How can Apple replace Steve Jobs' celebrity? It can't.

Apple's private celebration of the late Steve Jobs yesterday was an all-out affair, with Apple closing stores and holding a massive concert for its late co-founder. Can that level of celebrity be replaced?

Steve Jobs showing off the first MacBook Air in 2008.
Steve Jobs showing off the first MacBook Air in 2008. Dan Farber/CBS Interactive

commentary The future of Apple's executive leadership continues to be of intense focus to onlookers as the company forges ahead without its late co-founder Steve Jobs in the picture.

Apple celebrated Jobs' life yesterday in a private employee tribute filled with executive speeches, live performances by famous musicians, and multi-story banners of Jobs at various points in his life that hung within the complex. If you didn't know it was the inside of Apple's headquarters, the memorial could have easily been mistaken for a rock concert or a rally, in part because it was a little bit of both.

It goes without saying this wasn't an every day affair for Apple, or any other company for that matter. To put it mildly, Jobs' passing marked the end of one of the most dramatic and fascinating executive comebacks in business history. And just as impressive is that every day people seemed to care about it--and Jobs himself--as much as the products the company released during that time.

That much came to light the day Jobs died, with Apple and Jobs fans flocking to the company's stores around the world to post sticky notes, and place lit candles, flowers and apples with bites taken out of them, as displays of respect. More than a million also sent notes about Jobs to Apple in digital form, which the company posted in a tribute site yesterday just ahead of its private event.

The big question now is whether Apple can get that kind of executive devotion back, or if it was exclusive to Jobs.

Part of the difficulty, of course, is that Jobs was positively dripping with charisma. The mercurial co-founder did not just gain his fame as the ultimate showman when it came to things like introducing products but also in how he managed the business of the company, pushing Apple to new heights and massive profits during his tenure. Even before Jobs stepped down from his post as CEO, attention shifted to whether those same traits can be found elsewhere in Apple's executive team, which is led by CEO Tim Cook.

It's patently unfair, of course, to ask any executive to fill the shoes of an historic business figure, someone, as The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg put it, "could sell. Man could he sell."

Nonetheless, that rock concert-like excitement around Apple product launches is part of the company's DNA and integral to the its marketing strategy. When Coldplay capped off the end of an otherwise unexciting iPod product launch last year, their celebrity, though considerable, was still less than Jobs'. It had been the same years before with rocker John Mayer, who last week noted that he had been the one to call up Jobs from a hotel room, trying to forge a relationship with the company, a move that paid off with Mayer playing similar closing gigs at company events.

Could Cook or Phil Shiller say the same? Of course not. No one expects them to. But as Apple, the most valuable tech company in the world, gets back to the hard business of making innovative products and selling them in a crowded, hyper competitive marketplace, it will have to find a way to replace the irreplaceable--30 years of hard-won experience and even harder won celebrity.

Experience, business acumen; clearly, Jobs thought he had lined up the right people behind him to provide that. But the kind of cachet Jobs brought to his company can't be replaced. And for Apple to stay on top, it will need to find the next best thing.

 

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