The End of Marketing as We Know It?

Read this post in: French

Beside an enormous amount of media rants and raves, the recent launch of Apple’s tablet teaches us a lot of things about design, innovation and marketing in the era of the real-time Web.

Don’t Ask What They Want, Ask Yourself What They Do

In a recent article, Roberto Vergana suggested that, when creating new products, Apple mainly proposed a vision, staying away from focus groups and user-centered innovation. But is it really the case? In a not-so-far past, Henry Ford said that “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”, but this statement applied in an era of mass consumption, when large scale breakthrough innovation acceptance was mainly a matter of one-way marketing.

Since then, marketers have learned to listen to consumers, through focus groups and panels, as we evolved into an age where building on the existing was their main concern, and leveraged incremental innovation to gain (and retain) competitive advantages. Present opportunities to directly and instantaneously engage with customers through social media is often no more than a speedier way to achieve the same goal, when it should be used even more than to gain insights, to exchange knowledge.

I saw so many products launches relying on insanely great “love this” feedback which were absolute failures, as nobody bought them in the end. Marketing is about knowledge, not about well wishes. Knowledge about what people do, not what they want. And that is exactly what Apple does with its products. Everybody wants phones and computers with removable batteries, but how many people are ACTUALLY changing a product’s battery? A lot of people are ranting about the iPad’s lack of camera or multitasking support, but who would have used them anyway, apart from computer geeks? Apple products are disruptive, not because they fill people’s wishes, but because they bring new dimensions to what people use.

The Whole Is Better Than the Sum of the Parts

Those dimensions are usually more cultural than technological. Apple quite never focused on real cutting-edge technology in its products. They never used the fastest graphic cards, the hypest webcams, the most powerful camera, and when they did (remember the water cooling system on G4 computers), they often failed. Microsoft has probably developed the most innovative multi touch technology, but what did they do with it? A table, where Apple put its own technology into a tablet. Tables are great for airport lounges and night-club entertainment, for sure, while tablets are built to be taken everywhere. Apple builds on our ways to use things to disrupt what we wish, coming up with products which bring and mean much more than an aggregation of technologies usually could.

Disruptive and Emergent Marketing

In a world where marketers have a duty to teach brands that they won’t survive unless they actively engage their customers through social media, Apple is not only disruptive in the insights they capture from customers, but in their whole marketing. While they have no Twitter account, no official Facebook page, they have the most ardent fans basis ever seen. And they don’t even treat them better than everyone else. No bloggers give-away, no ambassadors program, no nothing. I am not even sure they will keep on relying on traditional advertising channels to boost sales. They even treat their customers the worst they can: sky-high prices, backordered products, uneven customer support… This is marketing as the edge of chaos.

There is, of course, no way to generalize this marketing approach. But in our complex, non linear world, traditional marketing funnels are dead ends, and Apple’s unique strategy to leverage customers’ experience to new heights teaches us an important thing: our globally real-time networked world allows (maybe impose) us to find new creative, emergent, way to design and market products. Twitter’s monetization problem, for instance, as Venessa Miemis recently pinpointed on her blog, Emergent by Design, is a perfect example of this upcoming questioning.

What are you thinking about this?

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5 Responses to The End of Marketing as We Know It?

  1. Ben Kunz says:

    The irony of this is Apple is one of the few companies that markets themselves as a high-tech firm. Its products look revolutionary (aluminum and glass), it constantly surprises, and it builds things we don’t want yet then think we need. The science fiction writers of the 1950s expected technology to leap ahead and Apple is one of the few firms that projects that vibe.

    In terms of strategy, Apple reminds me of Michael Treacy’s “Discipline of Market Leaders,” in which Treacy proposed there are three basic focal points for business: product innovation, customer service, or operations/low cost. Companies in the same industry can take different positions; IBM, for instance, in the 1970s was customer service-focused, trying to be all things to all people. Apple is all about product innovation — and to hell with focus groups. This is not right or wrong, smart or stupid; it’s merely a focused company strategy that helps Apple lead in a certain area.

    Apple leads because it really is not a technology, software or computer company — it’s a design company. It makes tech products pure enough that people lust for them, and for that Apple can charge a premium. A lot of people whined that the tablet missed features (webcams etc.) and cost too much. Of course. Apple will gradually reduce the price while adding feature upgrades as it pushes that device into the broader market masses.

    For Apple, innovative design wins. It’s not for everybody, but it certainly is a focused market position.

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      You are right, Ben, Apple is about innovation first. And, interestingly enough, this position had helped it finding new ways to deliver; marketing isn’t integrated into the sales process, but into design, which allows it to see the product as a cultural artifact, not a technological one.
      Things changed since Treacy’s book, and I see both product innovation and customer service becoming the two ends of the same focal line: building/creating a new customer experience throughout the whole product lifecycle. Not such a bad definition of design thinking.

  2. i like that sentiment – apple is a design company, not a ‘tech’ company. though they make physical products, what they really strive for is to sell you a better experience.

    as far as the ‘to hell with focus groups’ comment.. check out this recent article from the NY Times Steve Jobs and the Economics of Elitism. It says Apple represents the “auteur model of innovation,” where there is a tight connection between the personality of the project leader and what is created. They give examples of other people who operate like that as Alfred Hitchcock & James Cameron. It’s interesting.. so for Jobs this is very personal. it’s an aesthetic – he’s manifesting a bit of himself in the products, and he’s doing it because that’s how he feels it should be. And so you can look at it as ‘the hell with focus groups,’ or just ‘hey, this isn’t about you.’ (and apparently he’s on to something…… he’s staying true to himself, and people love his creations.) in the end, it’s art.

    – @venessamiemis

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Thanks for commenting, Venessa.
      Yes, when considering Jobs, we can consider this is art. Can we? In a previous life, I worked for the fashion industry as trend spotter, and learned a lot about art, trends, and design. For me, true artists express a deep self, which resonates (or not) with our own personality, then a market is hopefully built from scratch around this resonance, mostly around this person2person relevance.

      On another side, I see great designers as individuals gifted enough to capture weak emergent cultural signals and to respond to them with products which will grow the market. I don’t think, for example, that Akyo Morita was an artist when he invented the Walkman. To stay in the fashion realm, but this might apply to a lot of industries too, I see Schiaparelli as an artist, and Christian Dior as a designer.

      An artist’s vision is egoistic, while a designer’s vision is catalyst. And technology gives us more and more tools to be able to capture these weak signals from the conversation. This might be more crowdmining than crowdsourcing, and requires particular talent, but I am sure that enabling the conversation through social media will allow for more similar kind of innovation.

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