A Rhetorical Examination of the Product Keynotes of Steve Jobs

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 1/9 |


Upon Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ death in October 2011, he was mourned worldwide as an innovator who changed the landscape of the computing world. Ironically, Jobs rarely created technological-breakthroughs in computing by working hands-on with existing technology. Instead, he possessed a gifted eye for reading the “pulse” of the consumer electronics market as a whole. While much of Jobs’ marketing expertise was devised behind closed doors at Apple’s Cupertino, California headquarters, he showed the world his company’s new offerings during keynote addresses. These keynote addresses, which Jobs employed to introduce every new Apple offering, mesmerized audiences worldwide and were a key factor during Apple’s hugely successful “second renaissance” from 1997-2011.

This paper examines several of Steve Jobs’ product addresses from 1984-2011, paying particular attention to Jobs’ second tenure as Apple’s CEO from 1997-2011. Upon close analysis, the paper asserts that Steve Jobs connected with his audience on a personal level by portraying himself as the typical consumer. Besides dressing casually and using simple keynote slides, Jobs portrayed competitors’ products as “antagonists” because their design flaws frustrated both himself and his audience.

Upon Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ death in October 2011, he was mourned worldwide as an innovator who changed the landscape of the computing world. Ironically, Jobs rarely created technological-breakthroughs in computing by working hands-on with existing technology (Bell, 24). Instead, as Saikat Chaudhuri, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business remarked (2011): “[Jobs could] read the pulse of the market, and balanced the push-pull dynamic between new technologies and customer needs perfectly.” While much of Jobs’ marketing expertise was devised behind closed doors at Apple’s Cupertino, California headquarters, he showed the world his company’s new offerings during keynote addresses.

These keynote addresses, which Jobs employed to introduce every new Apple offering, mesmerized audiences worldwide and were a key factor during Apple’s hugely successful “second renaissance” (Sharma 44). Especially when the Apple iPod captured the MP3 player market in October 2004, Apple product unveilings turned from events covered mostly by technology journalists into mass-media sensations attended by business journalists, Apple “fanboys,” and product accessory vendors (Marsal, Baldoni, 44). John Sculley, who took over as Apple’s CEO in 1985 after Jobs’ firing, once remarked about the audiences at Jobs’ keynotes: “…it was almost as if there were magnetic fields, some spiritual force, mesmerizing people. Their eyes were just dazed. Excitement showed on everyone’s face. It was nearly a cult environment” (Lam, 248).

Steve Jobs’ product keynote addresses were an integral part of Apple’s “second renaissance” from 1997-2011. During Jobs’ keynotes, he sought to relate with his audience on a personal level by portraying himself as the typical consumer. Besides dressing casually and using simple keynote slides, Jobs portrayed competitors’ products as “antagonists” because their design flaws frustrated both himself and his audience.

Apple Computer was founded in 1976 in the California garage of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. While the company’s early years yielded impressively eye-catching creations—including the Apple I and II—they were pricey and somewhat difficult to use. However, the “two Steves” were a dynamic duo because, while Wozniak handled the technological components of the computers, Jobs forcefully marketed them in an appealing manner to potential investors. While Wozniak’s technical brilliance could design and build powerful computers, his skills were almost worthless if they could not be aided by the persuasive rhetoric of Jobs. Since most computers in the late-1970s were clunky, hard-to-use machines, Jobs’ rhetoric also had to convince consumers that their computers were superior in every aspect

When Apple Computer was first founded, it's economic foundation was at stake because Jobs had very little “social capital” among investors (Baron & Markman, 107-108). In the 1970s, Jobs looked the part of the typical “computer geek”—thick-rimmed glasses, shoulder-length hair and dress that resembled the “counter-culture” hippy. In other words, Jobs was the anti-thesis of the clean-cut, suit-wearing corporate executive who provided the economic capital. Like Wozniak’s innate technical skill, Jobs had a knack for confidently explaining the need for investments, while positively framing it in an appealing way (Winston & Patterson, 19). For the small group of employees working under him, Jobs’ confidence created strong loyalty, allowing them to design computers efficiently. As time went on, Jobs gave more formal presentations, which impressed investors so much that they started pouring-in monetary resources to Apple.

