Apple needs to 'Think Different' to beat Samsung, warns ads guru

Apple [AAPL] has always maintained a cunningly managed "whole widget" approach across its business, spanning products, retail chain, support, even its advertising has traditionally maximized its message. But the company seems to be losing a little of its magic touch.

[ABOVE: Apple's latest iPad ad.]

Think Different

The latest criticism of this side of the firm's business expression comes from the man behind the original iMac ads and Apple's 'Think Different' campaign, Ken Segall, who writes that today's Apple ads seem to be "battling" where they "used to crush". It could be said his observation matches the new lexicon of Apple, in which the firm is reeling under constant assault from all sides.

Segall's criticism should be taken seriously. He is the former creative director at Apple's long-term ads firm, TBWA/Chiat/Day. He presided over ads campaigns which helped the company create ads that became as famous as the products they promote. But things appear to have changed, Segall now thinks Samsung's TV ads are prevailing in the battle for consumer minds.

As he puts it, writing on his blog:

"While you can still argue that Macs and i-devices have a ton of appeal, you can’t argue that Apple is still untouchable when it comes to advertising.

"The fact is, it is being touched — often and effectively — by none other than Samsung."

He notes that while Apple is sticking resolutely to its product based marketing, Samsung's focus on exploiting some of the more idiosyncratic qualities of Apple fans is paying dividends to the Korean smartphone giant.

"The company continues to bash away at Apple, delivering ads that are well produced, well written, and seem to be striking a nerve. In contrast to Apple, which has been sticking to its product-based ads, Samsung has been scoring points with its people-based ads -- most of which play off some growing negative perceptions about Apple."

He also notes Samsung's willingness to spend huge amounts of cash on ads placements. The company spends more on advertising than Coca-Cola, Dell, HP, or Apple. (I'd observe Samsung is also more willing to subsidize sales of its devices, as it plays an aggressive game in which it crushes other Android makers while piling competitive pressure on Apple).

[ABOVE: A slice of Samsung's advertising.]

Buzz creation

Segall says Apple's ads just aren't creating the same excitement at the moment, suggesting the firm has lost momentum.

"Apple has been the master of buzz creation going all the way back to the first iMac. It just isn’t buzzing quite like it used to. Momentum has been lost. Not all of that is Apple’s fault, but some of it certainly is," he writes.

This is all about mind share. As I've pointed out several times in the past few months (such as in the report, 'Apple's Annus Horribilis'), Apple doesn't occupy the same space within consumer consciousness as it once did. A continued barrage of negative perception from all quarters is chipping away at its position as the technological magician at the center of innovation and change.

There's evidence to support this claim.

The most recent UK Superbrands listing saw Apple fall from top place as the most admired brand for consumers.

I take this to mean that Apple is no longer seen as the plucky, small yet powerful, unpredictable brand it once was.

This likely reflects its true position as a company at the top of the corporate pile. The most valuable technology brand is a huge corporation now. People still love its products. It sells millions of them.

The company makes so much money that it is headline news when some super-rich investor decides they want the company to figure out ways to give them even more money to make them even more super-rich, even though such people never once suggest spending any of that spare money on things like curing disease, easing poverty or improving education.

This is dreadful because it means something utterly terrifying: Apple has become respectable. And as we all know, respectable is boring.

Reflecting this stultifying respectability, the latest Superbrands survey claims Apple has become the leading business brand.

[ABOVE: From the ancient hit songs dept., Mel & Kim says: "Take or leave us only please believe us, We ain't never gonna be respectable".]

Respectable

Even there it faces significant threat:

"Whilst Apple topped the rankings, Samsung jumped a huge 91 places to join the tech giant in the top 20. This closed the gap between the two, enforcing Samsung’s threat to its US rival."

Apple knows it is facing huge challenges. It is attempting to ameliorate these the old-fashioned way -- by being nice to people.

France Telecom/Orange CEO, Stephane Richard, said at Mobile World Congress: "Apple has become more flexible, paying more attention to everyone else, probably a little less arrogant than they used to be."

Apple is feeling the pressure.

"I imagine Apple is feeling a bit like Obama after his first debate with Romney. It deeply believes in its ideas; it just needs to express them more forcefully," writes Segall.

"There are too many smart people at Apple and Chiat to take this lying down. I expect to see Apple do exactly what Obama did. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and it’s time to recalibrate," he adds.

Perhaps part of that recalibration could begin with a look back at one of Steve Jobs' own maxims as described in a separate item on Segall's blog:

"Be important".

Jobs talked on this to Segall way back in the NeXT days.

"Steve wanted the world to believe that NeXT was a relevant force with a message that deserved notice. He had no interest in an ad that was cute or inconsequential. He wouldn’t pin his hopes on a marketing gimmick," writes Segall.

He wanted ads that made things important.

Importance isn't about claiming to be important; it's about actually being important.

  • The iMac was important, it was the life or death of Apple and sufficiently differentiated from anything then available on the PC market to be seen as something special.
  • The iPod was important. It hit market at just the right time to appeal to a digitally-savvy music-loving audience, and with iTunes it delivered an alternative to file-sharing music fans could use to get music online while staying legal. It was important because it presented a lifeline to that strand of the creative arts.
  • The iPhone was important. It changed the power relationship in the mobile industry, was transformational in its user interface, and was the most innovative device yet introduced to the mobile networks at the time.
  • The iPad was important. It offered a new way to enjoy portable computing and -- with apps -- was the ultimate content consumption machine. It only later became clear how transformative that release has been.

Apple needs to stick to its strengths, abandon that sense of smugness in its advertising, and kick home the message that should perhaps be at the company's core:

"Be important."

But don't be too respectable.

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