How Apple Teaches us to Choose Products

“I have always believed that writing advertisements is the second most profitable form of writing. The first, of course, is ransom notes…”

— Philip Dusenberry

There is no doubt that companies who want us to buy their products formulate plans on how to influence our decision making process. But when it comes right down to making a decision, we tend to deny that we’ve been influenced and instead fall into a false sense of security about our objectiveness. Apple understands that.

The recent national news reports reiterate that, by and large, American kids and adults are overweight. (Except in the Rocky Mountain region.) One reason is that fast food advertisers have become adept at making us hunger for pizza, burgers, double-sized colas and other salty, fatty foods. Maintaining an “intelligent kitchen” and eating right is hard to do and requires study.

Similarly, when it comes to consumer products, there are all kinds of tried and tested techniques that have percolated into our advertising culture. All the books on this technique would fill a small library. We’ve seen it a thousand times: “Now, with 40 percent more cleaning power!” [The undefined comparator.] More than what? The previous product? Competitors? Plain water?

Another one of my least favorite themes is: “This product is so good, so desirable, that I would do anything to get it and keep it.” My first experience seeing that theme was years ago in a beer commercial. Two guys are out camping when a hostile bear enters the camp. Somehow, one of the guys sics the bear on his companion, thus leaving all the beer to himself. Joy! I’ve seen countless variations. One has a husband hiding and hoarding the family favorite cereal, keeping it from his wife. That looks geeky cool and emphasizes the desirability of the product until you think about what happens when the guy’s wife finds out what he’s been up to. Then cold reality sets in and bursts the smug balloon of the advertiser’s false premise.

The High Tech Industry

The high technology computer industry also has its share of techniques. Because some companies are better at engineering and developing products than others, advertising techniques have to be all about minimizing product deficiencies, casting the sales proposal onto more favorable grounds and appealing to the brand — or even emotions such as greed, fear, one-upsmanship. If the ad is cleverly couched in the terminology and the culture of the buyer’s market, (buzz word compliant) the ad can seem charming. But the charm is intended to disarm us and defer critical thinking.

One standard technique when a known product limitation is being sidestepped is to recast the sales proposal based on likely ignorance of the consumer. A great example of this is camera megapixels. It’s well known that when you increase the number of pixels while keeping the size of the CCD constant in a digital camera, the dynamic range, and therefore the picture quality, of the system suffers. If for some reason, the CCDs with lots of pixels are cheaper to obtain because they’re popular and highly advertised, then it’s in the vendor’s best interest to tout the number of megapixels as a so-called standard of excellence — without ever suppling any explanation. Just a wink.

For LCD displays, the questionable “dynamic contrast ratio” and viewing angle are often fudged, with vendor defined standards, that look good on paper but don’t contribute to a better viewing experience.

The Indecent Proposal

If the vendor can manage it, the business proposal becomes all about a pre-formulated checklist. Ah, the infamous check-list. Yep. It’s the same one IT managers have used for years to show that Apple products just don’t meet their needs in the enterprise. The Microsoft Exchange Server is the granddaddy of all the products that “checks those boxes.”

Customers who pride themselves, just a little bit, on knowing the meanings of all the salient acronyms will take great pride in telling their friends why LCD is better than Plasma, why 12 MP is better than 8 MP, or a PC is better than a Mac because it runs more applications.

Years ago, I was consulting with a friend at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory who was wrestling with buying a new computer. PC or Mac? So I asked him some questions.

Me: What do you want to do with the computer?

Friend: Well… e-mail, my income tax, write letters, keep an electronic checkbook.

Me: Of course the Mac can do all that. And you’ll have a better customer experience.

Friend: But I read that the PC has many times more apps than the Mac. [This was 1995.]

Me: Which of those apps that the Mac doesn’t have are you planning to buy?

Friend: Dunno. Maybe Microsoft Excel. CAD programs.

Me: So you’re really going to buy and use those programs, even though you don’t have a need for them?

Friend: Well… not really. I just like knowing they’re available.

What my friend was doing was giving more weight to a possible but unlikely scenario and less weight to his immediate practical concerns. Perhaps something in his career had taught him to do that. Plus, he was probably a little bit embarrassed to be out of the PC mainstream. He was in the throes of a contorted decision making process.

I see this in people all the time when counseling them. Just like the angry wife above who finds out that her husband has been betraying her for his own selfishness, the cruel light of a technical decision hasn’t yet descended on some high technology consumers. They’re locked into the wrong metrics.

How Apple Does It

Have you noticed that Apple has been very coy about the clock speed of the iPhone 4? Or how much working RAM it has? That’s because Apple, first of all, doesn’t want to get dragged into checkbox wars that they can’t win without a lot of geeky terminology that scares its customers away.

Instead, Apple focuses on tangible benefits that you can see and appreciate. The new iPhone 4 video shows a couple using FaceTime to lovingly sign to each other. That’s one of those goosebump moments when the customer realizes what they can do with the product — besides brag about it. Of course, other factors some into play as well. Strong industrial design, tactile heft and feel, contribute to pride of ownership.

When a company, like Apple has a strong product line that delivers what customers really want, the product virtually sells itself. Salesmanship is less about coercing the customer with empty arguments and more about showing the customer what they can achieve, for example, how they can shoot video of their kids on vacation, stay in touch with friends, or express themselves with creative tools.

In closing, I am particularly mindful of the Droid slogan: “In a world that doesn’t, Droid does.” On the surface, it sounds like the Droid has some kind of intangible advantage over the iPhone. Something is missing on the iPhone? But the very slogan meant to seduce the customer raises uncomfortable questions on deeper inspection. “What is Apple depriving me of? What is it that I need that I can’t get from Apple?”

Once that cold-light-of-day question is asked, millions of customers come to realize that the Droid slogan is one of those self-serving phrases that’s trying to hide something — or change the terms of the argument. Then, the Apple customer slowly comes to realize that buying a smartphone isn’t about megapixels, or programmability, or a Wild, Wild West approach to personal privacy and security, or obscure licensing details of how apps are written. It’s all about how Apple has created a product that just works and is a pleasure to own. Result: long lines on launch day.

For years, Steve Jobs would end his Macworld or WWDC keynote with just a hint of pride and emotion by saying, “This is why we do what we do.” That’s a far cry from nerds who flash their Android phones in geeky joy, having never thought much about how they’ve been manipulated into asking all the wrong questions about their product purchase. They’ve been fooled by advertising, but pride won’t allow them to face it. 

It’s the same level of thought that leads them into craving that 1,500 Calorie double cheeseburger, fries and 24 oz. cola.