Why Apple Had to Evolve Its Approach

The Spots Fanboys Love Positioned It as an Upstart, But Like It or Not, the Marketer Is Now a Giant That Needs to Sell

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Would apple be able to create a "1984" in 2012?

Maybe, but it doesn't need to. Super Bowl ads on the order of its famous George Orwell-inspired classic are no longer necessary for the company. Apple doesn't need to build awareness, and therefore no longer has to thumb its nose at rival tech giants and other establishment corporations.

But that may actually be a hindrance when it comes to Apple's current advertising. The company that made a name for itself with smart, convention-challenging ads that cast it in the role of underdog is now on top as the most valuable U.S. company and maker of that high-selling smartphone. Its challenge is to create commercials that target a broader audience and tout specific features of its key products, the iPhone and iPad, perhaps a departure from the trademark advertising that has always been its emotional raison d'etre.

Some felt Apple's iPhone ads featuring Samuel L. Jackson and other celebrities failed to hit the mark.
Some felt Apple's iPhone ads featuring Samuel L. Jackson and other celebrities failed to hit the mark.
Gene Munster, a Piper Jaffray analyst who has followed Apple for years, said that recent ads featuring an Apple "Genius" employee who aids customers mark the first time the company has focused on service rather than products. Such moves are probably inevitable, he said. "How they grow the business shifts when you get the kind of market share they have."

Apple recently notched the biggest market capitalization of any public company, and its profit in the second quarter came in at about $8.8 billion.

The rebel shtick of Apple's past ads was adopted to sell Macintoshes, iMacs and more when others led the field. Now Apple is the leader and risks being seen as just another of the big tech concerns eager to scoop up market share that it once railed against -- say, that of IBM or Microsoft.

You'd never put Apple in the same category as Procter & Gamble or General Mills. But a large consumer-products company is what Apple is in the process of becoming. Think of the iPhone as Apple's Tide or Cheerios. With so many consumers using the product, the ads can't afford to alienate or offend. They have to urge new customers to get on board, and they have to spur current fans to keep on buying -- and to buy even more.

Yet some of that advertising has left Apple aficionados cold. During the Olympics, the company unfurled several new spots featuring a young man with a cracking voice -- who sounds an awful lot like Steven, the "Dude, you're getting a Dell" character from spots in the early 2000s. Backlash was palpable, with Ken Segall, a former Apple creative, writing on his blog, "These ads are causing a widespread gagging response, and deservedly so. I honestly can't remember a single Apple campaign that 's been received so poorly."

Apple's ads featuring celebrities such as Martin Scorsese, Zooey Deschanel and Samuel L. Jackson using iPhone Siri technology as a sort of personal assistant have prompted bloggers to ask if the company were moving in a new direction (and revealed some of Siri's flaws when users attempted to use dialogue from the commercials on their own devices).

"It's a post-Steve Jobs Apple," wrote one commenter on a Mashable story. "I think we need to get used to it." Such opinion may be in the minority. Advertising Benchmark Index, a company that studies the effectiveness of specific ads, found the spots worked and that most respondents liked them.

Even so, both efforts risk alienating people who adopted Apple, said Charles R. Taylor, a marketing professor at the Villanova School of Business. Longtime customers love the commitment to innovation that Apple has always expressed in its advertising. But they may not be so thrilled about sitting through yet another commercial full of marketing hard sell.

Why has this happened? It's easy to blame the recent death of Mr. Jobs, who was famously involved in nearly every aspect of Apple's advertising from its agency, TBWA/Media Arts Lab.

Now a new generation is calling the shots. Where Mr. Jobs was known to work hand in hand with TBWA's Lee Clow, now 69, these days James Vincent, president of the Media Arts Lab, along with Chief Creative Officer Duncan Millner and his partner, Eric Grunbaum, guide the advertising. These executives have been involved with Apple for years. So too has Apple veteran marketing chief Philip Schiller. Even so, Mr. Clow's diminished presence is not insignificant.

Mr. Clow and Mr. Vincent did not respond to requests for comment. An Apple spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment.

But fans of early Apple advertising need not despair. As the company tries its hand at disrupting any number of established industries -- moving from music, perhaps, to such areas as distribution of TV programming -- it may need to revive its upstart image. In some cases, Apple may still need to act like the company it was.

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