The technology and consumer electronics markets are awash with companies that seem to be barely meeting expectations or are, like Sony, Sun and Yahoo, on and off death watch. They aren’t alone; the relatively new Obama administration seems to also be failing, and the latest State of the Union address wasn’t particularly inspirational.
Apple just reported incredibly high earnings and launched a product no one should want — but it seems many do. This is because Apple has one skill these other entities lack: It knows how to get people excited and manage expectations. This goes beyond why it outperforms Microsoft. It is the only truly marketing-driven technology/consumer electronics company on the planet, and you would think its example would drive the others to emulate it.
This has some folks writing about how Steve Jobs would do a better job than Obama did with the State of the Union. According to the Washington Post, Obama was trumped by Jobs. Granted, at least one politician didn’t like the iPad at all.
I think the difference comes down to three things: education, power and intelligence. I’ll take each in turn and close with my product of the week from a company that does still focus on building great things for its customers.
Education: Understanding People (Marketing Science) Is a Lost Art
In technology companies, the skill that is often favored is engineering. You can see this in Google’s sadly funny hiring practices, where it seems to go out of its way to avoid hiring creative people in favor of picking up the best engineering talent it can find. For government, education tends to favor social sciences or the legal profession; either can be creative, but neither really focuses on how to manipulate people successfully, and the success of any large consumer-facing company or government depends heavily on the ability to manipulate people, both to accomplish an agenda and to maintain the support and loyalty needed to get to the top or get and stay in office.
Marketing is simply not a required subject matter to be covered in either area. Even those who have marketing titles often have backgrounds that have little to do with the title, and the reliance on agencies which contain this expertise is unacceptably high. The reason this is unacceptable is that agencies tend to be arm’s-length entities — they generally have difficulty understanding the subtleties of what needs to be accomplished, they often have no policy role (get problems after the fact), and they have no ability to prevent mistakes (when one is made, regardless of cause, the agency may be fired as a corrective action).
Apple is different because its CEO is marketing-driven and seems to grasp from product conception to delivery what is needed to convince people to buy what he is selling. I think every executive should read The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs and get what really makes this guy different. What is different about Apple is it tends to build marketing in from the beginning because its CEO is a marketing expert, a natural actually, and he requires this step personally. While it could be done better, no one does it better, and here is why:
CEOs generally are products of their companies, which means that (with the exception of Apple) they tend to come from sales or line management and almost never spend time in marketing. Even if they did spend time in marketing, they likely never fully grasped the need to integrate marketing into the early concepts of an offering. This comes down to power and/or turf. People who have product control don’t want to give up that control to anyone. Yet if marketing isn’t designed into a product, that product will likely miss widely the potential success that otherwise might result. In addition, if marketing isn’t designed into the budget, it will likely be both too anemic and a poor match for the resulting product.
In government, you could see this in the healthcare effort in the U.S. I wrote about this earlier. The program, instead of being crafted so it could be sold to the opposing party and U.S. citizens, was instead initially crafted as an ideal for the far left of the Democratic Party by Nancy Pelosi. It was not only not crafted to sell, it was appeared crafted to piss off as many people as it possibly could and in one blow may have killed the sitting U.S. President’s chances for reelection.
Looking at the Apple iPhone — which ran against entrenched mammoth cellphone companies and came with an agreement that no carrier really wanted. Because it was designed to be sold, and because its marketing budget was adequate and the related campaign well-executed, it was a mammoth success. Think of the contrast: Everyone should want free healthcare; most should not want an expensive, fragile phone that kind of sucks at being a phone. Yet the iPhone was crafted to showcase its advantages as a wonderful new class of device, and the healthcare program as an expensive, pork-filled mess that would kill people and bankrupt the nation. Both opinions are 100 percent perception — Apple managed it; the Obama administration dropped the ball. This comes down to intelligence.
I don’t mean to imply that most companies and the Obama administration are stupid … no, wait a minute, yes I do. Apple spends a lot of time researching its market, learning about partners and competitors, and getting a sense for what is working and what isn’t. In the early part of the last decade, it learned that HP was going to bring out an MP3 player and crafted a licensing plan it offered to Carly Fiorina that both killed the HP offering and assured it wouldn’t be able to make a timely entrance into the market.
It effectively belittled competing products from others, attacking them successfully where people were concerned about weaknesses. Its Mac vs. PC campaign effectively turned Windows Vista into a turd in the minds of buyers and contributed to Apple’s success. While it doesn’t always get it right, its ability to craft products that carry higher margins than anyone else and that still sell successfully in a value-oriented segment is unprecedented, and this is largely because it studies and knows what resonates and what doesn’t.
Had the Obama administration gone to the Republicans and Independents first and learned their wants and needs, they could have crafted a healthcare program for the U.S. that had a higher chance of success. They didn’t, and the result has potentially destroyed their ability to effectively move any broad agenda.
No one is expected to know everything, but paying money to assure stupidity is just plain idiotic, and yet that is far more common than executives and politicians who want to know the truth.
Whether it is the next product or global warming, assuring an executive looks smart rather than assuring they don’t do something stupid is a bad policy.
In the end, the technology market and the Obama administration could learn a lot from Steve Jobs and Apple; my expectation is that neither will because it is vastly easier to focus on looking smart than in admitting others may be smarter and instead focusing more on doing the right thing. Congratulations to Apple on a great quarter and good product launch (you may want to watch “SNL” this week). I only wish you were a more successful example.
Product of the Week: Corel VideoStudio Pro X3 + PaintShop Photo Pro X3Bundle
Corel launched both of these products last week, and while I was looking them over, it suddenly hit me why Corel is so well-loved by its customer base. It doesn’t change its products for the sake of change, and it focuses like lasers on what their customers are asking for.
Corel lives under Adobe’s shadow, but in my opinion, it builds products that are vastly easier to learn and use than Adobe does. With all of the wonderful new products that most of us will never buy and often will end up collecting dust because we won’t take the time to learn them, and a market awash with companies that don’t seem to realize people actually have to use their complex crap, it is great when a company builds something easy to learn and stay up-to-date with. The products bundled together are under $150, which is a hell of a deal for pro/semi-pro products if you’ve ever priced Adobe’s offerings.
Granted, much of what Corel builds these days is highly targeted at professionals and semi-professionals, but knowing your customer and building products that customers love seems increasingly to be a lost art. Corel is one of a few companies that do this, and given Apple is another, I figure it makes sense to make this Corel bundle my product of the week.
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.