Editorial: What the Heck is Wrong With Tech Marketing These Days?

While at the movies last week, my wife and I were treated to a pre-film advertisement for the Microsoft Surface tablet. With a “behind the scenes” style, the mini feature showed the making of the company’s latest TV ad: the nonsensical dancing one set in an office. As I sat dumbfounded by the pride the creators of this ad attempted to project, I asked myself an important question: what the heck has happened to tech marketing?

While Microsoft’s latest marketing campaign may have been the straw that broke my camel’s weary back, the veterans in Redmond are certainly not the only offenders. Much like its lackluster Wall Street performance and dearth of recent innovation, Apple, too, seems to have lost the edge when it comes to marketing, and I’m not the only one to notice.

Adman Ken Segall, who helped develop Apple’s famous “Think Different” campaign in the late 1990s, stated earlier this year that the marketers hired by Cupertino in recent years have been unable to maintain their lead over rival Samsung:

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.

Take, for example, Apple’s latest high profile ad: “Music Every Day.” The ad is a minute-long collage of people from all over the world performing various activities while wearing the famous white earbuds. Set to soft piano music, the ad attempts to elicit an emotional response from the audience. Like many successful ads, “Music Every Day” forgoes product details and tries to make a simpler, more “raw” point. The problem, unfortunately, is that the point the ad tries to make is no longer significant.

MacStories’ Federico Viticci described the ad upon its release:

[The ad] emphasizes how music can seamlessly fit in our lives thanks to a device that’s often carried in a pocket, put on a table or outside of the shower, or shared with friends. The protagonist of the ad isn’t the iPhone per se: it’s people relying on it to enjoy their music.

Most consumers already know that Apple is popular. Apple’s marketing should give consumers a reason to choose the iPhone and iOS.

That’s a perfect explanation of “Music Every Day” but, as I said above, this message is irrelevant. Five years ago, this message would make a great ad. Two or three years ago, perhaps less so. Today? Who cares? The notion that our music can be with us anywhere we go is now ingrained in worldwide culture. Every smartphone, every media player, and every tablet, from every manufacturer, can store and play music. Donning a pair of headphones and rocking out to your favorite tunes on demand is a nearly universal idea. We don’t need a solid minute of emotional pandering, and the ad does nothing to show why Apple’s products or services make this experience better.

And Apple has excellent products and services. The iTunes store is the most popular in the world; the iPhone is one of the best smartphone designs; the iOS Music app, combined with services such as iTunes Match, is incredibly powerful and effective. So why not showcase these features? I don’t care that “more people enjoy their music on the iPhone than any other phone,” as the ad’s sole line of narration points out at the end; most consumers already know that Apple is popular. Apple’s marketing should give consumers a reason to choose the iPhone and iOS.

Which brings us back to Microsoft. The Surface, as a first generation product, certainly has flaws. But overall it’s actually a fairly nice device with a potentially promising future. Despite some issues with Windows 8/RT, which will hopefully be fixed in the upcoming 8.1 (a.k.a. “Blue”) update, Surface is one of the few tablets to take a serious approach to productivity and multitasking. So why on Earth does Microsoft choose to market it with ads like this?

All I can tell from that ad is that Surface apparently causes users to experience some sort of severe seizure. There’s some brief screen time showing Netflix and Office spreadsheets, but the viewer is so concerned by the disturbing “dancing” that the more important message about the product’s capabilities is lost.

Granted, Microsoft does make much better ads for its products, such as this recent one called “Imagine:”

“Imagine” hits all the major points: what the device is, what it can do, and, most importantly, what it can do for you. There’s always room for more humor or memorable moments but, overall, it’s an effective advertisement. But I’ve never seen this ad actually broadcast on TV. Why does Microsoft give the majority of its airtime to dancing seizure nonsense?

The best ads of the recent era have been ones that balance humor, emotion, and explanation.

I’ve followed the technology industry, in either a personal or professional capacity, for more than 15 years. I generally know about products before I see mainstream marketing for them and yet, until recently, I’ve always enjoyed many of the commercials and marketing campaigns of the major tech firms.

In the last year or so, however, I’ve realized that technology marketing, especially from former kings such as Apple, is no longer interesting. Great campaigns still pop up from time to time — such as the Nokia “Wedding Fight” ad, or the Samsung “Next Big Thing” ads — but the primary marketing efforts of major players like Apple and Microsoft have become boring, annoying, and, in some cases, outright disturbing.

Ads don’t always have to be straightforward feature descriptions, and some of the most effective ads in history were based on a single, feature-free, emotional idea. But it takes a very special and important idea to get away with an ad like that, and none of the current crop comes close. In general, the best ads of the recent era have been ones that balance humor, emotion, and explanation, such as the “Get a Mac” ads from last decade.

That’s not to say that ads like “Get a Mac” were completely truthful, but they at least attempted to highlight the “why” by discussing the features and advantages of a Mac, such as the lack of viruses, included apps like iPhoto, and the benefit of Apple Stores and the Genius Bar. Compare this approach again to the current primary marketing campaigns from Apple and Microsoft. Is the device lighter? Is it smaller or larger? Is it faster? Does it cost less? Does it provide a unique experience that can’t be found anywhere else? “Forget those questions; here’s some stupid dancing.”

I’m rooting for Apple, for Microsoft, and for ad agencies in general. More amazing devices and gadgets are being released now than ever before, and yet it seems the marketing of these advancements has regressed. Going back to old campaigns may not be the answer, but the current path is off course. Perhaps it’s time to “think different” once again.

2 thoughts on “Editorial: What the Heck is Wrong With Tech Marketing These Days?”

Avatar Benjamin Burde says:
Good theme, good writing. after the BlackBerry debakel yesterday a lot of people name marketing as one reason while BB failed so far. just to give another example. but it seems that ist is a general problem…
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Avatar douglas aalseth says:
The closest Apple has come is a current ad for the iPhone that ends with a line about how the iPhone is the most commonly used Camera in the world. that one worked well for the most part. Other than that yueah. Apple ads are lackluster, MS ads are weird to disturbing. Personally I dislkike Samsung ads because they seem to insult anyone that uses Apple products, which doesn’t strike me as a good way to lure customers.

Maybe I’ve just outgrowing all this marketing BS. Maybe tech has just reached the point where it works and I don’t really care about the cat fight for market share any more. Maybe it just isn’t that interesting any more?

But I agree Apple and all the rest could do SO much better. At least try not to be disturbing or boring or insulting.

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Avatar TekRevue says:
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is Steve Jobs’ insistence not to “compete on features” and instead focus on experience. That approach has served Apple very well, but perhaps the current crop of decision makers have taken it too far?

It’s one thing to literally compete on features (“The iPad has CPU X which is better than CPU Y in the Surface”) but to completely abandon any attempts to explain “why” a product is better is another thing entirely.

As for Samsung, I don’t own any of their products at the moment but I find their ads humorous in the same way that Get a Mac ads could be considered insulting to Windows users. Perhaps Samsung takes it a step further than Apple did, but I always enjoy a bit of ribbing in the tech industry.

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