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A Marketing Lesson From Apple, circa 1984

Steve Jobs 1984 Macintosh Computers Apple

Here at the Why Didn’t I Think of That? Blog, I’m often encouraging would-be entrepreneurs and startups to go where no business has gone before, to look for ideas that should have been implemented in their industries long ago, but which no company has been quick enough to catch onto.

Sure, it only takes one company or product to revolutionize an industry, but selling people something they’ve never seen before isn’t easy. The general public tends to shy away from cutting edge technologies and trends, waiting for them to become more commonplace before adapting them. Your job is to change their minds. But how? Luckily, many before us have made bold, world-changing moves that have dramatically shifted the courses of industries, and made the people behind the companies filthy rich, and set shining examples for all who follow. One such company: Apple Computers.

Now I like to rag on Apple more than I like to give them credit, but the truth is– they’ve been teaching us some valuable lessons–on what to do, and what not to do–for decades. Today’s lesson in marketing a revolutionary product comes from their 1984 advertising campaign for the then-infant product, the Macintosh.

See, while normal people are sleeping, I’m watching 26 year old footage of Apple Product Announcements. During a 1984 announcement of the Apple IIc, a nearly prepubescent Steve Jobs took the stage to talk about the Macintosh personal computer, a product they had released less than 100 days earlier. Amidst the fifteen minutes of amusingly outdated computer graphics and tech-talk, Jobs read the audience an excerpt from a letter he received from the Vice President of Marketing for McDonalds, congratulating the Macintosh division on their marketing efforts, most notably an insert from Newsweek that ultimately convinced the McDonalds VP to go out and buy his own Mac.

You can hear Steve Jobs reading the letter here:


Here are the highlights:


Dear Mr. Jobs,

From one who appreciates outstanding consuming marketing I congratulate those at your company, and your dealers responsible for the marketing of Macintosh.   And from one who has wanted to be sold a personal home computer, I thank the same marketing people at Apple for developing the advertising insert which I recently found in Newsweek magazine. It did what no other computer advertising nor editorial information has done to date: it provided the reasons and rationale which I needed to justify acquisition of a personal computer… Your Macintosh advertising has sold me, and you’ve shown your industry how to advertise personal computers to real people.

Well, this got me pretty curious about that Newsweek insert, so I tracked it down, and while I was on the trail, I noticed a number of things about this amazing marketing campaign, done more than a quarter of a century ago, that many entrepreneurs and small startups would be wise to take note of.

Most people are familiar with Apple’s infamous “1984” commercial that ran during the Superbowl, less than a month prior to the launch of the first Macintosh.

A little overly dramatic, perhaps? Even though the commercial is clearly out of date (I mean, really, do you think a George Orwell reference would ever come close to a Superbowl commercial these days?) it’s still considered a classic. Not once did they show their product, but they promised it would do a whole lot, and that it would change the way people looked at and felt about personal computers.

And it did. The original Macintosh was the first commercially successful personal computer with a graphic interface. No lines of code scrolling on a black screen. Clean, user-friendly windows, files, and folders. Windows 1.0, released a year later, followed the same model.

Note: As we’ve mentioned before on the WDITOT Blog, the graphical interface was actually first developed by Xerox PARC. Both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs based their products off Xerox PARC’s designs. Gates backed this up when responding to a complaint (and subsequent lawsuit) from Steve Jobs that Windows had “ripped off” the Macintosh: “No, Steve, I think its more like we both have a rich neighbor named Xerox, and you broke in to steal the TV set, and you found out I’d been there first, and you said. ‘Hey that’s no fair! I wanted to steal the TV set!'”

But by the time Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were squabbling over who stole what first, the world of computers had already been changed. In early 1984, though, it was a different story. It’ wasn’t just personal computers with a mouse and “desktop” that was new to people. It was personal computers in general. The idea of a computer for personal use had been pure science fiction until only a decade prior. The majority of Americans didn’t own, and–frankly–didn’t want or need a computer. Rather than market themselves to the techies who were already buying computers, Apple decided to win over the people who were on the fence about owning their own personal computer.

The 16-page full color Newsweek advertisement illustrates this approach wonderfully. The front page looked like this:

Then inside:

Throughout the entire advertisement, the Macintosh is painted as “different.” Furthermore, regular computers are portrayed as being totally out of touch with the majority of computers.

“If Macintosh seems extraordinarily simple,” it explains, “it’s probably because conventional computers are extraordinarily complicated.” This fed right into the number one barrier between consumers and personal computers of the day: Computers were seen as being too complicated. Apple ads pandered to this perception, and used it to their advantage. “If you can point, you can use a Macintosh,” one of the Newsweek ad’s headings reads.

Apple took every chance it could to differentiate itself from normal computers, drawing on its strengths in the relatively new world of computer graphics, as illustrated below:

The pamphlet ends with this phrase: “Soon there’ll be just two kinds of people. Those who use computers. And those who use Apples.”

You can see the whole Newsweek insert here.

The biggest lesson here is that, if your product is filling a hole left by an out-of-touch industry, then your field could become your biggest enemy. Another way of looking at it is that your differences–what sets your company apart from the competition–can be your biggest strength. Apple saw this as the case with the world of personal computing as it was in 1984 (and again in 1997, when they started their “Think Different” campaign). Jobs believed that, by distancing himself from the “geeky” world of computers, he could find a market in all of the tech-averse Americans out there who wanted to benefit from a PC, but didn’t want to go through the hassle of figuring one out. To this day, some of the biggest Apple enthusiasts I know are the least tech-savvy of people.

When they’re at their best, Apple knows exactly who their market is, and how to appeal to them. Their customers are intelligent and creative, they use their computers for business and entertainment, and they’re generally middle/upper class. They’re the people Apple is addressing near the end of the Newsweek insert when they say, “Of course, the real genius of Macintosh isn’t its serial ports or its polyphonic sound generator. The real genius is that you don’t have to be a genius to use a Macintosh. You just have to be smart enough to buy one.”

And buy they did. The Macintosh enjoyed unprecedented sales in the first few years after its initial launch.

But the Mac’s success didn’t last long. As the 80’s turned into the 90’s, Windows and IBM products became the business standard, and Apple’s share of the market nearly collapsed. Apple was able to eventually regain traction and essentially reinvent its brand. But that, of course, is a story for another day.

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