Apple's Biggest Threat: Killer Advertising
Apple never skimps on advertising. Because of advertising, by starting with the awesome foundation of the product itself, Apple can charge premium prices and still manage to capture the mindshare of everyday consumers. Apple hasn't been snarky since the days of I'm a Mac and I'm a PC, and even then, the ads were infused with a sense of good fun. The Mac guy was never mean. Bemused, perhaps, but not mean.
10/25/12 5:00 AM PT
While Apple crafts consumer gadgets of incredible beauty, built to look good on the outside and the inside -- even when Apple tries to fuse the case so the components can never be seen by mere mortals -- the hardware is not Apple's biggest weapon. The MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro with Retina display, the iMac, the iPad and new iPad mini -- not even the wildly popular iPhone is the most devastating weapon in Apple's arsenal.
Old-school video commercials. The occasional product placement. Dirt-simple marketing emails. Apple wields these tools with seeming ease but not like perfectly balanced swords that eviscerate the competition. No, Apple uses advertising that is so good it removes the inkling in consumers that other products even exist. In Apple's advertising-dominated world, all tablets -- even competitor tablets -- are iPads, so that when you are carrying the nifty new Microsoft Surface through airport security, the guard says that your iPad doesn't have to come out of the bag before it's scanned.
Unless you're specifically an Apple hater and unless you have specific reasons not to buy Apple, it's as if these other products barely exist to the non-geeks of the digital device world. Why? How?
When Apple held its media announcement on Tuesday, it had the products ready for journalists to look at and touch and feel. That's all well and good, but more importantly, Apple already had created ads. The iPad mini? Ready to roll with a killer new ad already in place.
So what was the ad? It shows a full-size iPad with a hand playing a song on a piano (app-based), then the view slowly pans to the right to reveal an iPad mini with a small piano and another hand/finger that starts playing with the larger sibling. The effect is that the iPad mini is much like the larger iPad, can do the same things, but is obviously smaller. Meanwhile, the ad focuses on the product and the feeling that either iPad will bring you joy, the ability to be creative and make music. It's a very simple ad with a very powerful message. The iPad mini immediately takes on all the reputation of the full-size iPad. Nice.
Apple's Relentless Ad Campaigns
However, Apple doesn't rest, and even when it has missteps, like the doomed Boy Genius TV spots it keeps on advertising. On the same night Apple announced the iPad mini, what did I see on broadcast TV?
I saw an ad with bouncing iPods. The entire colorful line, iPod touch, iPod nano, iPod shuffle. Wait, what?
Isn't the iPod supposed to be a fading device? With iPhones and now an iPad mini, who would buy the little iPod touch? And the iPod nano? It's so single-focused in its intent. How can it really sell that much? Why advertise it at all?
Yet, Apple isn't ignoring these little products. It's reminding consumers how Apple devices are not only infused with joy, but are also contagious -- if you have one, the promise of Apple's ads seem to say that you'll catch the joy, too.
If you haven't seen the ad, by the way, it's a visual and audio feast with iPods bouncing on a white surface as if they are leaping and falling to the music -- it's mesmerizing the same way the graphical rising and falling bars of an equalizer capture your attention.
The iPhone 5 Gets 4 TV Spots
Rewind to the iPhone 5. Not only did Apple sell 5 million iPhone 5 units in the first weekend, it came out of the gate swinging with ads all about the device and the experience of using it. You can view all four ads on Apple's own site.
One shows how the iPhone 5's bigger screen -- that's smaller than many competitors' screens -- is designed so that your thumb can touch all of the on-screen buttons when you hold it with one hand. The next is the attention-holding "Cheeeeeeeeese" ad that shows the iPhone 5 creating not some staid panoramic photo of a mountain range, but a panoramic photo of a line of cute-as-all-get-out kids wearing cuddly Halloween animal costumes.
The "Phsyics" ad talks about the iPhone getting bigger and smaller at the same time. An oxymoron that points out how the screen is bigger but the device is thinner. Seems pretty bland for Apple, really, and yet, the ad manages to show the iPhone 5 playing a movie, music, browsing a newspaper Web page, showing off a family photo, and looking at a 3D map view of a city. In 30 seconds of Apple trying to say the iPhone 5 is bigger yet smaller, it also manages to show how the iPhone 5 can be used personally. Speaking of personal, the fourth ad, which shares a similar soundtrack and the same narrator as all of these related ads, starts off with saying that ears are weird. The ad, of course, is for Apple's new EarPod headphones. It shows a lot of differently shaped ears, all well-groomed, and promises a better fit. A more personal connection right out of the box. That's Apple advertising at work.
The Best Apple Ads Promise Joy
Not all Apple ads are winners. The aforementioned Boy Genius ads fell short. Not all have the exact same theme, but through it all, Apple never skimps on advertising. Because of advertising, by starting with the awesome foundation of the product itself, Apple can charge premium prices and still manage to capture the mindshare of everyday consumers. Apple hasn't been snarky since the days of I'm a Mac and I'm a PC, and even then, the ads were infused with a sense of good fun. The Mac guy was never mean. Bemused, perhaps, but not mean.
Take, for instance, the Samsung ad about iPhone fans waiting in line, "The Next Big Thing Is Already Here -- Samsung Galaxy S III."
It's a brilliant ad. I love it. I always enjoy it. The actors are spot-on, but it doesn't infuse Samsung products with joy. It doesn't promise to change your life, make it more fulfilling with music and apps and food. It's all in good fun, and it's supremely tasteful, but I don't believe it speaks to making very many people specifically want a Samsung Galaxy S III.
That is, if you didn't already want an Android, this ad isn't going to make you want one. Sure, you might laugh along with the ad, but plenty of viewers are still going to buy Apple. I guess Samsung does show you how you can bump two S IIIs together to share a playlist -- but that funny little move had the opposite effect on me. I hope I never bump my phone with someone else's and feel as if this is normal or cool.
Still, it's a fantastic ad with millions of views on YouTube, and it's the only real smartphone ad (non-Apple) that I notice on broadcast TV. It speaks to a superiority complex that is built upon the perception of something else, not what it is. Samsung lets the S III be defined by the iPhone 5 and the people who love it.
Not all Apple ads, but the best Apple ads, focus on what the product is and then infuse its very nature with the promise of what it can bring to you. This is what Apple conveys and what Apple promises: joy. And while Apple might lead you into a walled garden with beautiful singing sirens, you're still going with a smile on your face.
It Starts with Confidence in the Product
Apple is willing to spend money to make money. Apple is willing to bet on expensive ads -- and Apple can do it, can make these bets because Apple firmly believes in the quality of its products. Every Apple employee believes they are offering the best possible product they can -- and they love it. That gives Apple supreme power, and that core company belief in product lets Apple roll with confidence.
It's the confidence that started when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak decided to push forward -- even with their own funds if they had to -- with that first famous ad, the 1984 ad that effectively launched Apple into the consciousness of the world. The message back then was different, of course, less evolved, certainly, but it was supported by an unshaken belief in a damn fine product.
This willingness to spend on high-quality advertising, I firmly believe, is Apple's secret weapon. It's why other companies can produce very solid products and yet pale in comparison to Apple's sales figures.