Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Why 2006 is 1986 and maybe 1984 for Apple... again

The first reviewed item on Wired's Gaget Labs this week is the Zen Vision:M Media Player from Creative Labs. I own an older model Zen (with no video support), but similar in other specs, and am very pleased with it. But that's not the point.

There are a couple lines in this very short review that should make Steve Jobs et al stop and smell the marketing strategy. I quote (emphases mine):

  • My iPod's hard drive kicked the bucket a mere week after its warranty ran out. Talk about rotten fruit. To get my life back in tune -- and to spite Apple -- I picked up this Creative media player.

  • mounted on my PC as a hard drive, so I could add files by just dragging and dropping -- no more iTunes nightmares.

  • ... without iTunes Store compatibility, I have to get most of my video via BitTorrent. But that's a small price to pay to escape Steve Jobs' stranglehold on my music collection.

To spite apple? iTunes nightmares? Escape Steve Job's stranglehold? Vos is los? I thought Steve Jobs was Jesus! Or at least some tasty combination of Jerry Garcia and Ghandi. Right? And Apple does no wrong, according to my artist-intellectual-musician-aging-hippy-technoscenti friends. Friends who have been making excuses for the iTunes proprietary format restrictions for quite some time... "Apple is just trying to protect itself from the big bad Microsoft-Intel Axis!"

Well, Apple is going to protect itself right into the same spot it went into with the Macintosh; a nice, little 15% marketshare of a growing business in which it could have been a major player... perhaps the dominant player. All by not buying into its own marketing Word.

The 1984 Apple MacIntosh TV spot is widely considered the single most successful commercial in the history of television advertising. The not-too-subtle implication of the ad (beautifully written and directed by Ridley Scott) is that the Mac will help save us from a Big-Brother-ish future, controlled (one imagines) by hulking, overbearing forces... like IBM and other monolithic computer companies who would keep you from realizing your own personal PC dreams.

The problem, in and around 1986, was that while Apple played "Happy Happy Earthy Crunchy Friend to Babies, Friend to You and Me" on the interface level and the marketing level and the design level... they didn't do it on the macro-level. They didn't do what IBM did. They kept the hardware and much of the OS for Mac propritary, so that only Apple could develop and sell Macs. Which doomed the Mac to about a 15% marketshare of the PC biz. Because, when other players couldn't play... well, they didn't want to. And when other hardware makers couldn't play, other software publishers didn't have the incentive to publish. And you ended up in a vicious circle. And when the PC market went through the roof, in the late 80's through mid 90's, and everybody's mama wanted a new computer, and they walked into Best Buy, and the Mac section of the software aisle had nine titles vs. 900 in the PC section... well, game over for Mr. and Mrs. America.

Those who don't learn from the past...

The iPod and iTunes are fantastic. They have introduced millions of people to some great new products, services and features and even lifestyle changes. But if Steve thinks that they are addicted to Apple, he's high. The percentage of people who love-love-love Apple because Apple is Apple will stay at around 15%. People who think that the dancing-shadow ads and the pure-white hipness of the iPod and the design-for-design-sake are "too cool to not rule." The other 85% of the people want products that work, hard-drives that don't crash right after the warranty is up, and formats that are compatible across media.

You don't own the idea of MP3 player, Steve. You don't own the idea of downloadable music store. You don't own the idea of headphones, music-to-go, hipness, $1/song, etc. Yes, you own your brand. And I teach my students time and time again that brand is more precious than gold, more powerful than features, more worthy than market-cap and price-to-earnings ratio because other companies can't copy your brand. But guess what, Steve...

You're soiling your brand. You're ruining it.

Because your mouth (your advertising and packaging) says, "Open" and "Free" and "Easy" and "Uncomplicated" and "Friendly" and "Hip" and "Cool." But your heart (your actual service practices) says, "I am Big Brother. I am in control of your music. You will do it my way. Or not at all."

The one thing worse than a bad brand image is a great brand image that fails to deliver. Or... even worse still... contradicts the brand promise. Those neat dancing -shadow ads show people all happy-go-lucky, without a care in the world... tethered only to their iPods with a slim, white cord. If the ads were more accurate, they'd show people tethered to their iTunes accounts with a slim, white chain.

The marketing says, "Not Big Brother." The reality says, "Big Brother." In the late 80's, their marketshare reflected reality.

Unless Apple changes their practices to match their marketing, my money's on reality... again.

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