Image by Keith Newton

Everyone loves an underdog. We root for them. We identify with them. And for the last few decades, one of our favorite underdog brands has been Apple, and for good reason: They made computers user-friendly. They made computers fun. They made them accessible to kids and artists and creatives. They made computers cool, from the packaging to the user experience, even down to the way we shop. The Apple brand was built on the underdog premise, on a revolutionary and pioneering spirit. On being – and thinking – different. Apple went deep instead of going wide. It wasn’t interested in being the biggest, it just wanted to be the best. And that is something that resonated with millions of users worldwide.

You see, Apple didn’t build a customer base: It built itself a tribe, a nation, a religion, even. You’re either a Mac or a PC, after all. And of the two, only one has an identity, a recognizable calling card: that ubiquitous forbidden fruit that announces to the world “I don’t play by your rules. I’m a Mac.” The rest are just… well… PC. That amorphous blend of Microsoft and IBM and Dell and HP and the rest. The little gray boxes sitting on desks. Little black laptops with the blue screens and overheating batteries and obnoxiously long boot-ups. Nothing nearly as cool as the sleek works of art you see peppering coffee shop tables with their glowing little logos that say “yes, I too am one of the cool kids.”

Then Apple changed the game again by rethinking the way we consume music, media and games with iPod. And if that wasn’t enough, Apple then set their sites on reinventing the mobile phone too. And now, with iPad, Apple stands to reinvent the way we look at computing, creating and consuming content, and may in turn very well change the publishing industry forever.

Apple’s secret hasn’t just about generating envy. There was more to the brand’s appeal than designing pretty and cool. Apple didn’t become the king of brands by just being product-focused. It engineered a culture. A belief system. It became the most popular example of what a love-brand can achieve, by making a point not to follow traditional corporate mantras of growth for the sake of growth, and of market share as a battle cry. It shifted the model. It colored outside the lines, and it made a point of inviting us all to come along and be rebels too.

Remember this?

And this?

Of course you do. We all do. These ads made Apple.

And so here’s where things get tricky: For most if not all of our adult lives, Apple has been the underdog brand. The rebel. The kid who wouldn’t sell out. Time and time again, Apple itself told us and reminded us that it was one of us. The little guy with brains and courage and the odds stacked against him. Now ponder this: What happens when the proverbial David becomes Goliath? How will Apple’s brand manage the transition from being the underdog to becoming the biggest technology company in the world?

Or rather, how is it managing that transition since, according to the BBC, Apple finally overtook Microsoft two months ago and became the biggest kid on the block?

That’s right: Apple isn’t the underdog anymore. In spite of Microsoft’s decades-long choke hold on the broad PC market, on enterprise OS licenses, digital properties like MSN, its outstanding success in the game console world with X-Box, and some activity with Windows mobile phones and Zune, Apple managed to edge them out this year, thanks to its astounding successes with iPod, iPhone, and pretty soon, iPad as well.

Now consider that Brands and cultural archetypes are often joined at the hip. Nike is the goddess of victory. Apple draws much of its contextual foundations from Judeo-Christian mythology – from its forbidden fruit logo to the David vs. Goliath narrative it injected into its marketing.  When the narrative changes, when the brand’s role shifts and archetypal points of reference dissolve, what happens to how we process emotions and attitudes towards that brand? How do we rebuild its context subconsciously?

Think about this: Apple is now bigger than Microsoft. Let that sink in for a minute. Say it out-loud:  Apple is bigger than Microsoft. What does that mean for a brand whose very identity has always been tied to being “the other” technology company?  How will public opinion shift in response to its changing role? Its new position in the market? And when the criticism starts piling up, how will Apple respond?

And believe me, it will. In fact it already has.

In the age of Social Media, where companies are expected to engage with customers, respond to attacks and manage angry users in minutes via Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms, will Apple’s notable reluctance to join the conversation and comment on attacks now come across as arrogance? Will mounting quality control problems due to its success and new requirements of scale begin to dull its once quasi-mythical luster? Will Apple become another embattled giant, much like Microsoft was when it was the one sitting on the throne?

Not that Mac fanboys will ever abandon the brand. And not that Apple will stop re-inventing how we think about technology, media, usability and devices either. Apple is the future of consumer technology, at least for the next decade. Plain and simple. That is, as long as it doesn’t forget what it felt like to be the underdog, the “other” company, the band of rebels who focused on quality instead of volume. Something to think about: It’s hard to convince consumers to “think different” when you own the market – when it’s now the other guys who think different. (I’m looking at you, SONY. Here’s your shot at a comeback.)

At any rate, all of this to say, watch what happens next. Expect Apple to find itself under attack more often. Expect more law suits, more complaints, more criticism in the press and on blogs and on the twitternets. More stories of failure and problems and concerns. Now that Apple is the king of tech, it is walking around with giant bullseye on its back – something it has never experienced before -and you can be sure that every little mistake it makes will be scrutinized and exploited for all its worth, not only by its rivals (Microsoft already started), but by anyone with a chip on their shoulder. How Apple manages their new place in the world, a world it doesn’t always play nicely with, will be interesting. Stay tuned.

And while we’re on the subject, check out this piece by BBC.com in which I am quoted saying something half-way intelligent, for once.