Yes, Apple is held to a (well earned) different standard. Once a challenger with an uncertain future, Apple has become The Man. Years ago, it could productively poke fun at Microsoft in the great I’m a Mac, You’re a PC campaign (the full series of ads is here), but the days of taking potshots at the incumbent are over. Because of its position at the top, Apple should have the grace to not trash its competitors, especially when the digs are humorless and further weakened by error.
I semi-agree.1 It’s a delicate balance for Apple. What I don’t agree with (and I don’t think this quite is Gassée’s point, but I’ve seen others argue it) is the notion that, if they’re on top, it’s beneath Apple to denigrate its competitors through marketing in any way.
The people who are getting the “Apple never did anything like this before” vapors from Apple’s throwing of sharp elbows in the direction of Samsung seem to forget that this is the same company that ran the John Hodgman/Justin Long “Get a Mac” campaign. Gassée argues that Apple’s days of throwing potshots are over. I disagree, but they do need to be deft about it.
So these “rare defensive” interviews? These “We Are The Champions” Web pages? They’re not tells.
They’re marketing. They’re advertising. They’re part and parcel of a brutal battle over a lucrative and important market. And they’re not unusual. They’re business.
You can’t market against your rival when you have no rival. Now Apple does, so now they are. The last thing Apple should do is ignore Samsung, to just sit there and take it, stoically. I think Microsoft took that stance against Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign and it hurt them. When you’re the market leader, you do need to be more graceful, it’s harder, but you still need to fight. That’s why Pepsi will trash Coke by name, but Coke will never mention Pepsi. Note, for example, that Apple’s new “There’s iPhone. Then There’s Everything Else” page never mentions “Android”, let alone “Samsung”, by name. It doesn’t have to. But remember Coke’s classic “The Real Thing” campaign? The implication was that Pepsi was something other than the real thing, and not even worth mentioning. That’s the same strategic line Apple is taking with Samsung.2
You don’t start fights when you’re the champ, but you do fight back when someone else starts one.
Later in his piece, Gassée recommends that Apple engage a “powerhouse” PR firm to help sway opinion in its favor. I’d argue that Apple already has a powerhouse PR firm, and it very successfully engages in most of the tactics Gassée speaks of. But rather than a separate company, it’s completely internal to — and thus dedicated to — Apple.
I very much agree with Gassée’s observation about Apple executives overusing superlative adjectives describing their own products. “One doesn’t brag about one’s performance in the boudoir; let happy partners sing your praise.” ↩
Part of the genius of the “Get a Mac” campaign was that they never mentioned any particular PC maker by name, nor (at least to my recollection) “Microsoft” or even “Windows”. They did call out “Vista” in particular, but that simply might have been too juicy a target to resist. The framing was simply Macs vs. everything else. Sound familiar? ↩