For more than two decades, Apple has defined itself by what it isn't. First it wasn't IBM. Then, for the past 15 years, it hasn't been Microsoft. It is the brand for those who want no part of the mainstream. In fact, Apple practically isn't a brand. It's more like a cult with a ticker symbol.
But then something unexpected happened: the iPod.
75% market share
Here's a product that is turning entire industries (music recording and radio) upside down and altering consumer behavior on a mass scale. It was not the first digital music player, but it certainly is THE digital music player. The dean. The default. The de rigueur. A 75% market share. Just unreal.
And so strangely un-Apple. Renegades aren't supposed to have monopolies. So now comes Microsoft and the introduction of the Zune digital music player, and the opportunity for Bill Gates for once to be the different drummer. In a campaign by 72andSunny, Los Angeles, the Zune is being positioned as the anti-iPod.
"Welcome to the social," is the tagline, and right away you see what is afoot. In contrast to iPod's iconic, solitary silhouette, Zune is all about company. The ads have the look of Wieden & Kennedy's Miller Genuine Draft spots from about seven years ago and the feel of the Pepsi Generation -- lots of young people, dressed like slobs, having the best time ever. Only instead of riding dune buggies and windsurfing, they're clubbing and concertgoing and zapping music downloads to one another.
Thanks to very convincing docu-style footage and very vivid music tracks, the good times do seem pretty infectious. Even the glancing images displaying brand benefits (bigger video screen, wireless sharing, dedicated music service) look mainly glancing and unforced.
For whatever that's worth. Because apart from Microsoft playing the role of the iconoclast here, there is another paradox at work:
The Zune launch is an easy job for advertising.
The Zune launch is an impossible job for advertising.
It's easy because the OtherGuyPod comes preloaded with brand awareness long predating the actual goods. Geeks, because they are geeks, have been speculating for months about the design and features. Millennials have been abuzz too, because music downloads are so much a part of their lives.
Furthermore, for all its ubiquity, iPod has its issues. The battery, for instance, has been a nuisance. And some people just want to own any new Next Big Thing -- or, getting back to Microsoft's one shot at iconoclasts -- the chance to stand out in the crowd. So, really, to successfully advertise Zune, all Microsoft and 72andSunny, Los Angeles, have to do is basically show up with a brand name and a logo (it looks like a disfigured box kite). The strategy is pretty much just a bonus.
Or maybe even an irrelevancy, because none of the issues that will ultimately determine Zune's success is within advertising's reach. The player will live or die based on its qualities, intrinsic and intangible, that will be rapidly assessed and exchanged among the universe of potential users at lightning speed. For instance, Zune has more functionality than the iPod, but that comes at the cost of simplicity. And tell us again the advantage of beaming songs to friends that they can listen to for only three days.
Irony within a paradox
Then there's the irony buried within the paradox encased in the obvious. So far, Zune is Mac-unfriendly. Doesn't that typical display of Microsoft's totalitarianism undercut any pretensions to underdoggedness?
After all, as we've known since kindergarten, being social means working and playing well with others.