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Apr 28

I Hate to Break It To You, Guys, But Apple Is a Marketing Company

Photo Credit: Jeff Croft (Flickr.com)

The other day, one of my office-mates was very excited about an article he’d read about Apple’s earnings in the Wall Street Journal.

“Sean,” he said. “This company is just amazing. They put out a product that makes them a ton of profit, and people just line up to buy it. And it’s really cool stuff, too, cutting edge and huge. These guys have just got an amazing business model.”

“I hate to burst your bubble,” I responded, “but it isn’t their business model that makes them such a big deal. It’s their marketing department.”

He looked at me like I was crazy, and then started talking about case studies he’d read, and how Apple had made all the right business moves, and so forth. At first, I didn’t see where we were disagreeing, but then, it hit me.

“You’re thinking of marketing as being a communications strategy,” I said. “No, no, no. Marketing is a lot more than that.”

The thing about Apple is that they don’t really create new products. Apple doesn’t really thrive on innovation, at least in the traditional sense. Many of the tech companies out there producing gadgets and home computers are far more innovative than Apple. No, what Apple does is take a few desired features, focus on putting them into a really easy-to-use interface, and then market them in a sleekly cool package.

What a lot of people forget is that Apple was doing this long before they were considered cool. Around the turn of the millennium, Apple decided to release a new computer concept called the “iMac.” The premise of the iMac was that it was a self-contained computer built into a screen. It came in different colors and even had a handle that made it portable. The idea of the iMac was that people who had been staying away from personal computing because it was too complicated could get an easy little computer and not have to worry about hooking up several peripherals at once. The big criticism about the device was that it did not include a floppy disk drive which was, at the time, a pretty standard way of transmitting data. The iMac failed to catch on with the masses because it dumbed down the concept of computing just enough that it didn’t appeal to the masses.

Oddly enough, the same sort of design philosophy went into the first iPod. You have to remember, once again, that the iPod was not the first portable digital media player, nor was it even the best when it shipped to market. But it was sleek, it was easy to use, and it was supported by the iTunes software, which made it very easy to manage the iPod’s library and add new songs. Apple didn’t market the device as an “MP3 player” (which several other companies were doing at the time), but as a digital lifestyle device. Apple was so concerned about making the iPod feel like something more than just a gadget that they encouraged creative peripherals for the device. They also hired a design firm to help design the unit, and one of the key points about the iPod was that it had no screws, no removable batteries, or anything else that made it overly complex or clunky.

Now, Apple definitely has a handle on the aspects of business — there’s no question about that. But I would argue that a company that is so obsessed with the design of the product, the distribution of the products and peripherals it’s selling, keeping the price at a premium point of profitability and engaging customers with an exciting and novel series of promotional communications (such as the great iPod commercials, Mac vs. PC commercials and messages proclaiming, “There’s an app for that!”) is putting marketing at the forefront of its operations.

Let me offer a couple of companies for comparison who are producing similar products, but who aren’t as good at marketing as Apple is. The first is Research in Motion, the creator of the popular BlackBerry phones. Now, RIM makes good products, and they are the gold standard of the corporate world due to their wonderful e-mail systems that can “push” messages securely to mobile devices.

But RIM is terrible at marketing. It’s evident in the fact that people know the brand “BlackBerry,” but don’t know anything about the individual products. Only hardcore BlackBerry users have any aptitude at differentiating the phones from each other, and the exclusive agreements made with certain carriers only add to the confusion. Do you know the difference between the BlackBerry Bold, Curve and Tour? How about one of the many BlackBerry models that doesn’t have a name, but a model number? RIM puts out several BlackBerries per year, and you really have to do your research to know which one you need and which carrier can provide it to you. Apple, on the other hand, offers a small number of iPhones that are fairly easy to distinguish from each other, and they’re not offering different versions through different carriers.

Dell is another company that Apple competes with, and the differences between the two are pretty great. Dell’s selling point is that the customer can custom-design a computer on the Dell Web site and receive it within a few days in the mail. This makes Dell computers fairly inexpensive and able to meet individual customers’ needs, but, wouldn’t you know it, Dell is not so much in the business of selling to consumers or small businesses (who purchase computers infrequently) as it is in selling to large businesses (who buy computers or upgrades every year).

The problem with Dell is that it offers a little too much choice and customization. Businesses and techies need options, but how about Grandma, or a guy who’s going to college and who just needs a basic computer, or a woman who just wants a computer for surfing the Internet and making some home movies? Dell offers these customers a bewildering array of options that they are not prepared to evaluate whether or not they actually need. It’s sort of like buying a car based solely on the specs of the engine — it’s great if you know a lot about cars, but terrible if you’re just looking for something to get you around comfortably.

