probably viewed it as a huge negative. They would lament: “How could the company say anything even remotely good about the Republican tax plan?” Regarding Apple’s reputation over the long run for all of these issues: This too shall pass.

    Google just announced that the next version of Android will not even work on phones older than two years. How this did not incite the ire of the media and Congress over planned obsolescence issues, when the battery issue did for Apple, I have no idea.

    March 21, 2018
  4. Fred Stein said:
    Three factors:
    1) Buggy SW and battery issue as Jonathan mentions above.
    2) The deep, illogical meme that there must be something wrong with Apple, re-inforced by click-bait OMG Apple stories in all media and all channels.
    3) Some survey bias. Three regional grocery stores rank in the top eight?

    The stock’s still a bargain.

    March 21, 2018
  5. John Konopka said:
    These rankings are puzzling. It is good to remember that this is popular opinion, it is not a serious evaluation. I don’t use Google or Amazon at all. Amazon in particular seems evil. Don’t get me started on Facebook. Tesla is a puzzle. There is no real innovation here and the build quality is not great. Now they are having major problems just assembling their newest model.

    Apple never talks itself up very much and there always seems to be a crowd of detractors (I’m looking at you Business Insider and Forbes contributor network) so I don’t know what changed about this year. This happened so suddenly you’d think there would have to be a triggering event.

    March 21, 2018
  6. David Sauceda said:
    Obvious things to point out from

    Top [10] Companies by Corporate Reputation Dimension:
    – Apple is NOT in the top 10 for “Products & Services”
    – Apple is NOT in the top 10 for “Vision & Leadership”
    – Apple is NOT in the top 10 for “Emotional Appeal”
    – Apple is NOT in the top 10 for “Workplace Environment”
    – Apple is NOT in the top 10 for “Financial Performance” (WTF?!?!)
    – Apple is NOT in the top 10 for “Social Respinsibility”
    – Apple IS name dropped 3 of 5 times in their headline stories under “Reputation Quotient® In The News”

    March 21, 2018

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