Apple Envy

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‘Tis the season to diss Apple in some very creative and entertaining ways. I’m just not sure whether it’s a sign of strategic marketing insight, or fishbowl-like confusion of message over meaning.


First came Microsoft’s "I’m a PC" campaigns, with its snippets of slice-of-life everypeople declaring their stereotypical lifestyles, and then shoppers explaining how they’d first looked at an Apple but then chose a PC because it was a better value. I’m all for comparison ads but the nonsense of contrasting PC-ness with Apple-ness is kind of silly. Here’s why:

  • Apple has been running those hilarious Justin Long/John Hodgman spots for a few years now, but I’d venture to say that they haven’t touched Apple’s sales much
  • They preach to the faithful, and mildly entertain the rest of us
  • It’s probably anathema for any advertising-interested person to say this, but Apple has a tradition of running corporate branding campaigns that have no connection to consumer behavior
  • The "Think Different" campaign was strikingly memorable, but I’m not aware that it did anything for sales (coming on the heels of the first iMac launch, I think sales even dipped)
  • Even the "1984" spot (and the sorta lame HAL9000 follow-up) were creations of great art and panache, but almost purposefully said nothing about sales
  • It’s all great art, but not particularly smart marketing

Oh, wait a minute, that’s the point, right?

If sales go up, squint one eye, balance on your left leg, and ask people if they remember the ads and, voila, you have circumstantial if not casual proof of value. If sales stay flat or go down, well, consumers still probably remembered the ads, so the branding isn’t at fault as much as those pesky consumers just not doing what they’re supposed to do. All that matters is that they’re talking about the campaigns, can recollect them if asked, or can make a VU meter on a digital dashboard register some conversational measure, like "social currency" or "tone."

And this is the nonsense its competitors choose to mimic?

If anybody thinks Apple’s brand success has much if anything to do with these artifacts of communications, they’re idiots…or, more specifically, they work at Microsoft or one of its ad agencies, because they chose to take the irrelevant declarations of a company that represents a fraction of a percent of the global PC business, and made it the focus of their positioning. Jeez…PCs aren’t even a product, per se, but rather a category of products in which Apple is included.

"I’m a PC" inherently declares "I’m not a Mac," which is kind of like the U.S. basing its global reputation on reminding everyone that it’s a country, but not Liechtenstein. 

Then came the "iDon’t" campaign for the Droid smartphone, which chose to list its features in contrast to Apple’s iPhone; everything it did differently was a statement of something that iPhone couldn’t do (some features were truly unique, though the iPhone has its share of those, too). It sorta felt like a Mac spot, and ended with a whacky garbled static thing like the closing scene in the horror movie Prince of Darkness.

Does a list of don’ts add up to a list of benefits? We marketers might snicker about how the ads belittled iPhone, but I say it was a bass-ackwards way to make the point, at best, and statements like "iDon’t allow open development" couldn’t have made much sense (or provided comfort) to most non-geek buyers. 

More to the point, did the ads do anything to drive people to stores to buy the damn gizmo? Verizon won’t say, but estimates are that they sold at least 100,000 units in the U.S. during the first week. Apple sold 1.6 million units in 8 countries during the same period of its launch. Clearly, the "iDon’t" campaign was another branding success.

Now there’s another spot trying to humiliate iPhone by banishing it to goofy Island of Misfit Toys we Boomers remember from the claymation Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s there because it has lame 3G coverage compared to the Verizon map that has a lot more real estate filled-in with company red.

Touting 3G coverage reminds me of arguing over processor speeds in computers, or surfactant percentages in dishwashing liquid. In the technology world "more" is even a bit better than "new," even if nobody knows what the hell it means. So is it a meaningful difference? Are there experiential proof-points to make the case that 3G yields better experiences, irrespective of device? Does it prompt sales? 

We simply don’t know these answers because the marketers decided that the only question worth asking was "how can we slam Apple?"

Some ad critics have decided that these campaigns are evidence of a new day in which Apple is somehow under fire and less secure. I wonder if it isn’t evidence of the exact opposite: Apple so dominates the categories in which it chooses to compete that its competitors can’t come up with anything meaningful to do about it. The best they can do is find ways to creatively declare "We’re not Apple" or mock Apple’s ads, which just furthers their reach.

Apple doesn’t care about the ads anyway; it’s the products and experience that destroy its competition, and the celebrated cool kwan of its brand trails that fact vs. preceding it. Apple’s brand story isn’t a promise, it’s a narration of experience.

Every dollar that its competitors waste drawing contrasts with image and brand attributes is money that could have gone toward revealing meaningful and relevant differences that could have prompted their own experiences. And sales.

Plagiarism is the highest form of flattery, but Apple envy won’t get you anywhere.

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