Often labeled with the unsexy title supply-chain guru, Apple CEO Tim Cook clearly doesn't have Steve Jobs' grand product vision and magical marketing gifts. But now he's turning his greatest strength into an asset.
In interviews with NBC and Bloomberg Businessweek this week, Cook said he's finally making good on his dream to bring some manufacturing – in this case, a line of Macs, probably the iMac – from China to the United States next year.
"We've been working on this for a long time, and we were getting closer to it," Cook said, adding, "We could have quickly maybe done just assembly, but it's broader because we wanted to do something more substantial. So we'll literally invest over $100 million … I do feel we have a responsibility to create jobs."
The not-so-subtle marketing message: Apple is as American as apple pie!
But is this a good thing? Most people mistake low-skilled final assembly work as manufacturing, but it sounds like Apple wants to bring advanced manufacturing to the United States, such as the machining of cases and the printing of electronic boards, according to SFGate.
Let's face it, though, Apple isn't really serious about bringing manufacturing to America – these are low-end Macs. Apple's over $100 million U.S. manufacturing investment is a pittance for a company with more than $120 billion in cash. Some analysts point to Apple's move as a sign of good things to come, of shifting winds in consumer electronics manufacturing, but from where I stand it's merely a gesture of good will.
Nevertheless, I applaud Apple's savvy public relations stunt because it is tapping into the nationalist fervor that took over the recent presidential debates. It will serve the Cupertino company well.
Apple is an all-American story, and so this latest U.S. manufacturing message should resonate with American consumers. Apple was founded in the garage of a Silicon Valley home by a college dropout and became arguably the greatest American company in history. Apple plays up its U.S. status by stamping the words "Designed by Apple in California" on its products.
There's also no doubt that Apple manufacturing Macs in America will help in its battle with South Korea's Samsung. Never mind that the real battle is over smartphones and tablets. Consumers are influenced greatly by company brand. Can you hear it? Build American. Buy American. Be American.
Heck, it worked for the U.S. automotive industry.
Yet these words make me shiver. They were etched on patriotic pencils handed out freely at a county fair in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1980s. I remember because the people handing them out didn't give me one. Only a few years earlier in Detroit, a Chrysler employee and his stepson beat to death Chinese-American Vincent Chin with a baseball bat; they were upset over recent layoffs and the rising market share of Japanese automakers, and apparently mistook Chin for a Japanese foreigner.
I'm not suggesting that Apple's latest marketing ploy is a step back to those hate-filled days, but the rhetoric is the same – and that's the problem I have with Apple's latest marketing move. The notion of anything being made in America or China or wherever is a myth that shouldn't be propagated.
The supply chain of a complex product like a computer has been and always will be a global process. And so the real question is what kinds of jobs in this supply chain are best fit for Americans?
I don't know the answer, but here's a relevant flashback to the second presidential debate on October 16, 2012:
Moderator Candy Crowley asked: "iPad, the Macs, the iPhones, they are all manufactured in China. One of the major reasons is labor is so much cheaper [there]. How do you convince a great American company to bring that manufacturing back here?"
Governor Mitt Romney responded: "The answer is very straightforward. We can compete with anyone in the world as long as the playing field is level. China's been cheating over the years. One by holding down the value of their currency. Number two, by stealing our intellectual property; our designs, our patents our technology."
President Barack Obama responded: "Candy, there are some jobs that are not going to come back. Because they are low wage, low skill jobs. I want high wage, high skill jobs. That's why we have to emphasize manufacturing. That's why we have to invest in advanced manufacturing. That's why we've got to make sure that we've got the best science and research in the world."
Apple's plan to make Macs in America may give us a feeling of unity, but unless it spurs the consumer electronics industry to create advanced U.S. manufacturing jobs, it's just good marketing.