Apple offers a pretty simple lineup of Macs and MacBooks, and it operates retail locations where customers can consult the “genius bar” if they have questions. I’ve often wondered why the Apple store is always packed when I’ve walked by it at the St. Louis Galleria, and I’m starting to think it’s because people who don’t know much about technology can walk in there and feel a little more competent by the time they walk out. Apple is good at making things simple.

Now, am I an Apple fanboy? Absolutely not! I don’t actually own any Apple products (I use a BlackBerry Storm, a Microsoft Zune, and a Windows 7 Tablet PC instead of an iPhone, iPod and iPad), and I tend to think that Apple products are overpriced and underpowered for the things I want to do. I also don’t like the way Apple forces you to use their products their way, or not at all.

But, at the same time, I can’t help but admire their excellent marketing of their products to vast array of people out there who have the money to buy a premium product so long as it’s simple and easy to use. Half the people I know who own an iPod Touch or iPhone have no idea how to use the thing to do more than a few simple tasks. But they love how easy performing those simple tasks can be.

What are your thoughts? Are there any companies who are even better at marketing than Apple? Share your comments below!

3 comments

  1. Joel G Goodman

    Lots of good points Sean, but a few things:

    The premise of the iMac was that it was a self-contained computer built into a screen.

    Apple actually had these for years – since nearly the beginning. The Lisa and the original Mac/Mac Classic were both all-in-one computers. Jobs knew it wasn’t a new thing, he was just able to repackage his vision into “lickable colors” – and that simplicity you were talking about. Basically, lowering the barrier to entry.

    The iMac failed to catch on with the masses because it dumbed down the concept of computing just enough that it didn’t appeal to the masses.

    You could argue that no Mac has caught on “with the masses” since they still only control around 10% of the market, but the iMac sold 800,000 units in its first 139 days. In 1998, pretty successful. The iMac has also been Apple’s #1 selling computer ever.

    I think Apple has a real knack for timing. No, scratch that. They eventually release their products at the right time and then make huge amounts of money, regardless of how many times it has to be repackaged and relaunche. The Newton, no good in the 90s, but the iPad? Seems to be a pretty big hit (though it has over a decade of brand recognition propelling it, I think).

    On the user end of it (because I’ve lived in both the Windows and Mac camps), I like that Apple’s products get out of the way and let me get things done. There’s no tweaking drivers or registry settings or menu options in 15 places. No mass of bloatware to uninstall right away. The OS doesn’t matter — it’s the content that does. The UI gets out of the way – it enables, I guess.

    As far as the Apple Store thing goes – I think it’s because they look cool, have fun gadgets, are small (this has to help it feel rockin’ even if there are only 10 people inside), and let people play with the products. Apple has the whole package: good design, good ads, good brand presence, and good products (whether or not they’re the best doesn’t matter – their computers are quality). It’s an interesting case study.

  2. Sean J. Jordan

    Hey Joel,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

    The timing issue — which I agree with — is just yet another sign that Apple really gets marketing. I don’t think they had a great handle on marketing with the original iMac (it may have been successful from a units sales perspective, but if you look at the media reports from the beginning of the decade, people were predicting that Apple was done for), but they definitely did by the time they launched the iPod and the later Mac products. The key here is that they understood that the average customer — not a user like me, but a more casual electronics customer — wanted the right mix of simplicity, reliability and usability. The PC manufacturers and developers never really got that, and the only reason the PC has remained a viable platform is because of the fact that it’s the standard and, therefore, the most familiar and resourced.

    I must admit that I think Apple’s insistence on apps for devices, while a good MARKETING move, is ultimately a huge step backwards for the MARKETPLACE. Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing has been making this argument for months now, and I’m sympathetic to it. Compartmentalizing tech instead of offering a convergence platform makes sense for mobile to some degree, but it’s not a good idea for personal computing.

  3. Joel G Goodman

    The apps thing is was really gets me. It’s great for capitalism (and don’t get me wrong, I’m all for capitalism) but not good for the future of computing. Developers can make a boatload of money, but the end user is locked in. That’s my main issue with the iPhone. I love the platform and I really like my iPod Touch (first generation), but I liked it more when it was jailbroken and I had a bit more freedom. Doctorow’s a smart guy and I generally agree with his take on things.

    In regards to the iMac thing: don’t you think part of the skepticism could have been residual. I mean, Steven Jobs had just come back to the company. That was his first really big move (aside from announcing a partnership with Microsoft). I think Apple as a company was in a transitional period there — but it’s Jobs that has final say over everything. And he *gets* marketing. I think he got it back then too, he just had a huge stigma to fight off from the previous decade of Apple incompetency.

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