Brand Wars, Cordobas, and the iPad 2

Battles have been waged by major brands over market share since long before Gutenberg made it convenient to print marketing materials. You can go back thousands of years to find examples of hardcore marketing techniques designed to sway public opinion away from the opposition and into Brand X’s camp.

I’m sure that more than a few of the Mad Men wished they’d been able to employ some of those methods; had they been allowed to take some cues from the inquisition, for example, think how many more heretical Post Toasties buyers could have been convinced to switch to the one true cereal, the humble Kellogg’s Corn Flake.

Actually torturing consumers into changing brands hasn’t been socially acceptable since the Yugo’s demise, but that doesn’t mean that brands or their loyalists have become any less driven to prove that they’re the best on the block. The battles haven’t always been fought fairly and have, of course, led to some major missteps.

I couldn’t even afford beer, and I still stockpiled cases of original Coke when this was released.

Coke’s introduction of New Coke to combat Pepsi’s increasing incursion into Coke territory was a famously horrendous mistake, winning no new converts from Team Pepsi while simultaneously driving people out of the Coke camp into the cans of others, including the crazy aunt of sodas, RC Cola. Hiring 10-year-old Little Leaguers to hurl kola nuts at Pepsico headquarters would have been more effective.

In the last few years, thanks to the always-on and always-connected consumer base, a brand’s best friend has become more than a great ad campaign: it’s now almost essential for a brand to have a solid and vocal group of everyday consumers to act as product evangelists.

Armies of brand acolytes are nothing new, of course: those extremely classy stickers of the cartoon strip character Calvin urinating on car logos have been around for far longer than I’d like. Of course in those cases not much is accomplished beyond making a statement about the driver within; I don’t see anyone running out and trading in their Ford for a Chevy just because of Calvin’s righteous stream of vengeance.

But now, with consumer opinions not only valued but easily polled thanks to the internet, those product evangelists have more value than ever. They not only get the word out on specific products, but they help to underscore the tone set by major brands’ ad campaigns. And in the new millennium, despite what some of us old-school substance-over-style guys wish, it’s becoming more and more about tone.

For things like music or clothing, that’s an old wound that does have one redeeming quality: the collision of strong marketing tactics with consumers willing to be told what’s cool helps explain the successes of 80s hair bands and acid-washed jeans. But the rise of style-over-substance in markets where success should be achieved by building a better mousetrap gets under my skin. Great advertising and slick looking products should only go so far – quality and value should ultimately win the day.

Quien es mas macho? Ricardo Montalbán of course.

Sometimes it works that way too, despite the occasional short-sighted and cynical efforts of manufacturers and marketers. Cars may initially sell thanks to snazzy ad campaigns, but eventually the chickens come home to roost. Ricardo Montalban’s soft and sexy crooning over his car’s “rich Corinthian leather” didn’t much comfort Cordoba owners once their cars started to fall apart around them, but a switch to more dependable Japanese brands did. Occasionally though, a manufacturer sells style and backs it up with actual quality, and in the past decade no company has hit that sweet spot more effectively than Apple.

A caveat before going on: I’m neither a die-hard Apple nor Microsoft fan though I’ve been a proponent of both at various times over the last 15 years. I’ve owned a few iPods and more than a few Macs, but I’m typing this on a Windows 7-based PC I built myself. I carry an Android-based phone rather than an iPhone and prefer Sony and Sandisk MP3 players to iPods. Much of what both companies do irritates me. The bottom line is that I’m a fickle lad that will pledge undying allegiance to no company, preferring to throw my personal eggs into whatever basket I believe delivers the best technology, value and flexibility at any given time.

The one that started it all. Or a lot of it, anyway.

The Apple vs. Microsoft war has gone on since the 80s, though Apple only started making real inroads once Steve Jobs came back to the company and they started a more lifestyle-based marketing approach. The first major success was the iMac, which became the first “cute” computer, available in colors other than beige. Since then they’ve been on a major lifestyle-marketing roll, revitalizing or redefined entire market segments by introducing products like the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. All of a sudden, owning a portable music player was as important as it was when the Sony Walkman was introduced, cell phones went from business tools to hip accessories, and netbooks, once the poster children for the new face of portable computing, were perceived as big, clunky tools as silly as those old bag phones of the 80s.

Apple’s timing was perfect: a series of products that worked well and looked cool, iThings spoke to a generation of gadget lovers that wanted a generous helping of rounded edges and minimalist design along with their electronic toys. Their smooth obelisks of tech triggered all the right synapses for a generation of people weaned on electronic stimuli and digital gadgetry, neurons energized during their formative years by bit-based data input, made fertile for responding to the pleasures of gee-whiz electronics.

Their marketing was spot on too, making it appear that Apple products were for the creative and cool set, while PCs were designed and built for unhip accountants that thought Christopher Cross made real rock and roll records. No matter how irritating those often-imitated ads were, they, along with predecessors like “Think Different,” were incredibly effective. Unlike Chrysler, however, Apple delivered products that were, if not best in class, at least not Cordobas.

The iPad was Apple’s most recent market-changing device. Despite shortcomings like the lack of a camera, memory card slot or USB port, the original iPad was wildly successful and has pretty much owned the tablet market since its launch.  Once again, Apple’s marketing and design brilliance helped shift an entire industry.

The new iPad, with cover

But since the iPad’s launch, other companies have begun to move into the tablet space. Their offerings may not be as hip as those from Cupertino, and their commercials my not imply that you may as well move to an Amish farm if you don’t buy one, but they do address some of the original iPad’s weaknesses. Then last week Apple announced the impending release of the iPad 2.

The latest version is thinner, faster, lighter (the 21st century version of a Six Million Dollar man upgrade) and adds two cameras (one facing in each direction). They’ve also included an HDMI port to allow you to connect the iPad 2 to a television, and will sell a brilliantly designed “smart cover” that will double as both a keyboard and display stand.

At first glance, the new package even gets my primal, shiny object loving self salivating. But the features that were missing from the original, the ones that allow users to make it more their own (something Apple is not a fan of) are still missing. There’s no USB port. There’s no memory card slot. The battery is not user replaceable.  It still (predictably) does not support Flash. In fact, you wouldn’t be far off calling it an iPod Mega.

For some people, that’s perfect.  I have no doubt that the iPad 2 will give many people a severe case of technolust and the new version will be a major success at launch. Such is the power of the Apple brand these days; and honestly, for what it is, it’s a great peace of kit.

But for people that place a value on the function part of their technology equations, the iPad 2’s limitations may well still be an issue. I’m not convinced that Apple’s dogged insistence on controlling all aspects of a user’s purchase will continue to pay off (it’s kept me off Apple products for a while); users will eventually tire of being told what’s good for them and start looking for more flexible options.

And with the maturation of Android as an operating system, the recent launches of the Motorola Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab, and upcoming releases of a slew of more tablets from Motorola, RIM, LG, HTC, HP and others, those options are about to be breathing down the iPad’s neck.

Coming soon: the Blackberry Playbook

But if you like your tablets in the here and now, you like them flashy, and the shortcomings of the iPad don’t bother you, the latest version will make you extremely happy. It’s fast, sexy, better than its predecessor in almost every way, and you can buy one of those very cool smart covers for it. By all means, go grab one and enjoy. But if you think handing someone fistful of hundred dollar bills should buy you a bit more expandability and autonomy, you might want to hold off for a bit: Apple’s unchallenged lead in the tablet market is about to get some serious, flexible competition.



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