Apple and Abercrombie offer study in mastery, desperation

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Riding in on the morning train, telltale white wires trailing from ears to coat pocket, I opened The Wall Street Journal to a full-page ad attacking retailer Abercrombie & Fitch as exploitative and urging investors to punish the company's stock.

The contrast between A&F and Apple, Ad Age's 2003 Marketer of the Year, struck me almost immediately. The latter is a marketer that made itself popular among young people (among every age group, really) through innovation in product and design. The former is a retailer that tried to make itself popular among young people by pushing something close to porn at them, and publishing recipes for alcoholic drinks with names such as Brain Hemorrhage. The distinction is between a great marketer and a desperate one. Lessons could be learned from both.

Since Crain Communications, parent to this newspaper, has always worked on a Windows platform, and since I've spent most of my career here, I've always been a Windows user. I knew of the cult of Mac, appreciated it from a distance, but never experienced it directly. Then came the white wires of the iPod, a birthday gift last July. To be an iPod user, at the point when more than 1 million of them have been sold, is still to be in something of an exclusive club. Just as Harley riders acknowledge each other as they pass on a highway, wearers of the white wires nod as they pass on the street.

Today, I count myself among the most passionate evangelists of the iPod, shoving the earphones at people to impress them with the sound quality and simple brilliance of the control wheel. Those bragging rights, though, are diluted since every iPod owner I meet tosses out the word "love" as easily and unabashedly as I do. In June, on this page, columnist Randall Rothenberg (ahead of me again, as he was with TiVo), told readers, "Listen up: Get an iPod."

The iPod phenomenon is real, and Apple is wisely using it not only to develop a new business segment (one that doesn't cannibalize its existing revenue) but as a doorway to the brand. If you like the iPod, you'll probably sign up for iTunes-the online service that single-handedly showed the music industry the way back to paying customers. And you'll probably be inclined to check out Apple's laptops and the like, particularly if you visit any of its retail stores, which bring the brand vividly to life.

Steve Jobs, in a New York Times story on design, scoffed at the notion that Apple sets out to innovate. "We consciously think about making great products," he said. "We don't think, `Let's be innovative. Let's take a class. Here are the five rules of innovation.' " Innovation either flows naturally from a company's core mission or it doesn't; it can't be faked.

Like Apple, A&F's fortunes are tied to the perceptions of young people. But where Apple has created better products, preppy retailer A&F relied on sophomoric humor and slick imagery to create an aura of cool around the company. Its controversial custom magazine, which it finally and rightfully shuttered last week, has been filled with explicit sex tips, photos of nearly naked co-eds and the rules of drinking games. In pulling down its pants and waving its arms wildly to attract attention, A&F long ago crossed the line between edgy and irresponsible.

"If A&F is applauded for brilliant brand management, then profit has replaced principles in today's portfolios," the attack ad in the Journal, from a group that calls itself the Campaign for Corporate Responsibility, noted.

A&F's stock rose the morning the ad appeared.

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