Is Apple's Epic Run Over? Analyzing the Company's Hidden Cost Advantages

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On Sept. 21, the iPhone 5 was launched and met by the usual fanfare accompanying an Apple  (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) product launch. Lines went around the block, long waiting times became the norm online, and stores quickly sold out of every phone.

By all indications, the iPhone 5 launch was a huge hit for the company. Apple redesigned its phone for the first time since 2010, unleashing a massive upgrade cycle into a booming smartphone market. In the third quarter, smartphone sales grew 47%, a growth rate that would make almost every industry in the world envious. It looked as though the iPhone 5 was set to lead Apple to major gains and a record holiday season.

However, after reaching its peak on Sept. 21, Apple's stock began sliding. It slid for weeks, eventually bottoming out at $505.75 on Nov. 16, a drop of 28% from its peak. Today, Apple is once again testing those lows after heavy losses at the tail end of last week.

We've created a brand-new report titled "Is Apple's Epic Run Over?" that gives investors a comprehensive look at Apple. It answers whether the bears are right -- or if Apple has huge advantages investors are overlooking. Below is a sample section of the report that focuses on Apple and its hidden cost advantages compared to competitors.We hope you enjoy this preview content from our premium Apple report

We'll advertise for you: Apple and SG&A
Take a look at the selling, general, and administrative expenses of selected companies:

Company Percent of Sales
Apple 6.4%
Samsung 16.7%
HTC 12.5%
Nokia 13.9%
Research In Motion 14.6%
Dell  (UNKNOWN: DELL.DL  ) 14.0%
Lenovo 7.9%
Google 25.5%
Microsoft  (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) 18.9%

Source: S&P Capital IQ. All values for the last 12 months as of Dec. 1, 2012.

The amazing part of the chart above is that both Lenovo and Dell are heavily into the PC business, making a product with razor-thin margins that requires as much efficiency and cost-savings as possible, and Apple's SG&A spending is tremendously more efficient than either company's! Imagine if Tiffany had lower overhead costs than Wal-Mart, a rock-bottom discounter. That's not too unlike the situation we're seeing with "high-end" Apple and its competitors.

(And for the record, SG&A takes 39% of Tiffany sales and 19% of Wal-Mart sales.)

Apple keeps down its SG&A in a number of ways. For example, while Apple's products appear across television and its advertisements are immediately recognizable, it only spends $1 billion a year on advertising, significantly less than Microsoft or Samsung. A huge part of the success is in areas like product placement and media buzz. When Bing released its most-searched-for news stories this year, the iPhone 5 came in No. 1, beating out the Presidential election. All the buzz around the iPhone 5's launch was free advertising. Then there's promotion in areas like TV and film, where Apple doesn't pay for product placement, but still receives plenty of it.

According to Nielsen, Apple devices appeared in 891 TV shows in 2011. Brandchannel, a company which tracks product placements, found that Apple products appeared in 40% of films that hit No. 1 at the box office in 2011.

What's the value of this kind of product placement? Measuring the intangible value in brand building is far from a science, but Front Row Analytics, a company which specializes in valuation of product placements, estimated that Apple's five minutes of screen time in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol were worth $23.5 million alone.

An especially important note here is that movies are global, just as Apple's reach is global.Ghost Protocol saw 70% of its global box office of $694 million come from foreign markets. The movie made $101 million in China alone, which is Apple's second-largest market. As we'll discuss more later in the report, with the iPhone often being an aspirational product (or status symbol) in foreign markets, its use at the center of cinema only heightens its perception as a premium device. Brandchannel estimates that one Chinese film, What Women Want (a remake of The Devil Wears Prada), prominently featured an Apple product every third scene.

Comparing Apple advertising to other companies shows the astounding economics of Apple's advertising machine.

Company Advertising Spend Interbrand -- Value of Brand
Apple $1 billion $76.6 billion
Microsoft $1.6 billion $57.9 billion
Samsung $2.6 billion $32.9 billion
Ford $4.1 billion $8.0 billion

Source: S&P Capital IQ. Values are from most recently reported fiscal year.

The other part of this equation is that pure reported advertising spend is only a portion of the spend that goes into general selling and brand building. For example, Anheuser-Busch InBev is one of the world's largest ad buyers but doesn't report advertising spend, instead listing sales and marketing expenses of $5.1 billion.

Using a more expanded look at sales and marketing, Microsoft's total sales and marketing expense came in at $13.9 billion, higher than Apple's entire SG&A expense. The totals above also don't show the $4 billion Samsung had to shell out last year for "sales promotions," an indirect advertising cost used to gain more channel promotion on carriers like AT&T and Verizon.

Finally, we come to employee costs. While Apple employs 72,800 employees, 42,400 of those are retail workers, which leaves 30,400 non-retail employees. Compare that to Microsoft, which employs 94,000 full-time employees, and has been estimated to employ 80,000 vendors and agency temps. Apple employs only 3,300 "full-time equivalent" temporary workers.

Bottom line
Apple's advantages in SG&A are the result of its unique traits. Its focus on a smaller group of product lines helps keep employee counts well below its peers in big tech, which helps keep employee expenses down. Also, it has some of the world's most effective advertising despite spending significantly less than competitors.

These factors combine to give Apple a 6-10 percentage point advantage in its SG&A cost structure over competitors. If Apple's SG&A rose to 12% of sales -- a number still below most peers' expenses -- it would have the effect of shaving off about $6.55 billion in profits a year. With Apple trading at slightly north of 13 times earnings, that could cut about $86 billion off Apple's current market cap, or 16% of its total value.

Get the full report
We hope you enjoyed this sample of The Motley Fool's newest report on Apple. The report is authored by senior technology analyst Eric Bleeker, and offers a comprehensive analysis diving into what's causing Apple's sell-off -- and whether the company is poised to bounce back. To get instant access to his latest thinking on Apple, simply click here now.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (2)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2012, at 8:12 PM, HiramWalker wrote:

    Apple's SG&A is low because they have spent their money creating the best OS on any mobile devices. Because their OS keeps their customers so happy, they don't have to spend as much promoting, as their customers do it for them.

    Contrast this with Samsung, who is forced to spend much more to overcome the negative effects of an inefficient, fragmented, kludgy operating system.

    Although Samsung's huge advertising and promotional budget has had a great short term result for the company, perhaps long term they should have spent that money on improving the users experience.

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2012, at 9:11 PM, 0gre wrote:

    If you do things right or nearly right from go, you don't need to make iterations every six months to try and catch up. That's a big part of how Apple keeps their cost down.

    One big advantage of that is Apple can actually support a broader swath of their current users. iOS 6 is supported by all but the oldest of iPhones. The majority of one year old Android phones don't even officially support Ice Cream Sandwich, let alone Jelly Bean or the follow up to Jelly Bean.

  • Report this Comment On December 18, 2012, at 8:47 AM, mrconnors0531 wrote:

    MSFT + BBY = $$$$$$$$$$$. The Geeks need a block buster product, MSFT has it but no way to sell it or demo it. Amazon needs a competitor with deep pockets this merger would provide this all the way around and breath new life in the old Apple.

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