As Apple began to build it's social (and economic) capital, Jobs became known as a perfectionist, always demanding the best for his company (Ranft & O’Neill, 127). Since Jobs’ July 1997 return to Apple was almost unheard-of in the business world, his perfectionist attitude led to narcissistic behavior (Ranft & O’Neill, 128). Behind closed doors, Jobs would “snap” at people, both within and outside of Apple, that had the potential of threatening his leadership. At the same time, however, his perfectionist attitude caused the Apple brand’s public attitudes to skyrocket (Aaker & Jacobson, 492).

It can be argued that in the business world, especially in a briskly-evolving industry like computing, aggressive tactics must be employed to maintain economic security (Smith, Ferrier & Grimm, 69). However, while Jobs had to be ruthlessly efficient to keep his company on top, he also had to appear just the opposite in his keynote addresses. At it's core, according to author Carmine Gallo (2010), a “Steve-Note” can be likened to a high-stakes “elevator pitch,” in which he has to show rather than tell his audience why they should care (Gallo, 71).

The stakes are considered quite high because Apple often breaks standard business practices. One tenet that makes Apple unique is their lack of market research. In an interview, Steve Jobs justified Apple’s unusual views by explaining: “We do no market research. We don't hire consultants. The only consultants I’ve ever hired in my 10 years is one firm to analyze Gateway’s retail strategy so I would not make some of the same mistakes they made. But we never hire consultants, per se. We just want to make great products.” (Gallo, 183).

Jobs’ rationale behind this is understandable because, while he does want his products to be popular among the public, he does not want to bend to the whims of the public because his controlling attitudes defy popular beliefs on how products should be made (Gallo, 123). The fact that Jobs harnesses the vast majority of control is a gamble that, by many, has been questioned on multiple occasions. Other software companies, such as Microsoft and Google, have spread-out the company’s control among several executive officers (Wharton, 2011). When only one person is “calling the shots,” there is a greater likelihood that this gamble will not pay-off because there is significant pressure for Steve Jobs to make products that are truly superior to their competitors.

During Apple’s “Second Renaissance,” one of Jobs’ main rhetorical goals was to show how successful Apple was becoming. When his audience believes that Apple is successful, they will likely purchase Apple’s products. When a company is successful, they will likely stay in-business for many years to come. Subsequently, his audience will likely believe that the products of Apple that they buy will be a wise investment because Apple will continue to support the products.

Like most companies, Apple has had it's share of financial slumps. However, Apple without Steve Jobs was absent from 1985-1997 led to the company’s near-bankruptcy. Other than the most devoted of Apple fans, the general public had little confidence in the company. Sales figures from those times attest to this, since the public did not believe that Apple would stay in business long enough to continue support of their product line.

However, when Jobs returned in 1997, he single-handedly made the company more successful than it had ever been. The financial turnaround was so influential that Apple’s rise has become one of the computer industry’s best “second acts.” Jobs took advantage of the company’s history prior to unveiling the iPad when he proudly remarked: “And lastly, we started Apple in 1976. Thirty-four years later, we just ended our holiday quarter, our first fiscal quarter of 2010 with 15.6 billion dollars of revenue. I don't even believe it [loud audience clapping and cheering]. Now, what that means is that Apple is an over 50 billion dollar company. Now, I like to forget that ‘cause that’s not how [we at Apple] think of Apple, but that is pretty amazing” (YouTube, 2010).

Jobs knew that the audience was aware of Apple’s “darker days.” Instead of explicitly mentioning the past, Jobs instead focused on how far the company had come. After all, when Apple was founded in 1976, it was in an arguably worse-off position than when Jobs was absent. Even during the “dark days,” Apple still had some semblance of social and financial capital. For Jobs, the late-1970s were the toughest times because he had to build Apple from scratch.

