Does Apple Have a Young-People Problem?

Young adults say they're hearing worse and worse news about Apple these days. That makes the company's terrible recent ads all the more puzzling.

Earlier this week, Apple's ad agency confirmed that the company had yanked its widely panned "Genius Bar" ads, which debuted during the Olympics. According to TBWA/Media/Arts Lab's official line, the decision to kill the campaign, which featured an Apple Store genius helping out a series of hapless middle-aged men, had nothing to do with the wretched reaction of bloggers and fans. Rather, the commercials were scheduled for a limited run all along.

Right. Anyway.

Since the campaign began airing, many have wondered why Apple seemed to be producing commercials targeted exclusively at older males, who traditionally fell outside the company's core customer base. The market researchers at YouGov are now offering up an answer: the company may be trying to connect with aging fans.

Here's what YouGov found. For roughly the past year, consumers age 35 and over have reported hearing more good news -- or "buzz" -- about Apple than younger consumers, as shown in the graph below. This would mark a major turnaround from the early days of the company's post-iPhone success, when it rode the religious enthusiasm of its young customers to massive profits.


Before getting too deep into what this all means, let's be clear on what YouGov is measuring. The firm asks its survey takers the following: "If you've heard anything about the brand in the last two weeks, through advertising, news or word of mouth, was it positive or negative?" Then it takes those answers and tallies a "buzz score." Notice, it doesn't ask consumers how they actually feel about the Apple -- just what they've heard about it lately.

According to YouGov, their data is evidence that "adults 35+ have been bigger supporters of the Apple brand than the 18 - 34 demographic." So those Olympics ads, no matter how awful their execution, at least may have been targeted at their new best customers.

I'm not sure that's absolutely right. What YouGov seems to be measuring, more than consumer sentiment, is the state of Apple's PR efforts. But whichever way you choose to interpret their numbers, they should still be troubling for Tim Cook & Co.

Notice the two trends: the 35-plus crowd isn't really feeling much warmer -- or hearing much better "buzz" -- about Apple than it was four years ago. Rather, the company seems to be developing a youth problem. Its score among 18-to-34-year-olds has been on a staggered decline since 2008.

In a way, that makes Apple's Genius ads even more puzzling. If YouGov is right, the company's biggest problem right now is its inability to get good news across to the kids. Yet it decided to target a splashy new campaign at middle-aged consumers. It had already been doing this in subtle ways by featuring older celebrities such as Martin Scorsese and John Malkovich in its iPhone 4S ads. But the Genius spots took the strategy to a new, extremely explicit level, and made a hash of it in the process. Perhaps Apple has simply decided to cast its lot with an older (and richer) demographic. But for a company that has marketed itself as a tastemaker for the past decade, it seems like an odd choice.

With the iPhone 5 set for a monster debut, Apple isn't in any danger of losing relevance -- or its profit margin -- soon. But if the company really is losing its youth appeal, and not doing much to revive it, you have to wonder what the future of its brand will be.