By Todd Wasserman
In 2010, the standard advice for marketers is: Be transparent. Embrace social media. Start a dialogue with your audience.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs is having none of this. As everyone knows, Apple’s success is based at least in part on opacity. The brand has no Facebook or Twitter page, doesn’t respond to media requests (including one from this publication) and sometimes uses heavy-handed tactics to censor information. Apple’s mania for secrecy reached its apogee with the iPad.
While some news outlets accurately predicted the device’s debut (and its name!) seven months early, not a peep came from headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., until Jobs’ official announcement on Jan. 27. By then, bloggers had whipped up so much buzz that the iPad announcement nearly eclipsed the State of the Union address the next day.
It’s easy to conclude now, as sales of the iPad have surpassed 3 million units, that the device’s success was preordained. But industry watchers credit the marketing.
Let’s remember the «Do I really need one of these?» mumblings that preceded the launch of the iPad—a $500-plus gadget that lacks a keyboard and also can’t make phone calls. The company’s retort was an ad campaign from TBWA\Media Arts Lab that featured all the classic hallmarks of Apple advertising: A hip tune and a simple message. In this case, the former was Blue Van’s «There Goes My Love» and the latter—wordlessly conveyed—was: Look at all the cool things you can do just by touching the screen!
That focus on one or two key features is what made Apple’s message so effective—and what sets the brand apart in the tech sector, according to Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst with the Enderle Group. «Previous tablets were laptops with touchscreens,» he says. «But Apple presented it as something different, so the buyer looked at it as something different. Apple made it all about touch.»
In the ad, the iPad is on hand for every daily activity: reading a book, watching a movie, answering e-mails, smiling at family photos. That demonstrated functionality is what longtime Apple watcher and president of Creative Strategies Tim Bajarin calls the brand’s «ecosystem of applications and services»—another key differentiator.
Of course, Apple has another huge advantage: A brand based on maintaining a narrative that keeps consumers interested and anticipating. At any point, Jobs can pull a rabbit out of his hat and introduce something revolutionary, as he did in 2001 with the iPod and again with the iPhone six years later. «With Apple,» says Engadget editor-in-chief Joshua Topolsky, «you never know what they’re going to come up with.»
Such expectations can work against Apple, too, which is what happened with the much ballyhooed G4 Cube, a piece of modern art whose high price led to disappointing sales in 2006. The iPhone 4 was such a state secret that Gizmodo scored a major media coup when it ran a photo of the device this April, after getting its hands on a model. The event stole Jobs’ fire when it came time for the official unveiling, and Apple did little to help its image when it sicced the cops on Gizmodo’s editorial offices in search of the allegedly stolen property—bad press only compounded by the call—dropping design flaw known as «antennagate.»
Luckily for Apple, though, the story’s been pretty positive. A mere 1.7 percent of iP4 buyers have returned their phones, meaning most of the 3 million ones sold are still out there. And the world hasn’t stopped wondering what Steve Jobs will come up with next.