The Secret to Apple’s Culture? Emotional Connectivity

It’s no secret that Apple drives emotional connection with its customers—a big part of what makes the brand so popular, and its adherents so loyal. A recent Fast Company article offers some insight into how Apple achieves this ongoing emotional connectivity, including one noteworthy point about how the company “keeps Steve Jobs alive” in the hearts and minds of many.

Something that’s often forgotten is that Apple actually went through some surprising CEO turnover. During the time that I was with the company—a little over two decades—I had five CEOs and 11 direct managers. That’s not necessarily record-breaking, but then again, Apple was a company with a fairly small market-share for most of that time period—and to go through that much leadership churn was definitely abnormal.

Yet there was a through-line, a thread that connected these leaders and kept the company afloat through seasons of tumult. That thread was Apple’s culture, its sense of mission. All of us at the company were united behind a single, simple statement of purpose: We wanted to change the world, one person at a time.

I heard that repeated from day one, and in many ways it was the glue that held Apple together even through tough times. We were never in the business of developing products just to have products; rather, our products were the embodiment of that mission—they were the ways in which we wanted to, well, change the world, one person at a time.

Not every Apple CEO got it. My first boss, John Scully, was and is a great man, but his view of the products was very empirical—not as people-centered as it could have been. Michael Spindler—the man to whom the Newton and its failure is typically attributed—was always focused on two or three products at once. He was ambitious and hard-driving, but lacked a clarity of mission. Next came Gil Amelio; under him, the company started to settle into its groove a bit more.

Yet things really clicked into place when Steve returned to the company, and brought with him a slight tweak on our familiar statement of mission. He still wanted to change the world, but discovered a more efficient way of doing it. “We found out that doing it in groups works better,” he said—and that simple statement was the catalyst for the “i” era: iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iTunes. Remember the “I” era started with a “personal” computer, the iMac.

From the get-go, Apple was a cultural company. We knew what we were trying to accomplish. All of us felt like we were part of something, swept along in that broader sense of mission. That didn’t make us successful right out of the gate; we had to get the structure in place for our mission to flourish. Yet it was the mission that kept us moving forward, aligned to a shared sense of purpose.

Today, there are a lot of assumptions and misunderstandings about what Apple’s culture truly is. The critical thing for me is that the company has always had a strong sense of its connection with the end user—the person who was actually going to be using the product. For this reason, we even had someone whose job was to do “unboxings,” helping us get a clear impression of what the user experience was like from the customer’s point of view before the packaging tape was severed. I can tell you that this is not a practice that all tech companies share.

In my time at the company, Apple was never a structural company. It was never defined by the numbers or the mechanics. It was always a cultural company, defined by its mission—that is, its connection with the end user. And everybody who worked for the company knew it.

That’s not only the secret to Apple’s ongoing emotional appeal, but also the secret to how Apple weathered so many rocky moments and disappointing seasons. And I think there’s a lesson in it for startups of all kinds, whether tech or otherwise: You may not have the mechanics in place on day one, and that’s okay. But you do need to know what your mission is. That’s what’s going to show you the way forward.