Besides showing the general growth of Apple itself, Jobs also showed the growth of Apple’s product line. “Growth” did not even have to refer to financial growth either; it could also mean the increased adoption of a product line. At MacWorld 2008, Jobs communicated both types of growth with ease: “The first one is Leopard. I’m thrilled to report that we have delivered over five million copies of Leopard in the first ninety days. Unbelievable. It's the most successful release of Mac OS X ever…Number two is about the iPhone. Today happens to be the two hundredth day that they iPhone went on sale. I’m extraordinarily pleased that we have sold four million iPhones to date….OK, number three. This is a good one, too. Number three is about iTunes. I’m really pleased to report that last week we sold our four billionth song. Isn’t that great? On Christmas Day we set a new record, twenty million songs in one day. Isn’t that amazing? That’s our new one-day record….So, that brings us to number four. There is something in the air. What is it? Well, as you know, Apple makes the best notebooks in the business: the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. Well, today we’re introducing a third kind of notebook. It's called the MacBook Air…” (Gallo, 58).

Citing sales figures to the audience prior to an actual product introduction is effective because Jobs is keeping “in-touch” with his audience. When referring especially to the Christmas Day sales of iTunes songs, he places the numbers in context when he proudly exclaims, “…we set a new record, twenty million songs in one day. Isn’t that amazing?” While citing the total number of a product sold is meaningful, placing this in the context of daily sales shows more dramatic growth (Nguyen, 2007). As explained previously, Jobs was not like the typical CEO. He hardly ever wore a business suit nor did he run his company in the privacy of a plush office. Jobs wanted to be like the members of the audience. In addition to dressing like them, he also wanted to remain rhetorically-transparent. Rhetorical transparency allowed Jobs’ audience to continue to trust that he would continue to help design stylish and effective products

Of course, Jobs had to “put his money where his mouth was” because it was not enough to simply say that a product was successful. To increase credibility amongst his audience, Jobs used rhetorical “foot-notes” in the form of official sales figures from Apple. The public’s continued investment assured Jobs and Apple that they could produce more advanced models, often with backwards compatibility with existing products. Second, as can be observed above, several products—The Leopard Operating System, the iPhone and the MacBook/MacBook Pro— were cited in succession. This was no accident because these three products were the introduction of his speech, which laid-out the speaking agenda of that day’s keynote. By showing his audience that these products were a ground-breaking success, Jobs could rest-assured that his audience would already be excited to hear about new product updates.

When announcing sales figures, Jobs shows and tells the audience that they should continue to invest in Apple’s products precisely because Apple is so successful. This success would subsequently show that Apple was revolutionizing a given product category. Prior to revealing the first-generation iPad on January 27, 2010, Jobs announced: “But before we get to that, I got a few updates. First, is an update about [our] iPods. Uh, a few weeks ago, we sold our two hundred and fifty millionth iPod. And [audience applause] iPods have changed the way we discover and purchase and enjoy music. And with two hundred and fifty million of them, I didn't want this moment to pass without recognizing it and it's pretty amazing. And that’s our iPod update” (YouTube, 2010).

Jobs’ natural assumption is that, when one of his products sells millions of units, that it would revolutionize a product category. Regardless of whether a particular product was revolutionary is meaningless because there are larger, more important implications. For one, Jobs is subtly thanking his audience for making a product enormously popular. Similarly, even if the audience does not believe that in a product’s revolutionary-nature, simply the impression that a product is successful will perhaps makes them re-consider. Keep in mind that Jobs was not lying about the sales figures. However, he could skillfully place them into a different context—in this case, that the product is “revolutionary”— allowing the audience to make up their own mind. However, when Jobs mentions that a product is “revolutionary,” the audience has one more option to consider than just sales figures alones.

Also during the iPad introduction, Jobs gave an update about the App Store. The App Store is unique from many other Apple products in that many of the apps that it offers are free. Since iTunes can be downloaded onto either a computer running Apple or Windows-based operating systems, the App Store already has a target base of the two-largest operating systems. As a result, even users who do not own any Apple products can still download free applications from the App Store via iTunes. Jobs announced sales figures at this event by proudly proclaiming: “Next update, a store of another kind: The app store. An incredible phenomenon. Delivering apps to iPhone users and iPod touch users all around the world. We have over 140,000 applications on the app store And, a few weeks ago we announced a user downloaded the 3 billionth application from the app store. This is in around 18 months since it's inception. Three billion applications in the app store” (YouTube, 2010).

