It appears the latest iPhone isn’t finished yet. The battery life and the problems with MobileMe have many favoring the older model (kind of like Vista vs. XP), but lines are still forming for the 3G version. This showcases both the amazing capabilities of brilliant marketing and the risks associated with applying it to the wrong product. In this case, at the core of this marketing is Steve Jobs.
An executive with a very similar charisma skillset — Carly Fiorina — has popped back into the news as a spokesperson for John McCain. I think it is time to chat about both the power and the problems that come with excellent marketing and a charismatic personality. I’ll start with technology and end with politics.
I’ll close with my product of the week: a work and computer gaming desk from Steelcase that should allow you to trim down and live longer.
The Power and Risk of Social Engineering in Tech
At its essence, good marketing has a lot of similarity to the skills that are used to get you to disclose information — called “phishing” — that you otherwise wouldn’t share with a stranger. Social engineering skills are neither good nor bad in themselves; it is how a skill is applied that defines its nature. For instance, a great firefighter also could be a very capable arsonist. Understanding fire makes both paths available.
A good marketer knows how to manipulate people, getting them to consider and buy a product they otherwise wouldn’t. If that product is a great phone that will improve their life, then it isn’t a bad thing. If it is a deactivated brick, or if a key feature — say, enterprise e-mail — is unreliable or unacceptably slow, then it isn’t a good thing.
As for the new iPhone, folks have been lining up for hours, and sometimes days, to get a product you can’t yet really depend on, which should now be clear. There was even some hesitancy expressed in the initial reviews, which seemed surprisingly positive until you learned Apple may have manipulated the reviewers (unfortunately not at all uncommon in any industry). Still, most seemed to conclude that the old iPhone, which was by then fully patched, was a more dependable phone.
Even Walt Mossberg, who seemed incredibly positive given the shortcomings he reported at the time of the launch, appears to be changing his tune.
The new iPhone is a perfect example of the dark side of marketing. It isn’t the phone folks should buy, yet they lined up for hours and days to buy it.
Good Marketing Practice and Defense
Part of the job that marketing should do but often doesn’t, even in the best of firms, is help define the product against expected market conditions. If GM marketing had done that, we’d likely have a hybrid Hummer that would sell better under current market conditions instead of an entire line that will likely be discontinued. With Apple, we’d have a phone closer to the iPod touch than the current iPhone to address the excessive 3G service cost issues — or something closer to what the nano is in the iPod line or a hybrid is in automobiles.
Marketing too often seems to subordinate itself to product planning rather than help lead it, which not only makes marketers’ jobs tougher, but results in them having to push products that the people they are targeting honestly shouldn’t buy.
As for consumers, what I find helpful in keeping me from regretting the purchases I make is to ask myself three early questions: 1) Am I being manipulated into wanting something I otherwise wouldn’t want or need? 2) What key features are most important to me? and 3) What is the value (price) I’m willing to pay against other things I also want or need?
In my case, when I saw the new iPhone, I did want a new phone, and since I’m already paying a similar price for the phone I have, price wasn’t an issue. But I need a great phone with great e-mail capability, and no 3G screen phone yet meets those key needs for me.
The Power and Risk of Social Engineering in Politics
In technology, the closest person I’ve ever seen to having Steve Jobs’ skillset in terms of naturally manipulating people is ex-HP CEO Carly Fiorina. It was interesting that when the two bumped heads, Steve Jobs tricked Carly Fiorina into abandoning her company’s possibly superior offering for a partnership with Apple that Steve had elegantly designed to fail. This showcased not only Steve’s brilliance, but also the fact that Carly, for all her skills, wasn’t yet in his league. Still, to date, I don’t know of anyone closer.
Currently, she is working for John McCain’s campaign and doing, I think, a credible job balancing support for her candidate with promotion of her own agenda. It appears clear she isn’t an employee but more of a partner in this role. I actually think she would make an impressive VP, and others appear to agree with me now.
Her skillset could be incredibly useful in both creating and selling a message — but here too, there’s a risk when someone with this skillset gets into power. They can drive people in directions that might not be in their best interests. I’m not suggesting Fiorina will, but using this example to point out that charismatic people who are naturally great at social engineering often gravitate toward politics, and during an election year, you probably should be voting more with your head than your heart.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you naturally vote against the person that is more charismatic; if they are on your side, they can be vastly more effective. But, if they aren’t on your side, they can be vastly more damaging — and figuring which side they are on therefore becomes much more critical.
Buying smarter will result in better products for all of us, voting smarter will result in a better world. I’ll bet you can guess which I think is more important. In the case of a McCain-Fiorina ticket, personally, I’d likely vote for it. Go figure.
Product of the Week: Steelcase Walkstation
Like most of you, I sit at a desk too much and exercise too little — or at least I did until recently, when I combined the two things by buying a Steelcase Walkstation. I found this product after realizing that my lack of exercise was probably both going to shorten my life and reduce the quality of that shortened life.
I liked to play video games, so I went on a search for something that would allow me to work and exercise or play and exercise, because exercising was losing out to the other two activities.
I ran into a paper out of the Mayo Clinic by Dr. James Levine, which praised the concept of blending of a treadmill and a desk, and that led me to the Steelcase Walkstation.
While the availability of lower-cost alternatives is on the rise, most using a regular treadmill, I felt that if you were going to live on something for long periods of time, quality was going to be very important. After looking at this product, I decided that it was close enough to the ideal to purchase it.
While I’m not yet on the device all day — I’m working up to that — I do spend between 2 and 6 hours a day waking on it. After two weeks, my endurance is up, and I can feel the change it is making in me physically. I just feel better, and I’m at a pace now where I’m burning about 200 calories an hour.
So, because this product could actually save my life and is already improving the quality of that life, the Steelcase Walkstation is 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.