Is Apple’s privacy-focused brand messaging a sham?
Despite its best efforts, the tech giant is constantly being called out for being a hypocrite when it comes to confidentiality. But is this fair? As part of The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, The New Data & Privacy Playbook, we speak to experts to find out.
Determined to become a data privacy leader in consumers’ eyes, Apple has embedded its safety message in ad campaigns for the last number of years – particularly for its AppTrackingTransparency (ATT) update.
The aim of ATT is to give users greater power over how their data is used and by whom, but the push isn’t as clean-cut as the iPhone maker would have customers believe. While Apple will argue that the update prevents third-party apps from collecting users’ data without consent, it has been quiet about how much it’s benefiting from having privileged access to data while claiming that privacy is a core value.
In other eyebrow-raising headlines, advisors to a French watchdog called for fines over a breach of privacy rules; accusations have also been made that Apple has let big spenders like Meta cut corners on its privacy rules; and earlier this year, the company even held itself accountable for security risks. With all this controversy, can it still position itself as a trusted leader in this space?
Consumers are increasingly growing wary about how their personal data is being used by companies and Apple has made it clear they hear these gripes, says Index Exchanges senior vice-president Matt Barash. ATT gives users a choice, he goes on to explain, adding that based on the number of opt-outs, it's clear that Apple's loyal customer base appreciates the approach.
Stephen Cheliotis, top brand strategist at Gravity Global agrees that privacy is a bigger priority than ever, but suspects there is some cynicism and skepticism toward Apple's messaging.
“The natural reaction of consumers with any issue-related messaging, including, for example, sustainability, the environment, diversity, equality and inclusion, is to question whether the organization is really committed to tackling these concerns, and always has been,” he says. “Or whether they are just focussed on it now because of stakeholder pressure or because it’s advantageous to do so.”
Joshua Long heads up comms at the privacy-based, non-tracking search engine Mojeek. He believes it is not just the messaging, but the product itself that needs to be taken into consideration when discussing alleged privacy shortcomings.
“iPhones and MacBooks were seen as the go-to devices for people who wanted good privacy out of the box,” he explains, noting that consumer confidence wasn't down to differences in the hardware, after all, every Apple device has a unique serial number that constantly ‘calls home’ with a whole bunch of data about what you are up to and where you are. The recommendation came because people trusted Apple to be a good steward of that data.
“It made sense in people’s heads because its products all came with a hefty price tag, one which in most cases was much higher than you’d expect for the specifications of the devices we’re talking about. Google was not to be trusted because Google's business was data and ads. Apple was to be trusted because Apple's business was hardware, deeply linked to its own operating systems.”
So, with all the back and forth about the tech company’s data faults, why would Apple want to keep drawing attention to it? Simple: it’s a differentiating factor in a sea of distrust in big tech.
It’s a hot-button topic for consumers, developers and regulators alike, continues Barash. “Apple has quietly built a suite of tools for developers to tap into and grow their audiences as well as monetize their apps with their own multi-billion-dollar advertising machine.”
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According to Cheliotis, Apple is still seen by experts as being ahead of its peers in this field. “It has benefited from the perception that its products offer greater resilience to malware and other viruses, the brand can stand out by suggesting its proposition gives greater privacy protection than alternatives.
“The focus on privacy also enables Apple to position itself as a consumer champion, protecting its users rather than monetizing them and their data.” He continues that this approach gives the Silicon Valley business advantage over the competitor’s perceived reputational weakness. It’s a sensible play to distinguish the brand, but ultimately, only works if consumers truly believe the brand’s narrative.
Long adds that it’s likely that Tim Cook’s 2014 open letter also helped Apple’s stance on protecting user privacy. It was a clever piece of marketing that separated the brand’s approach from that of its peers.
By championing privacy in its brand messaging, Apple has had a significant impact on the advertising industry as a whole, concludes Barash. He adds that since ATT was introduced in early 2021, the direct-to-consumer economy has been completely gutted, Meta’s ad business has been disrupted and forced to reinvent itself, and countless mobile adtech companies have seen their valuations destroyed as they look to pivot.
“Apple operates a closed ecosystem where its devices are tightly integrated, which gives the company a competitive advantage in how they leverage user data,” he says. “It’s easy to argue that the walled garden approach is an inherent contradiction to the principles of user privacy and data ownership, as Apple retains control for their own benefit while limiting access and ability for their competitors.”
There will be danger ahead for the brand though, warns Cheliotis. The continued play on privacy will be seen by many as simply a means of standing out against rivals. He ends by stating that how tech-savvy individuals are, and how much people are aware of what is happening in the wider sector, may impact how well Apple's privacy message continues to land.
”For many, they will take Apple’s words at face value, and it should build positive perceptual value,” Cheliotis says, “but for others, this may be seen as no more than a disingenuous piece of positioning to steal advantage against the likes of Google and Meta with whom they are fiercely competitive.”
To read more from The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, where we’ll be demystifying data & privacy for marketers in 2023, head over to our special hub.