Saturday, September 20th, 2008

Microsoft ads leverage flaws in Apple’s strategy

Microsoft ads leverage flaws in Apple’s strategy
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I’m a bit of a fence-sitter when it comes to the Mac/PC “thing”. At home I run Macs, while at work we use PCs. (We also use iPhones.) There are things that I like about both platforms, and aspects that I dislike as well. To be completely honest, a large part of me would love to only use Apple products, due to their beauty and simplicity.

Apple products are simply very well designed. (When you’re as obsessive as I am, such attention to detail is particularly appreciated. That being said, I struggle with the notion of embracing Apple products entirely. This is in-part due to their “walled garden” approach, and also as a result of the smugness inherent in some of their advertising.

The problem with Apple’s ads

First of all, I have to say that the “I’m a Mac” campaign was landmark advertising. Personifying these companies as they did crystallized almost immediately in our collective minds. Put simply, we were all left with the idea that only “dorks” would use anything other than Macs. Watching Apple, which had been clobbered by Microsoft for so many years, claw itself back from near bankruptcy and was kind of delightful. The ads were bold and refreshingly different.

After a while though, they seemed to lose some of their luster. Yeah, yeah, Vista sucks… Sure, PCs are used for business… Yes, sometimes we have to work on “pie charts”, while it would be more fun to play with GarageBand… Yadda, yadda, yadda. The gag was getting old.

Apple’s people toyed with the format in interesting ways and sometimes did something rather funny with the spots. Eventually it started to feel like they were trying to turn a one-liner into a feature film. A brilliant little “zag” turned into a series of seemingly endless pot-shots, which I (and perhaps some others) found a little overly tedious and adolescent in nature.

From challenger to champion

I suppose I’m restating the obvious when I note that Apple has for some time now played the role of underdog. In this particular position, they’ve had the liberty of focusing on pleasing a smaller, fervent user-base, eager to spread the word about the company.

We are predisposed to like this “David versus Goliath” story: our aspiring hero against the soulless ubiquitous computing giant. The tough part here is that Apple isn’t really the underdog any longer; nor, is Microsoft quite the unstoppable force it once was. Apple does phenomenal business, while Microsoft seems to be stumbling about, unsure of where it’s headed. Antitrust suits, the misestimation of the web’s growth, losing the search battle, the migration from desktop to cloud… The obstacles for Microsoft continue to add-up.

As I reflect on this topic, I continue to reflect on Jean-Marie Dru‘s book Beyond Disruption and the discussion he has about the conundrum faced by challengers becoming champions. Apple has done well playing the underdog card, but it’s not going to work much longer. As they become more powerful, the game changes.

Why this campaign is backfiring

One of Microsoft’s core problems over the years has been its size. It turns slower than the Titanic, while Apple has been able to make bold moves rapidly. As Apple gains market share and broadens its offering, however, we see them in a similar paradox to Microsoft. The better the product the bigger they get; the bigger they get, the more they do; the more they do, the worse the product. It’s also important to remind ourselves that Apple doesn’t just create hardware and software; it also is a massive player in the media game.

It’s starting to seem like they are biting off a bit more than they can chew. MobileMe has been a blunder even according to Jobs; the new iPhone software has been hampered by pretty substantial bugs, and talk of hardware related quality issues are becoming quite common. Recently TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington posted on the topic. When people like Michael start saying things like this, it’s time to take notice.

Apple is having problems “scaling” and that’s understandable; however, it makes the finger-pointing tone of their ads more difficult to swallow. Everyone makes mistakes, but Apple has set the bar rather high. So, when the button on my iPhone falls off in my hand and the apps stop working (these aren’t isolated incidents), I start to shake my head at those “Macs just work” statements. (Those of you who follow my Twitter feed are probably tired of hearing about this already–sorry.)

There are more nerds than hipsters out there

I’m often critical of advertising in general; nevertheless, the people at Crispin Porter + Bogusky have earned every million that Microsoft has paid-out for their recent campaign.

They first started by generating buzz with those rather puzzling Seinfeld/Gates ads. Weird as they may have been, they certainly represented a quantum leap from the thinking behind the phony “Wow” campaign and those completely asinine “Mojave project” ads.

The new ads were something surprising and unexpected. It was a little like seeing the nerd in high school show up for class in a purple cape. (Even if you didn’t know what was going on you’d probably want to find out.)

On Thursday, the next phase began, with Microsoft embracing Apple’s “I’m a PC” taunt and turning it into a bit of a hammer. The folks at Bogusky discovered a gaping hole in Apple’s campaign. The “I’m a Mac” ads aren’t just personifications of the machines; instead, these caricatures extend to the users, serving as a statement (on Apple’s behalf) about the people who use them. With their ads, Apple says that people who use PCs have no personality. As a result, Apple’s ads make fun of about 90% of us.

Most of us use PCs, so Apple’s ads are in a way a grand indictment of all of us. Similarly, most of us are (or have been) un-cool. Although I deeply wanted to be “cool” in high-school, this no longer seems particularly important; moreover, I find the notion of any company playing the “if you use our stuff, you’ll be okay” card to be a little patronizing.

The new Microsoft campaign is brilliant because it’s inclusive. Their message is centered on the notion that all kinds of people use their stuff to do many different things. In part, it’s a unifying and affirming statement: “Yes, I have a PC but that doesn’t make me, or what I do, boring. Frankly, suggesting otherwise is a little silly.”

The Microsoft ads may be a little hokey, but they are smart because they include everyone. While the Mac is personified by a “20-something” skinny white guy, the people at Crispin Porter + Bogusky recognize that this is a small and incredibly homogenized representation of the computing populace. The Microsoft ads celebrate that PC users look different from one another, act differently from one another, and likely do different things.

Apple has to focus on the basics (and loosen the chains a little)

The funny part here is that the “I’m a Mac” ads belay Apple’s trump card, which is that they build great stuff. Their design is impeccable and the experience one has with their products is generally very good. While Microsoft is going to need much more than one great ad campaign to turn itself around, Apple’s management doesn’t have to do as much to solve the problem I’ve outlined.

First of all, they have to drop the name-calling. In fact, I think it would be best to sidestep the comparisons altogether. Instead, they could concentrate on showing how they make the user experience great. This is a no-brainer; their iPhone ads already do this incredibly well. It’s time to stop worrying so much about what the other guys are doing.

The bigger thing (and I see this as a less likely possibility) is for Apple to treat their users less like inmates and instead open things up a little. Many developers find the Appstore’s policies Draconion. If Apple doesn’t like an app, they quash it, and purportedly without unbiased reasoning. This leaves a huge “out-of-the-gate” advantage to Google’s Android. Although it’s sometimes messy, many of us would rather be part of an open marketplace, no matter how beautiful the walled-garden may be.

Ironically, as Apple exercises its power amongst developers and customers in such restrictive ways, it increasingly looks more like Microsoft in the 90s. Most of us don’t like being spoken down to; nor, do we appreciate companies limiting our choices. Apple has to learn this; doing otherwise has proven to dethrone even the mightiest.

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