Hello, I am a Mac. And, here I go again, writing about Macs and PCs.
One of the classics in recent times, in terms of communication strategy and execution is the ‘Get a mac’ campaign from Apple. Not only has it helped the brand gain market share, it has remained engaging for the past two years.
Central to the campaign is the comparison with PC. The punches keep coming at PC – Apple has released a few new TV spots including ‘Sad Song’, ‘Yoga’, ‘Pep rally’ and ‘Group’. Most of the ads compare the Operating Systems highlighting either a feature on a Mac or a ‘flaw’ in Windows. Some of the recent work has focused on a specific bad press Vista has been getting – for example when PC World declared that Macbook Pro is the fastest machine to run Vista, or when The Wall Street Journal declared that Leopard is better than Vista, it became the subject of some great online work. News items about continuing Vista problems (like the nagging UAC) have served as fodder.
The Get a Mac campaign, which began in 2006, won the Grand Effie for Advertising Effectiveness in 2007. Currently, the debate is about the efficacy of this campaign – specifically whether it continues to be engaging or getting to be irritating. Has Apple gone too far in poking fun at Windows? Will the campaign backfire?
Apple advertising: stirring debate
Apple’s major campaigns have always evoked debate. The pathbreaking Orwell ad released in 1984 set the tone for what Apple stood for. The ad is considered by many as one of the all-time greats in advertising. It was always seen as an ‘alternative’ to Windows PC and this comparative tone has continued since then. In 1985, PC users were made fun off as lemmings in business suits, following each other in jumping off a cliff. Around this time, the Mac had a 16% share. Steve Jobs left Apple at this time to start NeXT. He returned to Apple in the mid-90s; Apple had been marginalized both in terms of market & mind share by then. Another legendary campaign which attempted to convey what the brand stood for was the ‘Think Different‘ campaign of 1998.
The first direct salvo on PC users was the ‘Switch‘ campaign, which featured testimonials from people who switched to a Mac. It featured real-life converts who extolled the virtues of a Mac, not found in their previous experience. While it got people talking, maybe it wasn’t hard hitting – it made the Mac user feel good about his choice but did not do enough to hurt the PC user. Nevertheless, it got Microsoft upset- they released their own version of a ‘testimonial’. They released a web-only ad in 2002, ostensibly showcasing a Mac user converting to PC. Except that the testimonial was commissioned through a freelance writer and the visual used was a stock photo! Typical. When CNET News made inquiries about the ad, it was quickly pulled down, and Microsoft subsequently stated the ad “was a mistake in judgment” and “regrets the action,” scuttling plans for further Mac-comparative ads. In all this, Apple had to be careful not to piss-off Microsoft too much, since they provide the successful Microsoft Office platform on the Mac. An interesting nugget is that Microsoft’s market leading programs were first debuted on the Macintosh platform! There was a time that a consumer wishing to use Excel would have had to purchase a Macintosh. So, as with the earlier advertising, the Get a Mac campaign walked the tightrope by not directly naming Microsoft but denigrating a ‘PC’.
Get a Mac: the pillars
The introduction of Intel-based Macs and OSX were the catalysts for the Get a Mac campaign. The former allowed dual booting (running both OSX and Windows XP in the Mac) through Boot Camp and the UNIX-based allowed the claim of superior stability.
Since 2006, a mind-boggling 38 spots have been created on the ‘Mac vs. PC’ platform. You can see all the Get a Mac spots (a ‘must see’!) in this playlist.
The objective of the campaign is to get a Mac into the consideration set. It is not aimed at the tech-savvy, hard-core PC users and gamers. Instead it is aimed at the fence-sitters – the average PC user who might not know about Macs, but could be persuaded to do so when buying a machine. The threat of virus and hassles in usage are real concerns. To them, the consistent message is: ‘PC’s are difficult to use and cause problems. Macs are the exact opposite’. One of the big reasons for my PC friends in India to consider a Mac, is its dual booting ability. That becomes a hook for them to discover the ease, the ad promises.
The creative idea of using two characters to represent the platforms is simply brilliant. The ads have become part of mainstream culture with parodies and mentions in comedy shows. It has even become a case study in Working Psychology, to whom I referred to while writing this post.
While bouquets have come, the campaign has its fair share of brickbats too. The ad critics, labelled it ‘mean spirited’. The PC users took umbrage and have made their own parodies and comic strips on the net. This is perhaps an indication that the campaign is working. Critics have also said the portroyal of the PC guy makes him more lovable and the Mac guy comes across as smug and insufferable. All said, it has had its impact on sales – Apple’s overall sales had risen 39% for the fiscal year ending September 2006. The brand continues to outpace the industry in the US, even today, growing at 50% growth, compared to 15% of the industry.
Why does it work?
1. It’s focused on the product without allowing for the characters to steal the limelight as it were
2. Everyone loves a comparison: from movies to sporting events everything in life is compared. It provides a reference point.
3. The execution is entertaining: the humour between the two characters is like watching a comedy show. As the Effie Awards press release said: ‘humor, class, and honesty without falling into the trap of overtly negative competitive advertising’.
4. It gets the competition’s goat: it hurts the competition and evokes intense reaction from supporters of the PC. ‘You think you are great? You are not important to me’ kind of reaction is an acknowledgement that this works.
What could go wrong?
Focusing only the ‘negatives’ of PC: some of the earlier work in this campaign was on the things that mac could do better. For me those served the purpose than the lot that focuses on the negatives of PC. The world has not yet moved to PC ruing about things that are wrong with them.
Raises huge expectations: while I can vouch for Mac’s superiority, it is technology after all. Things could go wrong with a Mac too and some user may have a bad experience with it.
Gets the hackers interested: touting that there is no malware and virus in Macs, only gets the horns raised of hackers
Competitive performance: some of the barbs aimed at competition, like in all advertising has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Freezes, restarts, lack of plug and play, ‘the blue screen of death’ were more common to the earlier version of Windows. Versions of XP and Vista have taken care of those. As a Vista user on a Mac, I can say that the problems are different – to do with slow boot ups, performance, drain on memory and so on.
Fatigue levels: the constant portrayal of Mac as a superior guy may work against the brand. The portrayal of PC and Mac follows a pattern in these commercials. The PC guy has problems galore and the Mac guy is ‘oh-so-cool’. Or when news showing Vista in poor light is presented, the PC guy tries to brush it aside or falsely corrects it. Thus portraying PC as the villain of the piece. Seeing this regular face-off may lead to fatigue in the consumer’s mind. The campaign should ‘tread lightly, but make the point heavily’.
In India, such a creative platform may not have worked in the past. The price differential between a Mac and comparable PC was huge. That gap is being narrowed today.
In my opinion, Apple should and will continue to invest behind this idea. Atleast in the short term. They will continue to keep getting flak from both Mac & PC users about the ads. The executions may need to be more consistently entertaining. And focused more on the Mac positives than the PC negatives. The latter could evoke a response like ‘who the hell are you to say that everything about PC is bad’ and may cause a defensive reaction.
But the time to strike is now, since the problems pertaining to Vista’s perceptions still continue. In the long run, Apple may have to move to a non-comparative stance in their advertising.