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Apple is a market leader, but can it keep its hold on creative hearts and minds?

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

February 15, 2022 | 11 min read

Creatives love it, consumers queue to buy its products. Apple has carefully parlayed advertising and marketing knowhow along its path to becoming one of the biggest companies in history. According to Interbrand, it grew 26% between 2020 and 2021. For The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, we look at how it can keep up its winning streak.

apple graphic produced inhouse by the drum

What’s the secret to Apple’s marketing success? And can it maintain it forever?

When the iPhone was first released in 2007, Laz Nikiforidis queued in the street to buy one. ”I was in Los Angeles for a shoot,” the executive creative director at Digitas recalls. ”And it had just been launched, so it wasn’t available in Europe yet.”

”It was massively different to what you’d experienced before. I was super excited.” Fifteen years on, Apple remains the market leader in smartphones – and its products, brand and manufacturing philosophies are still key touchstones for creative professionals the world over.

”Creative people are interested in design,” Nikiforidis reflects. ”We design things, and we love design and so it makes sense that most of us would aim toward using Apple products.”

Apple isn’t just every creative director’s favorite brand. It’s also been one of the great patrons of above-the-line advertising, backing long-time agency partner TBWA\Chiat\Day and Media Arts Lab to create campaigns such as ’1984,’ ’Think Different’ and ’Shot on iPhone.’ Those relationships, and the work they’ve produced, are part of a strategy that has helped Apple pull off one of the greatest tricks in marketing: making one of the most valuable corporations in the history of capitalism seem like an underdog.

Creative spirit

Al Young has been using Apple products for 30 years. His second gig in advertising was at Chiat/Day, prior to its acquisition by TBWA and the eventual formation of St Luke’s, where he’s now chief creative officer. ”I’ve used nothing but Apple throughout my entire career,” he tells The Drum.

In his opinion, targeting professional creatives has been a key component of Apple’s success. Its advertising has often contained a ”rebel spirit that appeals to the graphic designers and sound mixers and film editors of this world. They like to think that they too are an agent of cultural change.”

If illustrators, creative directors, Ridley Scott, Spike Jonze and FKA Twigs (star of its 2018 ’Welcome Home’ ad) want to buy from Apple, the argument goes, its products will begin to reflect a little of their cultural shine.

Young says: ”If you think about ’Shot on iPhone,’ they turned a tube station into an art gallery of their customer’s creative work. That is about applauding the artists that use their products.”

”They also position the products themselves as works of art,” he notes. ”The latest phone is always shot floating, like Stanley Kubrick’s monolith.”

For Celine and Clement Mornet-Landa, creative directors at Parisian agency Sid Lee and iPhone users for the last decade and change, ”it’s quite obvious why creative people turn to Apple for computers, and so naturally for phones too. In the beginning there was a bit of a feeling of being part of a community, and since then the incredible brand universe created over the years by Steve Jobs definitely contributed to making it a hyper-desirable brand in its own right.”

According to Nord DDB creative director Jim Nilsson, that variety has helped Apple maintain its edge over the years. ”Generally speaking, the brands that succeed in staying relevant and fresh have a clearly defined role in the world,” he explains.

”When you know what your role as a brand really is, you have the opportunity to confidently express that in fresh and unexpected ways.”

Like its tech competitors, Apple’s advertising aims to maintain an innovative, cutting-edge image. But it has to do that using Apple’s distinctive voice and tone, a register that tells audiences that the products they’re seeing come from the same house that brought them the iPod and the Macintosh.

Celine and Clement say that Apple navigates the ”double challenge of not becoming boring and consistently maintaining the same high standard” by embracing variety in its advertising.

”Apple does very well by allowing itself to explore very, very different visual worlds and tones from one campaign to the next. There’s a big disparity between the cuteness of ’Share Your Gifts,’ the humor of ’Unlock’ and the poetry of a black-and-white film like ’Bounce.’ And what prevails is always a very, very high standard.”

Apple’s ads

Across that range, though, is the same voice. ”Great tech breakthroughs, great tech campaigns orient around the familiar,” argues Young.

