Chasing Rainbows: Color Alone Can't Brighten Dell's Future

Are Pink and Green Laptops Likely to Win Back Market Share?

By Published on .

Dell laptops used to be gray.

Now they come in colors.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is half of the company's turnaround strategy.

And who knows? Maybe it's not a terrible one. The '90s phenomenon became the worldwide leader in personal-computer sales by custom-assembling what consumers wanted -- which happened to be the commodity components they needed but not the commodity components they didn't need, shipped directly to home or business at a price.

Michael Dell was a latter-day Henry Ford, who you may recall would offer any color Model T "as long as it's black." But things have changed. For one thing, Dell has been ceding market share in chunks and has been overtaken as the leading computer maker by HP. For another, it just announced plans to lay off 9,000 people. And, just to keep things interesting, it's under investigation by the SEC for years of financial irregularities Dell says it uncovered itself.

But the biggest change, at least affecting the new color palette, is a cultural one. Back in the day, PCs were tools, like saws and hammers. Nobody argued with the steel look. Nowadays, laptops -- like cellphones, condoms and Apple anything -- are equally fashion items. If Dell was truly dedicated to the customer's unique wishes, the handwriting was on the wall -- in crayon.

So -- woo hoo! -- Rainbow Brite has rescued Dell from the grips of evil Murky Dismal. The Inspiron now comes in blue, green, pink, red, white, black, gray and brown.

Overdue? Yeah, probably -- but not exactly a technological Great Leap Forward, nor even an especially generous expression of its built-for-you corporate ethos. Basically, it's an obvious concession to fashion reality, but you'd never know from the attendant self-congratulation. A TV spot and outdoor posters from Mother, New York, position the new color options as a breakthrough in human understanding. Yes, they have an Inspiron as unique as you are -- although, hilariously enough, "options other than black come at an additional cost."

How inspiron-ing.

Likewise the creative solution, which aims to show unique people being unique with their computers. Alas, it's not so much a USP as a reincarnation of Reebok's "U.B.U.": a series of odd-bordering-on-grotesque characters in odd, monochrome environments doing odd things in total color coordination with their notebooks -- operating a robot, charming a python, filming a surreal martial-arts flick, grinning diabolically in the back of a stretch limo. All this to a psychedelic rock track from the Flaming Lips, which to our ear sounds like every other psychedelic rock track ever recorded.

The whole effect is like a Dell computer itself: assembled out of commodity parts.

So, no, AdReview is not too impressed. But, once again, that doesn't mean the campaign won't work -- because the new image, especially compared with everything else Dell has ever done, is undeniably colorful. And color is attractive.

Which it had better be. Because in the midst of finding the fullest expression of built-for-you, the other half of the new Dell strategy is, in fact, to build for Wal-Mart. The company is beginning to phase out its direct-sales model in favor of traditional bricks-and-mortar wholesaling. The new slogan is "Yours is here," but that soon will have to be changed to "Yours is there over in aisle five between the game cartridges and the paper shredders."

Meantime, Dell belatedly has discovered you have cone cells in your retinas. But it'd better have another insight up its sleeve, because this one will be hard to keep proprietary.

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