Steve Jobs Was Digital Maverick but Marketing Traditionalist

Steve Jobs revolutionized computing and media, but when it came to marketing, he was an exceptionally bold traditionalist

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The Apple brand is about putting little pieces of the future in the hands of consumers. Yet Steve Jobs, master marketer, took a very traditional approach to advertising.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs Credit: David-Paul Morris/Bloomberg
At a time when marketers obsess over the virtues of targeting, "likes," dashboards, platforms of all stripes and sophisticated social-media-monitoring schemes, Mr. Jobs kept it simple: tell the story of how an amazing product can change your life in the best environment possible.

And while many accept the lessons of Mr. Jobs the product designer and have sought to emulate him in that regard, it seems they all too often overlook his influence as a marketer where he was decidedly -- and effectively -- old school.

Consider Apple's media spending: an estimated $420 million in 2010, dominated by network TV, newspapers, magazines, circulars and billboards. So far in 2011, Apple is the ninth-largest spender on billboard and outdoor ads in the U.S., just behind the likes of McDonald's, Verizon and Anheuser-Busch, according to Kantar Media. Apple's total digital spending is harder to discern, but the numbers indicate it is well under 10% of its total budget. Yes, the company that , more than any other, made us "go digital" did not think much of the web as a branding medium.

Mr. Jobs was involved in every aspect of the marketing, down to the copy on TV ads, and didn't hesitate to kill a campaign that didn't meet his standards. Everyone at TBWA's Media Arts Lab, the agency set up to serve Apple, knew that the bar to meet was set by Mr. Jobs himself and articulated at weekly meetings on creative and strategy. "He's the person who would see a technology and say, "This is what it can give a real person in the world,'" Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told the BBC. "I would say marketing was his greatest strength."

Allen Olivo, who spent two stints as a marketer at Apple, and now teaches marketing at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business: "Steve not only liked advertising, he understood the value of advertising as part of building a brand, selling products and creating an entire customer experience.

There's a widely held trope in the tech community -- strong even among Mr. Jobs' disciples -- that the product is the marketing. Or as venture capitalist Fred Wilson once wrote, "marketing is what you do when your product or service sucks."

But Mr. Jobs didn't see it that way. While Apple's seductive products and luminous storefronts are core elements of its brand, Mr. Jobs saw the advertising as inextricable from the product. That's because the product wasn't an iMac, iPod or iPhone, it was the brand itself and how a well-designed product -- any product -- can make your life better.

"Even a great brand needs investment and caring if it is going to retain its relevance and vitality," Mr. Jobs said to staff at after he returned to Apple in 1997 and unveiled the "Think Different" campaign. The scene was caught on tape and fortunately preserved for history on YouTube.

Mr. Jobs produced at least two of the finest TV ads of his generation and ubiquitous billboards and magazine ads. In later years, demo videos of Apple products reliably went viral. When Apple did spend online, it was likely to be an extension of a campaign on TV, like the iconic Mac vs. PC ads with John Hodgeman and Justin Long. Mr. Jobs insisted on exclusivity and the quality of the environment, which is why you see Apple ads on the homepages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Yahoo.

An executive close to Apple said that the company had dialed back its online advertising further recently in part because even in his advertising Mr. Jobs didn't want to support Flash, a technology Apple has eliminated from devices such as the iPhone and iPad.

Mr. Jobs' complete control over the message also flies in the face of current marketing dogma that the consumers themselves should tell the brand story through actions on Facebook or conversation on Twitter. Apple barely has a presence on either platform. Apple just recently set up a YouTube channel, but that , too was to better control the brand experience. Comments on Apple videos are always turned off.

Just like Apple products are not about the technology, the focus on tactics, targeting and algorithms didn't make sense to Mr. Jobs the marketer. "The move to analytical marketing, which is a great addition to the arsenal has become a de facto substitute for the narrative side of marketing," said Mr. Olivo.

So why don't more companies think about marketing like Steve? "Too much of marketing is pulled into tactics with a lack of meaning and strategy," said Jim Stengel, former CMO of Procter & Gamble and now UCLA adjunct professor and author. "The tactics and the meaning have to come from leaders and there are too few of them out there."

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