The App Store has become a lucratively-successful enterprise for Apple. In the three years since the App Store first opened, applications offered by Apple have raked-in $3 billion each year (Elliot & Simon, 212). In addition to his products maintaining technological inclusivity via software compatibility, most of the applications are created by ordinary users. Unlike competitors, the majority of Apple’s applications on it's App Store were not created by professional application developers. As such, the financial success announced by Jobs would have never been possible if ordinary people had not invested their skills into creating mobile applications.

When Steve Jobs re-assumed control of Apple in July 1997, his company was no stranger to failures. One of the most noteworthy failures was Apple’s Newton PDA. Although it was the first PDA to recognize handwriting, it was considered more of a prototype, that was released to the public. While the Newton did have a fairly-high handwriting-recognition rate, it did not always recognize numbers, which was critical for storing phone numbers (Dahl, 18-19). Since Jobs was absent during the product’s launch, the Newton proved two lessons. First, Steve Jobs was crucial to Apple’s success because he ensured that products were fully developed when released. Second, a product’s success did not necessarily have to be ground-breaking in order to be successful (Dahl, 18-19). The Newton entered an uncharted market because of it's ground-breaking ability. Therefore, it's success or failure became the lessons that competitors would learn when making similar products

The Newton, while revolutionary, did not conform to the majority of users’ needs. When Apple products, such the Macintosh and the iPod were introduced, they were by no means the first products of it's kind. Computers and MP3 players existed prior to Apple’s “take” on these products in the late-1970s and 2001, respectively. In many ways, the reason why Apple introduced these two popular products was that they believed in a simpler user experience compared to their competitors (Dahl, 21).

Today, there are convincing debates regarding the strengths and weaknesses of several operating systems, including Linux, Apple and Microsoft Windows. However, Apple and Microsoft Windows are the pre-dominant operating systems that the U.S. uses. Individual opinions vary with each operating system, but one fact is certain—there will be dissatisfied Windows users that will want to switch to the Apple operating system. Therefore, one of the goals of Jobs was to specifically-appeal to these groups of consumers that were either dissatisfied or hesitant to switch operating systems.

A computer is a significant monetary investment for a prospective buyer. Jobs wanted to depict Apple as having a “positive network externality.” One important tenet that Jobs hid in his early keynotes were the many compatibility issues associated with a Windows to Apple switch (Smith, Ferrier and Grimm, 60). In Apple’s early days, Apple’s hardware and software was of a proprietary nature. This proved to be troublesome for the company because prospective “converts” to the Macintosh would be turned-off by the significant time and monetary costs of switching (Smith, Ferrier and Grimm, 60).

However, as Apple’s Mac market share continued to increase during Jobs’ second tenure as CEO, Jobs focused his keynotes to highlight the inter-compatibility between an Apple Macintosh and a PC running Microsoft Windows. In doing so, Jobs enjoyed rhetorically- exploiting his belief that every computer should have both it's hardware and software manufactured by the same company (Murugesan , 6). Since most of Apple’s competitors rarely manufacture both computer hardware and software, Jobs could effectively justify why Apple’s computers were a good investment.

Jobs strongly believed that, since Apple’s computers worked better than a typical competitor, customers would b likely to buy Apple’s products again (Bresnahan and Greenstein, 3). This generated cognitive loyalty, a belief among consumers that a product is good based on the company’s brand-name and subsequent prestige (Oliver, 35). Apple’s cognitive loyalty among consumers was affected positively during both of Jobs’ tenures as Apple’s CEO. When Jobs was absent from 1985-1997, the Apple brand’s image waned. Virtually the only people who would buy the products were Apple “purists.” On the other hand, in the years following Jobs’ return to Apple, the company slowly grew in popularity. The unifying -rhetoric that Jobs used in his keynotes subsequently boosted cognitive loyalty to reach a much broader consumer base.

