Apple pledged $25 million to the Propel Center at Atlanta University Center.

Apple’s COVID-19 Tech Playbook  

Published on February 22, 2021

As a dominant tech player, Apple moves beyond the ongoing fight against COVID-19.

Apple directed its global reach, market power and financial resources in 2020 to respond to the coronavirus crisis. In 2021, Apple takes new steps to preserve the integrity of its purpose brand with a $100 million racial equity initiative and a highly anticipated privacy update.

Apple has tapped into and leveraged customer optimism about technology. As we found in the extensive survey at the heart of The Purpose Report, there is still widespread optimism among consumers that technology is changing life and society for the better (82%). Across races and generations, they agreed that tech companies need to work together to ensure data privacy and and factual accuracy.

Apple is making privacy a defining characteristic of its core iPhone product with security-focused ads that implicitly draw a contrast with Google’s Android operating system. A coming App Tracking Transparency feature goes further, requiring users’ permission for apps top track them across other apps and websitesI. In a shot across the bow at Facebook, Apple CEO Tim Cook on Jan. 28 told the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference. “If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform.”

The COVID-19 epidemic presented Apple’s brand with one of the hardest tests in its history. Apple continues to leverage its technology, resources, partnerships and expertise to mitigate the impact and spread of the global pandemic:

  • Job Creation in the App Economy. On Sept. 2, Apple announced that the iOS app economy has created 300,000 new jobs since April 2019. App developers have found ways to thrive by helping people, organizations and governments adapt to the disruptions of COVID-19. According to Apple, the App Store economy supports more than 2.1 million jobs across the United States.
  • Exposure Notification Express. On Sept. 1, Apple announced that it would enable its iPhones to carry out contact tracing without users needing to download an app. It also invited users to participate in its Exposure Notifications Express scheme, which maintains a 14-day log of interactions with other smartphone users. Developed in partnership with Alphabet, Google’s parent company, the ENE service can be used by local and national governments to develop additional contact-tracing capabilities.
  • Contact Tracing Apps. In August, contact-tracing apps started becoming available in app stores. Developed as part of a partnership with Google established in April, the apps serve a number of markets and geographies. Virginia’s COVIDWISE, went live on Aug. 5. North Dakota’s and Wyoming’s Care19 Alert debuted Aug. 13. This was followed quickly by Alabama’s GuideSafe app on Aug. 17 and Nevada’s COVID Trace on Aug. 24.

Apple is renowned for its sleek, innovative product design and masterfully crafted marketing and messaging. The late Steve Jobs established and current CEO Tim Cook has nurtured Apple as a purpose brand based on individuality and creativity, which propelled the company from a small computer maker into one of the world’s most valuable businesses and a driver of innovation.

Leading With Purpose

The public health crisis has disrupted supply chains, tested civic resolve and deepened economic anxiety. Recognizing this early, Apple has been extremely proactive in its response to the crisis.

Tim Cook has cut a more understated figure next to Steve Jobs, portraying himself more as a steward and steady leader than a visionary and showman. But that has not diminished his influence over Apple or its identity. Cook’s steady hand has steered Apple since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

Employees have been the focus of much of Cook’s attention. On April 16, he hosted a companywide virtual meeting during which he answered questions and addressed issues facing Apple during the crisis, and how it will work to return to normal: “If we stay focused on doing what we do best, if we keep investing, if we manage the business wisely and make decisions collaboratively, if we take care of our teams, if our teams take care of their work, I don’t see any reason to be anything but optimistic.”

Cook has been visible in Apple’s response to COVID-19 since mid-March. On March 13, he published a statement to the “worldwide Apple family” outlining the company’s initial responses. He also shared a message of hope tied to the purpose brand he has spent decades building: “We do not yet know with certainty when the greatest risk will be behind us. And yet I have been inspired by the humanity and determination I have seen from all corners of our global community. As President Lincoln said in a time of great adversity: ‘The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.’ That’s always how Apple has chosen to meet big challenges. And it’s how we’ll rise to meet this one, too.”

As the public face of Apple’s response to the pandemic, Cook has engaged freely with the media. On April 6, he was featured on the “Tonight Show” via FaceTime. Speaking with host Jimmy Fallon and virtual guest Lada Gaga, Cook was pressed to make a donation toward COVID-19 relief, which he promptly obliged.

Cook has worked to tie Apple’s purpose brand to its COVID-19 response. In his second quarter earnings statement on April 30, Cook focused on the power of Apple devices and services: “In this difficult environment, our users are depending on Apple products in renewed ways to stay connected, informed, creative and productive. We feel motivated and inspired to not only keep meeting these needs in innovative ways, but to continue giving back to support the global response, from the tens of millions of face masks and custom-built face shields we’ve sent to medical professionals around the world, to the millions we’ve donated to organizations like Global Citizen and America’s Food Fund.”

Operating With Purpose

As a leading producer of smartphones, laptops, wearables and apps, Apple has a wide reach. The company has leveraged this power to help disseminate useful information through its various digital product channels:

  • A collection of useful telehealth apps has been made available in the App Store.
  • Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant, has been programmed with followup questions if users ask “How do I know if I have coronavirus?” Answers draw from the U.S. Public Health Service and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Siri also links users to telehealth apps.
  • Apple News has added a COVID-19 section featuring the latest verified reporting from trusted news sources.
An architectural rendering of the Propel Center at Atlanta University Center.

Supporting Communities

In January, Apple announced a series of social justice projects, including a $25 million pledge to support an innovation hub at Atlanta University Center, the campus that includes Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College and and Spelman College. Apple also will open a Detroit coding academy to support coding and tech education for students in Detroit and invest $10 million in the Harlem Capital venture capital firm.

In its 2020n coronavirus response, Apple tapped its global supply chain, engineering expertise and manufacturing capacity to source and produce vital personal protective equipment:

  • Sourced more than 30 million medical masks for first responders and frontline hospital workers.
  • Produced and shipped 7.5 million face shields at a rate of 1 million per week.

With a balance sheet flush with cash, Apple pledged substantial financial relief, in addition to the strategic redirection of existing charitable programs toward COVID-19:

Apple is also leveraging its wearables and data tracking capabilities to help support research and relief efforts:

  • New guidelines for Apple Watch allow doctors and healthcare professionals to remotely monitor patients.
  • Launched a mobility data trends tool to “provide helpful insights to local governments and health authorities and may also be used as a foundation for new public policies by showing the change in volume of people driving, walking or taking public transit in their communities.”

Protecting Employees

Apple Watch displays heart monitor.
Apple Watch allows doctors to remotely monitor patients. (Apple)

Apple was among the earliest corporations to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, due in considerable part to its large presence in China:

During his April 16 companywide virtual meeting, Cook expressed Apple’s long-term commitment to its workforce and to managing a safe transition post-lockdown. Asked about potential job cuts. Cook told Bloomberg News, “I won’t tell you Apple won’t be impacted,” but said he was focused on long-term operations.

Serving Customers

Apple has managed its resources to present accurate information about COVID-19 and how to stay healthy and safe during the crisis:

  • Launched a COVID-19 screening app and website based on CDC guidance.
  • Sent iPhone reminders to airport travelers about COVID-19 and CDC guidance regarding travel.
  • Added an Apple News COVID-19 section.
  • Restricted COVID-19 related apps to those produced or sponsored by “recognized entities such as government organizations, health-focused NGOs, companies deeply credentialed in health issues, and medical or educational institutions.”

Apple has also offered assistance to skip Apple Card payments during the period of economic disruption.

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