Since '1984', Apple hasn't thought differently enough

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So you want to hear your favorite music, the ultimate mix. How to go about it?

Well, you could go into a concert hall and take a seat six rows back. Then you could talk to a stage full of artists-Lil' Kim, Smash Mouth, George Clinton, Deep Dish, Barry White-and ask them to perform. (We'll put aside, for now, the eclecticism of your tastes. Smash Mouth and George Clinton? Where are Nine Inch Nails, Kenny G, the Wu-Tang Clan, the Dixie Chicks and the Archies?)

Sadly, the live-on-command option is a bit impractical. George Clinton seldom simply appears to volunteer, "I'm gonna drop the funk bomb on you." So God has given us the Apple Macintosh, which burns what you wish onto a CD, no invitation necessary, no questions asked.

To dramatize that killer app, though, Apple and TBWA/Chiat/ Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., made a commercial of the first scenario. Like most everything else in the current TV campaign, it perfectly, charmingly conveys the implications of the machine's capabilities.

Another spot grabs you even faster, when a young guy checks in for a long flight and requests a middle seat.

"Middle seat?" the gate agent (marvelously) wonders.

Ah, because he's got an iBook laptop, and a digital camera and a pile of CDs, and he needs his neighbors' tray tables to support his little digital video-editing suite!

"It's a little movie I'm working on," he whispers to his curious seatmate. "That's my girlfriend and her dog."

Good that he's a filmmaker, because young Mr. Middle Seat is the world's worst actor. Anyway, when the guy on the other side stirs from a snooze, the kid jams in a CD and treats the fellow to a few lyrical bars of "Who Let the Dogs Out?" Ouch.

Actually, though, the better question is, who let the product benefits out?

To date, the "Think Different" campaign has been mainly a contemporary reiteration of the Apple brand ethic first articulated in the famous "1984." Seventeen years ago, Apple set itself and its revolutionary new Apple Macintosh as a heroic alternative to a sinister "other" (in those days, quaint as this may seem, the other was IBM) defining Apple-ness essentially by what it was not. Nowadays, the "other" is Microsoft, but the premise is the same.

To own an Apple is to be brave, iconoclastic and defiant in a community of like-minded individualists. That's plainly a paradox, but not so troubling a one to stifle the cultlike zeal uniting, say, the subscribers of Macworld. And, thanks to nifty new products like the iMac, there have been short-term benefits.

But Think Different, as a strategy, is severely flawed. It is by definition self-limiting, dooming Apple to marginality. Globalization offers Apple vast new markets in which to undo the damage of the company's seminal blunder-not licensing the Mac operating system to clone makers-and to grow far more dramatically than it can ever do in the U.S. Steve Jobs, however, has shown no such inclination. He continues to develop and market products as if he were the only customer, with no apparent heed to the prerequisites for long-term growth.

Such as thinking about what the customers know, need or want.

The "Think Different" proposition is swell if you're content for Apple to be the Dr Pepper of personal computing. And Jobs, all evidence suggests, is.

Or was. "1984" was brilliant because it courageously refused to take the obvious, linear, rational, left-brained approach of listing its revolutionary product features, opting instead to stake its claim psychographically. This campaign succeeds because it does precisely the opposite: courageously eschewing psychographics for plain old graphics.

We see the ease of burning custom CDs. We see the airborne E-Z Bake Avid Suite. In another spot we see the wireless mouse zipping along like a sports car, and in yet another, we see the thin, thin, exceptionally stunning titanium-encased Power Book.

Hmm. Selling the product on its merits, and not as a conscientious objection. An interesting concept. From a marketing point of view, that's not thinking differently, it's just thinking ahead.

Although, for Apple, that's different.

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