Jobs’ clearly believed that everyone who bought a Macintosh computer would become a “purist.” This ideology helped to spawn the second stage of loyalty development, affective loyalty. Affective loyalty occurs when “…a liking of attitude toward the brand has developed on the basis of cumulatively satisfying usage occasions” (Oliver, 35). Affective loyalty is considered to be stronger in many ways than cognitive loyalty because the user has first-hand experience of a product’s quality and ease-of-use. However, affective loyalty cannot take root without cognitive loyalty because a discerning consumer will likely consider all top brands when considering their purchasing options.

Finally, the last stage of loyalty development are the positive network externalities. Similar to affective loyalty building upon cognitive loyalty, this phase builds upon affective loyalty. When people have first-hand experience with a product, positive network externalities will result in more consumers purchasing a product based upon the brand’s outstanding quality reputation. For Apple, this was especially evident when, just prior to and after the Apple iPod captured the majority share of the MP3 player market, the brand’s popularity was boosted when the iPod’s distinctive white ear buds became a public commonplace. In many ways, this third step creates a paradox because a reputation of some sort is required for a product to remain on store shelves.

For most of Apple’s history, in order to make a “polished” product, they often had to charge more money than competing products. In the 1980s, prior to Jobs’ firing, many journalists and reviewers dismissed Apple’s exorbitant pricing scheme for several of its computers as “expensive toy[s]” (Imbimbo, 80). Although Apple’s market share is larger than it was several years ago, it still is in a minority compared to Microsoft Windows users. Charging more money made sense for Apple because it could spend as much (or even more) than Microsoft on developing an operating system. Since Microsoft has more users, it can spread this development cost over it's wider user base, thereby allowing them to charge less (Smith, Ferrier and Grimm, 60). Despite this risky endeavor of charging more for it's products, Jobs used his keynote rhetoric to justify that Apple’s product prices suggested high quality (Hellofs & Jacobson, 19).

While sales figures and quarterly revenue calls could handily display Apple’s popularity, Steve Jobs was the face of the company (Elliot & Simon, 98). His keynotes excited Apple fans and curious consumers alike. While Jobs clearly helped to market and design Apple’s products, his stage presence was critical to Apple’s success. Nowhere was this more evident than when, in 1997, Apple was once again brought to life from near-certain financial ruin. At Jobs’ first MacWorld in 1997, author Michael Malone observed: “The crowd roared and cheered. Then Gil Amelio stepped out onstage. Wearing chinos and a sport coat, he made the unbelievable fashion mistake of putting on a collarless dress shirt. Thirty seconds earlier, Apple had once again looked like the coolest company on the planet. And now here stood the CEO, looking exactly like your newly-divorced uncle on his first date. The crowd tried to stay pumped up, but Apple’s old panache, it's legendary hipness, invoked for that one thrilling moment, was now slipping away before their eyes. It went downhill from there. Amelio’s presentation didn't even have the attribute of brevity [like Jobs’ presentations]. Instead, it went on for a disastrous, butt-breaking three hours. Two hours into this marathon, the moment everyone had been waiting for finally arrived. ‘I’d like to bring a friend out,’ Amelio said casually, with more showmanship than he’d exhibited [than] in the previous 120 minutes. The expectant rumble rose to a full-throated cry. Steven Jobs, imperially slim in his dark, tailless suit, emerged from the wings to the explosion of a hundred camera flashes. He winced at the glare.” (Malone, 531-532).

Arguably, 1997’s MacWorld was the best example of how the public felt alienated by Apple’s then-current leadership (Linzmayer, 266). For many, seeing Steve Jobs after more than a decade was a dream come true because he was the computer world’s “ultimate comeback.” During his leave, many in the public believed that Jobs’ return to Apple was unlikely. However, 1997’s MacWorld contradicted these doubts. The end result revealed Jobs’ remarkable stage presence—an unspoken ethos that proliferated throughout the room— before even beginning a keynote address.

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