Apple’s New Ads Polarizing or Effective?

Apple’s newest “Genius” ads are causing a bit of stir. They are a different style and philosophy than ads from recent years, and have been called everything from “horrible” to “cringeworthy”. In actuality, they are similar to most of the “trying to be funny” ads that you see on TV. Think of most of the ads that try for humour. While a small few are genuinely funny, most are somewhere between “meh” and corny. As for the Apple ads, despite current criticism, they are far from “the worst ads Apple has ever made”. There is a piece on Forbes that outlines past ads that are far, far worse than the Genius ads. But what about these current Genius ads? Are they really that bad?

Cute, But Not “Wow”

The best I can say about these new ads are that they are mildly amusing. They certainly won’t bear up under repeated viewing. The ads are not compelling, and they don’t really catch your attention. At best, they are inoffensive, and the humour is sadly predictable, like many mainstream sitcoms. They are about as funny as your typical humorous beer commercial: again mildly amusing and generally inoffensive.

In some ways, the rather vehement backlash is rather baffling. Sure, in comparison to the elegant and understated iPad ads, which are basically cool and laidback demonstrations of iPad features, or the even more “aloof” ads for iPhone, these ads are weak. They don’t have the same kind of intriguing humour of the “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” ad series. But “the worst ads ever”? That seems a bit over the top to me. They definitely aren’t as good as past ads, and they lack the style and beauty of past Apple ad campaigns. But they aren’t much worse than many of the SuperBowl ads that so many people eagerly watch every February.

Let’s face it, Steve Jobs would never have approved this ad campaign. There is simply no way he would have allowed Apple to “descend” to the level of trite humour that many other companies rely on. The one time Steve allowed a campaign to go for humour, it was a little more witty, and certainly less “eager to please”.

So What Is Apple Doing?

There are two ways that these ads can be viewed. The first is that Apple has gone “mainstream”. Basically, it could be they are trying to build an ad campaign that is accessible to the masses. While Apple’s ads aren’t as pretentious, patronizing or aloof as some would have you believe, they definitely weren’t like most other ads on TV. They stand out, but in a good way. These new Genius ads essentially blend in with the background of all the other ads. It has the same depth of humour that you find in a typical Budweiser or Doritos commercial. Amusing, not bad to see once, but not something you want to see or hear over and over and over.

There is a second option here. Apple may be trying to ignite the growth of the Mac, and try to “make it go faster”. Apple’s focus so far has been on iPhone and iPad. These two products represent a huge portion of their business, and they are one space where they are either one of the clear leaders or dominant players. But the Mac is still, by far, the underdog. While the Mac’s fortunes have improved, it still represents a small fraction of the PC market. The iPad, a still-nascent device, holds nearly as big a share of the PC market as the Mac.

Rushing Marketshare

The Mac is growing. What these ads seem to represent is impatience. It’s as if Apple can’t wait for the organic growth that is occurring to just keep happening. It as if they want to force the issue, and try to grow their share of the market faster. One way to do that is to get as much recognition and excitement in the mainstream of the market as is possible. Rather than trying to win small battles in small segments, and picking up things at the margins, Apple wants to go for the heart of the market, and go for it hard. Doing that, though, comes at a great risk.

First is that you end up alienating your core user base because you “sold out”, and losing them as a result. Frankly, with the Mac user base, I don’t see that happening. There is no real alternative to the Mac other than Windows, and few hard-core Mac users are not going to go with Windows. Please don’t mention Linux, because it doesn’t offer the usability or the software catalog of either Windows or Mac. Besides, the tiny, tiny fraction of those hard-core mac users that abandon a company because of a TV ad are customers you were going to lose for other reasons anyways. That sort of action is capricious and infantile. It’s a computer, for pete’s sake.

But the bigger risk is that you damage the brand because you compromise on other things. If Apple is willing to accept lower-quality commercials, then what other quality compromises are they making?

Consider the lesson of Toyota. Starting in the early 2000’s, they decided that they would go for maximum global marketshare at an accelerated rate. They wanted to be the biggest car manufacturer in the world. Toyota was growing, but not fast enough to satisfy senior management. They got impatient, and tried to “speed things up”. To do this meant making more cars in the same plants. It meant cutting prices to broaden their potential market. To maintain some kind of profit, that meant cutting costs on labour and parts. The result: lower-quality cars. Yes, they were cheaper. Yes, people were buying more of them.

But when the quality issues started to get notice, people started to take Toyota off the list. Why bother, when others like Ford and GM had improved so dramatically? Even hard-core Toyota loyalists were going elsewhere. As the brand suffered, so did sales, and Toyota was forced to offer bigger incentives to continue to move cars and hit sales targets. Then the car market collapsed in 2009, and Toyota was in trouble. As if things weren’t bad enough, the “stuck throttle” issue appeared, and even though it turned out that every instance was actually driver error, the damage was done. Toyota’s vaunted quality image was badly beaten-up. It was reparable, but it would take time and money.

Profit, Volume, Quality: Pick 2

Toyota’s chairman, reflecting back on this in early 2011, said that getting impatient was a mistake. They erred when they tried to go for a marketshare grab. Toyota would have gained the marketshare anyways, through the historic and continuous growth they had been seeing going back to the early 1970’s. It just would have taken longer. There was also the risk that it wouldn’t happen, because their competitors weren’t sitting still. But Toyota management appeared to think that they could have the entire triangle of “profit, volume, quality”, forgetting that you can only pick 2. You can have profit and volume, but you give up on quality. You can have profit and quality, but you give up on volume. You can have volume and quality, but that sacrifices profit.

Apple needs to pay attention to this. A marketshare grab is one thing. A marketshare grab that compromises on what is core to your brand is short-sighted. It is ill-advised. The Mac’s share of the market is continuing to grow, and yes, Apple will hit a wall at some point, at least for the Mac. The thing is, they also have the iPad that is part of the “PC” space now, giving them something at the lower end of the market. Either way, the ‘wall’ of the maximum number of customers you can gain without big changes to product is some years away.

There is also a market segment that is hard to capture, and harder to hold: the lowest-end of the market. These are the consumers buying $499 PC’s on sale every 5-10 years. Those machines have a very, very slim profit margin. You have to sell enormous numbers, and that means large numbers are either coming back on returns, or need warrantee work. That adds up to more costs, and ultimately lower profits.

Damaged Brands Are Hard To Fix

Damaging a well-established brand means a steep road to repair it. Ask Audi. Prior to the unintended acceleration disaster (another one that proved to be related more to driver error than an actual defect), Audi was a well-respected near-luxury brand with sporting abilities. The Audi Quattro was the car to have for some yuppies. But then the acceleration “problem” appeared, Audi mishandled it, and they spent nearly 2 decades in the wilderness, rebuilding their image.

Granted, the “phantom defect” problem wasn’t one of Audi’s (or Toyota’s) making. But there are self-inflicted ones: New Coke. It was a total disaster for Coca-Cola, and the only thing that minimized the damage was their rapid response in changing back (sort of) to the old formula. It did give Coca-Cola a chance to tinker with the old formula, switching out cane sugar for high fructose corn syrup. But the New Coke episode cost them for a short while.

So, should Apple do more to become more “accessible” to mainstream customers? Sure, there’s no harm in doing so. But they shouldn’t do it by giving up on what worked for them in the past entirely. In terms of commercials, that can mean shifting the focus and imagery a bit to make it more “mainstream”. But not to the point of making commercials that aren’t much better than your average “funny” beer commercial.