Apple: The message isn't even medium

Summary:Enough thinking different; Apple's ad campaigns need to grow some teeth.

Thanks to the vicissitudes of the stock market, Apple Computer Inc. has recently regained its least-favorite adjective: "beleaguered."

Never mind that the company has more money in the bank than most emirs of oil-producing nations, its most robust product line in years, and a dynamic new operating system set to debut early next year. The public perception is that Apple (aapl) is again on the ropes; bleeding cash; producing defective, overpriced and uncompetitive equipment; and could disappear at a moment's notice.

A quick perusal of ZDNet News TalkBacks confirms the basic idea of the Mac's image with the public at large: "It's a niche product." "They cost too much." "There is no good software available." "They aren't as fast as similar Wintel machines." "Wintel is the standard, so why bother?"

So what has Apple done to combat these perceptions?

Apple has broken long-standing ties with the once-loyal education market. Media outlets have received thinly veiled threats for publishing what Apple considers inappropriate content. CEO Steve Jobs publicly humiliates ATI for the sin of hinting about unannounced products out of turn.

Positive PR about the company? Keep looking. ...

When he reclaimed the reins at Apple, one of Steve Jobs' first tasks was to save the company from its final lap around the bowl before going down the drain. He implemented a combination of efforts: consolidating product lines and eliminating superfluous projects, reintroducing style and panache to computer design, taking steps needed to produce a modern version of the Mac OS, and reinventing the image that Apple projects to the world.

Hiring back TWBA/Chiat/Day, the company behind Apple's award-winning and memorable TV commercial "1984," seemed like a step in the right direction. The campaign the agency created, "Think Different," reportedly moved Jobs to tears and won another round of awards. But it also set Apple sliding down the proverbial slippery slope.

What that ad and those that have followed have done is to muddy the waters about Apple. Rather than focus on specific benefits or advantages of using Macs, the campaign instead creates a feeling that its users are somehow special, outside the mainstream, that owning a Mac was a lifestyle choice.

In the three years since the debut of the "Think Different" ad campaign, few TV ads have contained information about the Mac's capabilities compared with the competition. The "Snail" and "Flaming Bunnymen" ads at least postulated that Macs were faster than comparable Wintel-based PCs, but not very strongly.

More-technical print ads that touted the capabilities of Mac OS 8 and 9 and the latest Mac hardware generally appeared in Mac-only magazines, where they preached to the converted. Recent mainstream advertising -- such as the pull-out poster found in Newsweek and other magazines -- emphasizes the form of Apple's hardware over its function.

At the same time, Wintel box makers are constantly filling bandwidth with ad after ad showing just how much better, cheaper, more useful, and so on their machines are than the competition's. They provide statistics, charts, and comparisons to illuminate their strengths. This kind of piece-by-piece analysis provides information for potential consumers.

Apple, on the other hand, believes that a snippet of psychedelic rock music will explain all the advantages of buying a Cube, that showing the voluptuous curves and bright colors of the new iMac range over Boomer-era soundtracks will tell everything anyone would want to know about how it works, and that an optical mouse rockin' out to Steppenwolf will actually influence purchasing decisions.

At this point, 20 years along in the personal computer revolution, most people have realized that a computer is an invaluable part of their lifestyle. They know they can use a computer to handle their finances, communicate across the globe; create digital audio, images and video; and enhance their children's education and entertainment.

But what consumers don't know is which computer is the right one for their needs. People make choices based on the data available to them, and Apple's current advertising and PR strategy leaves most consumers without any concrete reasons to buy Macs.

Never mind that Apple has an introductory-level iMac priced at only $799 complete, with enough power to take an incoming freshman through all four years of college. Never mind that all different levels of business and industry can and do use Macs to support and sustain their businesses. Never mind that tens of thousands of software packages have been written for the Mac. Never mind that Apple's machines are as fast and capable -- if not more so -- than competing machines.

I could go on, but defending and promoting the Macintosh is Apple's job, not mine.

So where is Apple? Where is the information for the general market explaining to consumers why those perceptions are wrong? Where are the ads showing off the Mac's strengths and abilities?

Apple needs to take a serious look at its marketing strategy. The majority of people who might be stirred by Apple's lifestyle-oriented campaigns have already decided whether or not to buy a Mac. Apple now needs to reach out to the rest of the PC-buying market to convince people driven by price, feature, and performance issues why they should buy Macs.

Offering hardware rebates and reconfiguring the Cube are first steps, but only very small ones. Gaining market share and luring new customers will take a companywide effort.

Educational customers should once again receive the discounts they depended upon. Testers of the Mac OS X public beta should get a $30 rebate on the purchase of the final release of Mac OS X Final, equal to the price they paid to be beta testers.

Apple needs a price-leader laptop model in the $999 range. Business customers need to learn how Macs can serve their office's needs. Processor speed needs to be increased to remain competitive in a market that uses megaherz rather than processing power as a yardstick. Apple needs to start bragging about Mac OS X and all the benefits it will bring to the platform. These efforts will start to generate good will among Mac users and increase sales. But it's not enough.

Above all, Apple has to get the word out, both through advertising and communicating with the news media. It needs to make clear how competitive its products are in terms of pricing, features, and performance. It needs to show plainly how much they have to offer compared with similar Wintel offerings. Most importantly, Apple needs to convince new consumers why they should spend their money on a Macintosh.

Enough oblique-angle product shots of the iMac's case. We don't need to be told again that the Cube is small and fanless. And nobody is buying an iBook to open it partway and leave it balanced on its edges.

The time for feeling has passed. A change in marketing strategy could mirror the biggest evolution in the Mac's history, the transition to OS X. Apple needs to act now to improve its public image and perception before terms worse than "beleaguered" become a common prefix to the company's name.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Operating Systems, PCs

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