”If you want to sell something genuinely surprising, you need to make it familiar,” he explains. ”Think about the iPod. MP3 players had been around for years, but they hadn’t really gone anywhere. They tried to sell themselves as a radical new way to listen, store and own music. That’s very confusing for people. What Apple did is they said: ’1000 songs in your pocket.’ We all know what songs are and we all know what pockets are. Suddenly they made this revolutionary way of hearing and owning music seem like the most natural thing in the world. It’s all about having a magic pocket.”

Nikiforidis adds that Apple’s broader marketing efforts – from the user experience of its hardware to the customer experience of its brick-and-mortar stores – are designed to convey key brand principles such as simplicity and ergonomics. ”The thing about Apple is that the brand and the product experience are inseparable,” he says. ”The two things interweave into one, creating a fantastic experience for the user. It runs through every piece of advertising you see to the way they design their products, it’s in store, it’s pretty much everywhere.”

Wunderman Thompson’s chief creative officer Steve Aldridge, speaking through his MacBook Pro, confesses he’s ”immersed in the Apple ecosystem.” He argues Apple has used its advertising efforts to sell the ideas behind its products, while using other forms of marketing, such as its direct-to-consumer (DTC) website, to expound upon their features – essentially, having its cake and eating it too.

”They’re brilliant at making those product films about the new bezel of a phone or the way that a MacBook Pro comes together, but it doesn’t confuse that with advertising.”

He says ads such as the recent Apple Watch spot, which used real audio footage from emergency calls made from users’ timepieces, ”are a perfect example of ... benefit-driven advertising that highlights a technology doing something we didn’t know was possible and to put it into a context that makes you think: I actually need that. I think that’s brilliant.”

Similarly, he praises its recent black-and-white Airpods spot ’Bounce,’ which shows one user pratfalling and planking across a cityscape, wireless earphones intact. ”It’s classic advertising with a simple proposition: these are going to stay in your ears. It’s a demonstration of how good the product is, in a compelling and entertaining way, and that’s what we’re all striving to do every day. They set a high bar.”

Keeping balance

Meeting that high bar every time, of course, is no easy task. In Aldridge’s opinion, Apple ”can be a bit sentimental,” though ”they’ve got it more right than wrong.”

Nikiforidis suggests a larger problem is the size of the market Apple now operates in. After years of category-expanding activity, it’s no longer the only big fish in the garden pond. ”Everything is grounded in simplicity and humanity,” he says. ”Those are basic principles that seem evident, but they’re really hard to get right, especially as you grow your product range and as you grow your presence. You’re operating in a very complicated landscape.”

One reason why maintaining that balance is hard, he says, is because it means exercising caution in in the face of opportunity.

”It’s really tempting for any brand, for any marketer, for any agency to deviate slightly because of exceptions, or challenges, or wanting to get more and more sales. But it seems to me that Apple never compromise that. They will always protect the brand and the key ideas that fuel it.”

The company recognizes that diversification can risk diluting its brand equity. ”Every single product launch that they do is sort of a test. They’re super careful about how they show up; every single piece of innovation, every new product launch, seems to be very thought through,” he says.

According to Celine and Clement Mornet-Landa, Apple’s success in the past has come in part from not leaning too heavily on product demos or feature-led sales pitches. ”The genius of Apple is not to rely only on the presentation of their product innovations,” they say. ”The brand always tries to make beautiful campaigns, to tell beautiful stories, all in a generally impeccable craft.”

Underdogs or kings?

However, as the categories Apple leads have matured and expanded, it has had to rely on features to distinguish itself against the pack more than before. And as the company grows, it’s naturally become harder to borrow that ”rebel spirit.”

”You can be the biggest dog and still act like an underdog. But [Apple] now feel as though they are the kings waiting to be deposed,” says Young. ”Is there something about this super-luxe presentation of the iPhone that means they’re losing their cultural energy? It does feel like Apple is the orthodoxy.”

He suggests Apple can bolster (or salvage) its artistic image by elevating the stories of its users once again, rather than retreating into ads about bezels and megapixel counts. ”If you’re the king – a good king – you can look down at the lowliest of your subjects and raise them up,” he says.

”For me, that’s what’s missing, because they are unassailable – and you’re at your most vulnerable when you’re unassailable.”

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