Updated: Sep 2, 2020
Who, in their right mind, picks a fight with Apple, the world’s most valuable company?
The answer is Epic, maker of the iconic Fortnite game played by 350 million people around the world and a business that generated close to US$2 billion in revenues from its enterprise and is worth approximately $17 billion.
Epic has made global headlines since 14 August when it launched a stunning attack on Apple, the hand that’s fed it for at least a decade.
Is this a curious battle between two technology and gaming heavyweights? Or will the pending antitrust ruling impact the wider business community?
We’ll soon find out, but for now, it's the central narrative and the storytelling execution that’s caught my attention.
What can we learn from Epic’s well, epic, attack on Apple?
I’ve been watching this situation unfold with interest, and then finally last week the story literally came home. I have two unhappy sons, unable to play the new season of Fortnite on mobile devices after Apple removed their beloved Fortnite from the App Store.
Still not sure what I’m talking about? This New York Times article gives a solid overview of the back story. My quick summary: Epic has decided it no longer wants to give Apple a 30 percent “tax” for in-game payments within the iOS ecosystem.
This will be a familiar story for any business with an app in Apple’s App Store. Each time a consumer purchases an app, Apple takes 30 percent, likewise with any subsequent in-app purchases.
Like many app developers, Epic has had enough, and decided to do something about it, seeking “injunctive relief” rather than compensation in its court filing.
Lessons in narrative
While the legal fight plays out, I want to take a look at the way Epic has appropriated storytelling techniques to help it in the fight.
First up, take a look at the sheer audacity and creative power of Epic’s attack ad, Nineteen Eighty-Fornite.
This video is a takedown of Apple’s stunning 1984 Macintosh ad in which it attacked IBM’s dominance, leaning on George Orwell’s 1984 story about a dystopian future in which an omnipresent government rules to our collective detriment.
An easy way to compare the two executions is to watch this quick video. It shows the attention to detail and sheer determination to spotlight Apple’s own apparent misdemeanour.
Clearly, Epic is making an outrageous claim. Apple, once the rebel challenger is now the elite ruler. The outrage is an inevitable conclusion: Epic is charging Apple with hypocrisy.
One clever Twitter user even noted the villain in Epic’s ad looks uncannily like Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Uh, oh. This just got personal! Little wonder Apple is rising quickly to the fight.
But what’s the lesson? Brand storytellers must be masters when it comes to studying the meta narratives impacting their brand, industry or customers.
In this case, the hypocrisy charge points us in the direction of two narratives worth briefly unpacking.
The monopoly narrative
The tech sector, like many industries, has little tolerance for monopolies. The monopoly narrative typically follows this path: a challenger business (or sometimes government) takes on a powerful incumbent corporation.
Legal proceedings follow with plenty of air cover provided by a sustained PR campaign waged by both sides. We’re invited to take sides according to cultural tribes or customer groups.
For example, the 1990s were dominated by the US Government’s antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft for maintaining a monopoly over the PC market. The case wasn’t decided until 2001 when Microsoft lost.
David vs. Goliath
The monopoly narrative is a close cousin of David vs. Goliath, that iconic biblical story of a young shepherd boy taking on the Philistine Army’s biggest, baddest soldier, Goliath.
Clearly Epic is recasting itself as the modern David, taunting a giant Goliath who appears unable to be defeated.
Malcom Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath, gives us another angle to interpret these events. We typically interpret the story from the perspective of David, the challenger who overcomes the odds.
As Malcolm explains in a TED Talk, what we’ve failed to realise is that Goliath is more vulnerable than he seems. Malcolm recounts Goliath calling David to “Come to me because I can’t see you,” and goes on to suggest, “The very thing that was the source of his apparent strength was also the source of his greatest weakness.”
In medical circles, experts suggest the biblical text indicates the “giant” had acromegaly, a hormonal disorder that not only causes increased growth but is associated with double vision or near-sightedness.
David had no intention of hand-to-hand combat, but used his strength and skill with a sling to throw a hard rock right between Goliath’s eyes, either killing or knocking him unconscious.
It’s all a bit gruesome, but Malcolm’s point is giants are not as strong and powerful as they seem. Inevitably they have one or more critical vulnerabilities.
Will history repeat itself?
Likewise, Apple isn’t without weakness. Losing this fight could impact its stock price, future earnings from the App Store and related services revenues, as this SMH article observes.
The Verge also writes that Apple’s support for Epic’s Unreal Engine platform is critical. This software engine is used by movie studios, other gaming developers including Microsoft and even the Weather Channel. If Apple were to win and ban the engine, the industry-wide backlash won’t be pleasant. It won’t be much fun in my household either.
Ultimately, the real issue isn’t such technical details. It turns out this battle feels like an attack on the heart and soul of Apple - it’s belief system.
As I wrote in Beliefonomics (p. 177), Apple is an organisation that believes in challenging the status quo. It’s always positioned itself as the underdog, the David. After all, Apple thinks different. That famous ad of the same name concludes with this line: “The people who think they are crazy enough to change the world are the ones who do.”
However, this time the shoe’s on the other foot. Epic has had the temerity to weaponise Apple’s own rhetoric, challenger narrative and creativity against it. Like other monopoly fights, it’s also inviting millions of Fortnite fans to turn on Apple via the #freefornite campaign.
I’ve always said storytelling is the most powerful agent of change in the world, capable of doing good and also wreaking havoc.
In this case, we’re witnessing the early stages of havoc. We’ve also been hooked into grand, emotional narratives that demand we choose sides. Epic wants us to “join the fight to stop 2020 from becoming ‘1984.’”
If, as a business leader up against a Goliath or impossible odds, what story would you tell?
P.S. Not a rhetorical question, I'd truly value hearing your thoughts and experiences in using story to tackle your own giants - comment below or get in touch.
Mark Jones is an author, keynote speaker and brand strategist. His debut book, Beliefonomics: Realise the true value of your brand story' lays the foundation for a series of workshops and talks he shares with leaders around the world.