By Archie Heaton
A man named Ken Segall recently branded Apple’s current marketing as “vanilla,” and that is a very big deal. Why? Because, along with Steve Jobs, he is the man credited with creating the iconic “Think Different” marketing campaign during his time as creative director of TBWA, as well naming the ‘iMac.’ However, almost certainly his most culturally impactful achievement is the fact that his recent statements have re-energized me into writing this little piece which (I promise) I’ve been meaning to jot down for some time.
Because, when all is said and done, he is right; Apple’s marketing has got fucking boring. Not totally ineffective, certainly not truly terrible, but, perhaps worse for a company like Apple, far from ‘insanely great.’ In fact, the company once thought of as the rebellious innovator has, dare I say it, becoming the epitome of corporate America – safe, beige and, worst of all, grown up. That is an utter travesty.
Segall elegantly puts the problem down to a lack of product personality, lambasting the firm’s decision to create unconnected, generational campaigns that pitch each product iteration as a standalone device. However, although this is a fair criticism, he fails to call out the root cause of Apple’s rapidly declining marketing, their lack of accessibility.
In my humble opinion, the campaigns have become become progressively more soulless as they have grown further and further detached from the scenarios in which real people actually use their devices. Instead, the focus has shifted to extreme sportsmen jumping through the air wearing Apple Watches, Dwayne Johnson organising a space flight with the help of Siri, and Taylor Swift (below) running to her friends hit song on Apple Music.
Give me a break. Yes, we all know Apple has famous friends but, seriously, they must understand that is not why consumers feel something when they see the logo or enter a store. That connection was built as they fought against the system, grafted their way up as the underdog and stood for something more than their rivals. People fell in love with Apple because they liked the spunk and sex appeal of a brand with a swagger Liam Gallagher would have been proud of.
Yet that same brand is now starting to come across as an ageing rock star, glory days behind them, trying to cling on to significance by hanging out with the new, cool kids on the block. But, funnily enough, most people do not want to peer through the glass into Apple’s boring showbiz parties filled with their famous pals. Instead, most fans want them to, in the immortal words of Steve Jobs, “stay humble, stay foolish.” In short, people need to connect with their marketing in the way they still do so deeply with their products.
And, before anyone gleefully reminds me in the comments section, I know Jobs made it clear that he never wanted his predecessor to ask what he would have done and, I agree with this advice…for the most part. In many ways Apple needed to mature, and Tim Cook has successfully achieved that. Amazingly, he’s managed to eke out further efficiencies from the companies already world-leading operational network, while at the same time bringing investor management up to scratch.
Furthermore, some of the cultural changes he’s instigated sound frankly refreshing and were well overdue. In fact, in many ways, he’s far more suited to the role of CEO than Jobs ever was. Similarly, Jonny Ive and team have continued to push the envelope in design, further refining their craft into what I honestly believe constitutes a form of modern art that shits all over Picasso. Yet, all of that said, there is one area in which they did not need to grow up, where they did not need to lose their Jobs era spark in the name of conformity: marketing.
This is one area in which Tim Cook – hell any marketer – should be asking themselves “what would Steve Jobs do?” in the same way, I imagine, many songwriters ask themselves “what would Bowie do?” Unfortunately it is clear no one has been asking that question and, slowly but surely, the emerging culture of corporate maturity, which has worked wonders in operations and finance, has infected the company’s marketing material, with far less enviable results.
Yet why should anyone care? Apple has recently made history as the first company ever to be valued at over $1 trillion, selling an astonishing 40 million iPhones in the last three months alone! However, despite this, the grievances laid out here are far more than the ramblings of a borderline obsessive marketer. This is because, while I am a million miles off suggesting Apple is becoming a disliked brand, it is becoming clear that, without the proper adjustments, the next generation could fail to connect with Apple like my generation has.
This, as Segall points out, could pose an enormous problem as innovation in the smartphone market naturally declines. As the devices in our pockets become increasingly uniform, intangible differentiators like brand will emerge as the only way to charge the high prices that have made Apple into the most profitable company of all time.
Thus, in the not too distant future, what at this point can easily be dismissed as a couple a bad adverts, will reveal its true self. Rearing its ugly head as the one thing Apple cannot afford, apathy towards its brand. There is still time to avoid this. So, I address Apple’s marketing department directly now – put down your frappuccinos, keep timid Tim at bay and, for God’s sake, grow some balls.
Archie Heaton is to be found here.