Apple and Google: Stealth Marketing

I’ll admit that ‘stealth’ marketing seems somewhat counterintuitive. Marketing has traditionally been a high-profile business; the bigger the better. In recent years we’ve seen innovative campaigns that have challenged this preconception — ‘Viral‘ and ‘Guerilla‘ marketing — which have, in more than a few cases, been wildly successful.

Let me be clear: when I use ‘stealth marketing’, I’m referring to a new set of practices that are recent in nature, namely the gradual, intentional, but completely deniable leakage of information about a new product or service.

The closing months of 2009 provide two outstanding examples of the practice, by two companies adept and experienced in the field.

The Apple iPad is perhaps the case in point. It was impossible to peruse a tech site, newspaper or magazine in the later months of last year without reading something about this product; the actual existence of which wasn’t confirmed until its actual launch on 27 January.

There were mock-ups, wild speculation , and — in a minority of cases — very accurate predictions. It’s no secret how these pre-launch facts were obtained, but their ‘unconfirmable’ nature led them to be seen as part of the general furore of speculation.

Google’s ‘Nexus One’ came to market much the same way, with Google employees twittering and messaging about a new phone they had been issued in the run up to Christmas. Google’s press office explained that they were merely testing new software features, and that the phone ‘wasn’t for consumers’.

Few of us were fooled, and most weren’t shocked when the Nexus One was launched.

Therein lies the problem.
There is beauty and sound thinking behind these strategies. Apple and Google were able to dominate tech headlines for weeks on end, by little more than a carefully dropped sentence here or there. Talk about marketing return on investment!

The press run your first advertising campaign before you even launch your product, working fans into a frenzy so they can hardly wait to open their wallets. There are other advantages too; independent surveys more or less told Apple what they needed to know to price the product to reach the an ideal supply and demand equilibrium, and the media furore meant that a great deal of TV covered both products launches.

Apple used the same tactic with the iPhone and MacBook Air to high success.

Great strategies usually have a catch. They lose their ‘freshness’ after a while.

During the iPad launch I was reading tweets from the most die-hard Apple fans calling the product a ‘bore’ or ‘yawn’. The Nexus One was quickly dubbed ‘just another Android device’.

Where did it go wrong?

As far as Google’s Nexus One is concerned, I think it really is just another Android device. It’s pretty, for sure, and seems to have the fastest processor around; but we’re talking consumer electronics here — you need more of an edge to impress. The end-product didn’t live up to the ‘iPhone-killing’ and ‘game-changing’ device we were ‘promised’ by the stealth marketing campaign.

The iPad is, for all intents and purposes, a large iPod touch. Which is great for me, because that’s what I am looking for. But so many die-hard ‘Jobsians’ are disappointed: The device IS revolutionary and game-changing – but not as much as was rumoured.

The ‘real’ leaked information got mixed in with the wild speculation surrounding the product. No single consumer could tell the difference between the two.

Professional-looking mock-ups gave us some ideas as to what the iPad could look like. Supposed leaks told us of features we could only dream of. And, because of the lack of definitive, ‘hard’ facts, we all had our own conceptions about what the product would be.

To many, the iPad doesn’t live up to the hype – but it’s the hype that they fell for.

Stealth marketing is an arena where the marketer gives up a very large degree of control; you do not control the message. Which is fine, when you’re launching a huge product that no-one could have conceived to be as good as it is, like the iPhone. It doesn’t work where consumer’s expectations are likely to be underwhelmed by your offering, like the iPad.

But that won’t stop me from getting one.


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