The Secret to Apple's Marketing Genius (Hint: It's Not Marketing)

"Less is better" is a marketing ethos, but it begins with technology that naturally requires less fuss and better experience

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A few weeks ago I was at dinner with a couple of friends who had recently bought new iPhones and, as a result, our conversation became distinctly one-sided. I spent the evening talking. They spent the night looking into their new phones.

This fixation is common in my world, where marketing and ad agency personnel seem disproportionately devoted to iPhones, iPods, and iPads. Marketing execs frequently look to Apple as the epitome of a strong brand, one that has both fostered a deep sense of coolness and forged undying loyalty from its customers. But these same branding experts who work so hard to duplicate Apple's success in their own work often miss the real source of Apple's success.

Most phone ads are about specs: "Speed! Memory! Network!" Apple ads are about how a product can change your life.

When you hear some marketers talk about Apple, you hear about emotive benefits associated with the brand: the cool design aesthetic, the imagery in the advertising, and the sense of community evoked by seeing people you respect with Apple products. This glosses over the product's most important trait: functionality. Using an Apple product feels so natural, so intuitive, so transparent, that sometimes, even people paid to know what makes products great completely miss the cause of their addiction to Apple products. It's the natural, intuitive transparency of the technology. The superlative product experience comes from an unusual combination of human and technical understanding, and it creates the foundation of all the other positive aspects of the brand.

Apple advertising stands in direct contrast to many of its competitors. BlackBerry, Samsung or Nokia ads are often laden with so much information that the recipient is left in a blaze of numbers and claims. Instead of focusing on how people interact with technology, those companies focus on features and specifications. More features are better, and more power is better. This more-is-better philosophy carries through to the brand's instruction manual, packaging and advertising.

Now think about the Apple iPad. The first ads for the iPad did not focus on the product features, like memory, or speed, or slimness. Instead they portrayed someone relaxing on their sofa using the product. The ads didn't tell us what the product was. They told us how we would use it, accessing news and entertainment whenever and wherever we want.

Everything about the Apple brand suggests that less is more. The interface is clean. The design is so intuitive that the instruction manual is almost non-existent. Our first instinct on how to do something with an Apple product is almost always right. Neither of my friends had bothered to read the instructions for their new phones. They simply charged them up and got started. "Less is better" is a marketing ethos, but it begins with technology that naturally requires less fuss and better experience.

This less-is-better approach starts at the top. For many companies, engineers design a new product, pack in as much leading edge technology as they can, and then throw it over the wall to the marketing team, screaming, "Sell this!" That stands in stark contrast to Apple, which is one-man vision shop. Steve Jobs has provided the direction necessary to unite both function and branding to create products that are now an indispensable part of many people's lives.


Presented by

Nigel Hollis is chief global analyst at Millward Brown, a global market research company. He is the author of The Global Brand, published in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan, and blogs at Straight Talk with Nigel Hollis.

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