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Is TV advertising responsible for Apple’s success?

I was in a meeting a few days ago where Apple was described as a company that had retreated from large-scale TV advertising, despite TV advertising being responsible for its success.

I disagreed at the time, and remain pretty sure that this is a fallacy. Am I right?

Buttressed by Wikipedia and recent “25 year of Mac” posts, my broad perception of the history of Apple runs like this

  • Set up in the 1970s to moderate success
  • Macintosh launched with ads in cinema and during the 1984 Superbowl (watched by 97m) – initially sells well and ad is regularly cited as one of the best of all time
  • Computer market slumps and Steve Jobs is fired in May 1985
  • Incremental success for the rest of the 1980s
  • Windows 3.1 and – more importantly – Windows 95 take the PC to the next level and nearly kill Apple
  • Jobs comes back in, ends most of the product developments and places his faith in the iMac
  • iMac becomes a success and a design classic
  • iPod launched – the aesthetic of white earbuds and “1,000 songs in your pocket” become ubiquitous
  • iTunes overhauls an outdated music distribution system
  • iPhone brings touchscreen technology and simple web surfing to the masses
  • Halo effect of the Apple range boosts the computers – Apple is currently the number 4 computer manufacturer in the US
  • Jobs’ ill health and the rise of netbooks raise questions over Apple’s continuing success in the computer market

To my mind, TV advertising doesn’t play a particular big role in this rise, fall and rise of Apple. There have been iconic campaigns – 1984, Think Different, the dancing silhouette – which have contributed to the success. But they have not driven it.

That is the Cult of Mac.

The iPod may be mainstream, and the iPhone may be getting there. But Apple is not traditionally a mass market company. Their computers appeal to a niche audience. They may be the no.4 manufacturer, but the choice is PC or Sony. It is not Dell, Acer or Mac.

However this niche audience is passionate. They follow. They promote. They evangelise. They attend(ed) Macworld every year and hang on Steve Jobs’ every word.

That community is what has driven Apple’s success. Apple concentrate on the product – usability, design, experience. That leaves the marketing to the community. Alan Wolk has an interesting post on this – good advertising can accelerate success, but a decent product to win over the public is vital. In the case of the iPod, the evangelism changed an industry.

TV advertising has made plenty of products successful – from Hofmeister to Barclaycard to Cillit Bang. But Apple isn’t one of them.

Unless someone like to correct me?


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sigalakos/

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7 Responses

  1. Simon – Like the post and broadly agree.

    Prior to Steve Jobs’ return in 1997, Apples’ advertising was predominately TV and it’s fair to say that at this point Apple wasn’t a successful brand or manufacturer.

    Jobs’ return in 97 and decision to focus on a core product does coincide with the growth of creative industry in the Western World, the mass adoption of the internet and the subsequent formation of online communities.

    Apples association with innovation, product design, and art assisted in their ability to “ride the wave” and the internet certainly accelerated the cult of the Mac.

    However, the “innovative” iPod is surely responsible for Apples mainstream success? And I’d question whether the iPod, nano, and mini could have penetrated the mainstream without TV Advertising driving the way.

    Apple have managed to put a “soul” into mainstream computing, and in view my TV advertising was the single most important catalyst for achieve this.

    TV or Community? Chicken or egg? Maybe Apple is just a great example of an ongoing integrated campaign.


  2. Thanks for the comment Graeme. It is a fair point to say that for the iPod to permeate the housewives market, then mass mainstream advertising is necessary. But having such a great product was sure to create the velocity for success.

    To use an example “close to home”, my Mum is a technophobe yet has an iPod. The TV campaign would have made her aware of it, but it was my Dad and her friends promoting the simplicity and usability that made her take the plunge

  3. I agree with Simon on this and I can’t argue (not just because it’s such good name). I do keep thinking of Apple, Dyson who focus on developing and maintaining quality products (design and performance) that makes developing its advertising so much easier. Think of Miele: very little advertising; but they are a premium brand with slick design and superb product performance. More of a believer in quality-product-first: the rest should be easy, no?

  4. I both agree AND disagree with you here, Simon. I think television ‘advertising’ is the wrong term, but the rise of Apple has definitely been helped by telivision ‘appearances’ and product placement. What I mean by that is that, whenever anyone on a TV show or in a film does anything on a computer, they are almost always seen using a Mac rather than a PC. This is simply because Macs look a lot more exciting and futuristic and impressive than your bog standard PC. Similarly, if a character is listening to an MP3 player, it’s almost always an iPod, for the same reasons. This is not exactly ‘advertising’ but it has undoubtedly played a massive part in Apple’s success.

  5. Thanks for the comments Simon and Stef.

    Stef – that is a great point that I hadn’t considered. While not spot advertising, it is still advertising. Product placement is still technically illegal in the UK, but it does permeate through in US imports. It’s a great way for Apple to integrate themselves into storylines and in the context of being cool/innovative/savvy etc

  6. Great post. Thank you for sharing this. If you have a moment, check out my site as well over at http://seobizniche.com 🙂 cheers!

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