Apple Advertising Philosophy Undergoing a Sea Change?
Apple was holding a soiree for the employees, the attractions included free beer and vegetarian fare (do nachos count as vegetarian food?) but the beer and the hummus came with a price, they were going to have to listen to a pitch by Steve Jobs. So it was on September 30, 1997 when Steve revealed Apple’s new marketing strategy. The new strategy would entail focusing on Apple’s brand. Steve cited Nike commercials that left people with a feeling of physical excellence without ever showing the shoe.1
Surely, one would think, there was someone in the audience that realized there was a problem with Steve’s analogy. If such a person attended, they remained silent either out of lust for beer or fear of voicing an opinion contrary to Steve’s. The problem with Steve’s analogy is, of course, that Nike doesn’t just advertise with television ads. Nike also sponsors athletes, tons of them. While you might get a groovy feeling from the latest Nike ad, it is immediately followed up by someone doing something extremely athletic in said shoes. Which likely sold more shoes: an abstract ad or Michael Jordan’s series winning shot against the Utah Jazz? Undoubtedly Apple would have pursued the sponsorship idea but since people won’t willingly watch other people use computers they were unable to avail themselves of that option (save for a few movies).
Apple’s strategy may have been mistaken, incomplete or a stroke of genius depending on your perspective. In any event, Apple held the course for years. If you were to take any particular television ad produced between the date of Steve’s speech and the most recent July you’ll note that they share a common theme. Some may find that conclusion surprising. What could a TV spot featuring Einstein, Gandhi, Picasso and a Richard Dreyfuss voice over have in common with G4 towers surrounded by tanks? Rest assured the common theme is there but it takes a moment to ferret the thing out. Once it hits though, it becomes impossible not to notice it in every subsequent ad (like petals around the rose). The theme isn’t one of some hidden message or even a shared background but rather something that is omitted. Specifically, you never see the Apple products actually working. You’ll be treated to spinning Macs, slovenly snails, or silhouettes dancing but never an actual product doing what it was designed to do.
The most unfathomable example of this is the spot introducing Airport. While the technology has become commonplace today it was Apple who first glommed onto the wireless future. One would anticipate seeing someone using a computer wirelessly, it was a brand new technology that no one else was using so why not highlight something your machines can do that competition can’t? The reason doesn’t really matter, when Apple tried to push Airport they relied on an ad that made the base station seem like a UFO. Granted the technology seemed otherworldly at the time but from the commercial you really couldn’t be sure if Airport was going let you surf the net unencumbered by wires or if the thing would abduct you in the middle of the night for a round of unspeakable probing.
Apple stuck with the strategy for eight solid years. Things may be changing, the most recent iPod commercial shows the iPod playing a video. It doesn’t seem like a big deal but, when viewed with an eye on earlier Apple ads, it is a change of major proportions. Can we expect to see more demo style commercials from Apple? One would think after eight years building the brand it might be an opportune moment to show folks how the products actually function. Hopefully, Apple is headed in the direction of giving people visual cues as to what their products actually do. Such a change can’t do anything but decrease confusion. The nano spots coupled with the aforementioned iPod ads are doing a great job of delineating the models.
Now is the moment to let you imagination run free. Envision a new iMac that features fast user switching but instead of accounts it switches operating systems. Richard Dreyfuss isn’t doing much so he could another voice over while the computer was flipping to Windows along the lines of:
“Finally, one computer that can do everything…”
Such an ad would let people who were thinking of switching know, with certainty, that they had a safety net. Now quickly disabuse yourself of that fantasy, there are two rules in life: Don’t talk about Fight Club and don’t put the Mac on TV. Though one supposes there will be some really great iPod ads that will come out of the change in thinking.
1. Second Coming of Steve Jobs, Alan Deutschman