Commentary

Apple's So-So Salesmanship: Notes From An Armchair Curmudgeon

There is nothing quite as fun -- or as funny -- as Apple retrieving its old form. It has been years since we last saw the press this obeisant to the Apple marketing machine. They served up the usual array of calculated pre-keynote leak stories in what looked like perfect sequencing. The iPhone 6 hardware specs, NFC, m-payment arrangements, etc. seemed to drip into the ecosystem over two weeks in such a calculated way they didn’t even overlap one another. The gusher of breathless content afterwards pretty much pushed everyone off the scene.

The marketers at Samsung have got to be shaking their heads in frustration. Once again, Apple played catchup with many features Samsung championed for years and somehow made the world think Apple was innovating. In fact, the Samsung Mobile marketing team quickly posted a series of YouTube shorts ("It Doesn't Take A Genius") mocking everything from the botched Apple keynote streaming on Tuesday to the absence of true multitasking, yadda yadda. I have never been a fan of this approach. It makes a major manufacturing brand come off like high schooler frustrated by the popularity of a rival. 

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Well, point of fact, this last keynote was the best example of how Apple does in fact excel. Both its oversized phones and its smartwatch are simply more thoughtfully designed and better executed than Samsung’s. They are more solidly built, easier to use and include touches like the special modes to accommodate small hands on big phones or the brilliant use of the digital crown.

Oh, and there is the simple fact that most consumers and the press root for Apple. We like the idea of a magician in the market and want to like Apple. No one “wants” to like any other brand in the market.  

Apple does risk succumbing to Samsung and other Android makers’ feature clutter. I noted in this keynote a kind of piling on of features and a certain loss of pared-down elegance. That Apple Watch feels like it does too much, for instance.

There has always been this myth about Apple and even Steve Jobs’ superior presentational skills and salesmanship. I beg to differ. I always found Jobs' delivery to be more interesting than authentic. He seemed to be trying to push his enthusiasm to the surface, much like a decent actor in a high school play. Mssrs Cook, Schiller and Cue are in that mode -- but without the charisma that Jobs had despite his limited acting ability.

Maybe I am the only person in the universe who cringes a bit during most Apple keynotes. This one moved toward the comic when they started selling Apple Pay. The video outlining how tough and involved it is to pay with a  credit card had me chortling in the first fifteen seconds. As soon as I realized Apple really was trying to convince me that credit cards are a burden, I knew we were in for it. All that said, I found other parts of their model and argument more interesting. The security piece of Apple Pay, I think, is actually the best case. They didn’t try to oversell the wallet as a platform for promotions and savings. They led with the idea that this is simpler and safer. Their insistence that Apple is not interested in your shopping data (while disingenuous) was a good move in that it dampened suspicions that m-payments are really about building better business models for companies, not consumers.

The Apple Watch is still a hard sell to me. The best that can be said is that it among the least ugly implementations of a hideous-looking product category no one is asking for. While much less geeky than others, its bulk alone suggests we are looking at a first generation of a category that is a couple more generations away from truly “wearable.” The dazzling use of retro styling and interface innovation almost makes me forget that I wouldn’t want to wear one of those outside the house, and I am not even fashion conscious.

As they ratcheted through all of the things you could do with this wearable devices I felt a bit oversold and overwhelmed. Again, where is the pared-down simplicity of purpose once identified with Apple? I was also struck by how much of the functionality was already available on my phone. I was not sold in the end that I really needed or wanted this device very much. They weren’t convincing me it was preferable to turn my wrist as opposed to pulling out my phone. I still don't know why smartwatches exist at all.  

To me the most inspiring part of the entire Apple keynote this week was the thinking that went into both the Apple Watch interface and the test apps. The simple insight that touch interfaces interfere on too small a screen led them to revive the classic watch crown as an input. I have to say that little bit of innovation anchored by nostalgia made me gasp a bit.

Likewise, the sharing of heartbeats, sketches, audio snips, wrist taps and emoticons filled me with some degree of hope. This was some of the best evidence yet that someone in this market understands that when media devices change shape and function as radically as they will have in this decade, the media itself needs to be reimagined. We are starting to glimpse the full implications of intimacy when it comes to media and marketing.

But I am still not buying one.

Yet that is not the point. That Apple came back with an old-fashioned warts-and-all keynote at this point in mobile media history is itself indicative of where we are. This is about the time we need a semblance of a market leader that clarifies and directs energies others have started. As we move toward an Internet of Things, we have to start thinking beyond these gadgets as media delivery vehicles. They are now tools of everyday living, linked to our sense of identity and core functions of life. Movies, radio, newspapers, magazines, TV and even the Internet haven’t really prepared marketers for what it will take to connect with consumers in this context. We are going to need some serious thinkers with money to burn in order to figure this one out.  

2 comments about "Apple's So-So Salesmanship: Notes From An Armchair Curmudgeon".
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  1. John Graham from GrahamComm, September 11, 2014 at 12:41 p.m.

    Have read more than enough instant reply reactions to Tuesday's event. Most chose write before thinking. Compared to others, your blog missed that trap. A couple of thoughts: 1) Apple Pay is huge in my estimation. Not having anything in my wallet would be perfect, including not having a wallet. Credit cards are a bother and a weak link in the security chain. 2) What you say about the Apple Watch echoes what was said about the iPad. Apple's genius is creating life enhancing tools and letting the market put them to work. My guess is that the possibilities are endless. As much as we all felt loss when Steve Jobs died (it was seemingly quite personal for many), this is a different time, one requiring the qualities represented by Tim Cook and his team. At 83, I'm still a believer.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 11, 2014 at 1:57 p.m.

    Phones, all smart phones, are finding their way in the want category. How many people need how much else ?

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