Why You Can’t Market like Apple (or Why Marketing is Hard)

The reason marketing is equally interesting and frustrating is because you are never exactly sure what will work until you try it (this is particularly true in startup marketing). Contrary to the belief of armchair marketing critics, we can’t simply copy what marketers at Apple or Facebook or Groupon are doing and expect it to work. Heck, we can’t even always repeat OUR OWN successful tactics and be guaranteed good results.

This concept frustrates the hell out of the engineers that I’ve worked with in particular. They want there to be a formula or a textbook that simply tells us what to do and how to do it. Hey, I’m an engineer myself so I understand the desire for a formula but the reason it doesn’t exist is because there are too many variables that impact what works and what doesn’t and many of those are constantly shifting. Some examples:

Markets – Mature vs. new, expanding vs. contracting or consolidating, geographically constrained vs. global, heavily regulated or government subsidized vs. open, big vs. small – markets come in all types. What works when you are selling to banks probably makes absolutely no sense when selling to grandparents, or families or law offices or insurance companies. Except occasionally it does.

Offerings – Marketing tactics for high value items are different for low value deals – smaller deals close faster, are often non-competitive, often only involve a single purchaser, etc. The economics of customer acquisition are obviously different (you can spend $100K closing a multi-million dollar deal. selling a $5 a month subscription, not so much).  The type of product matters too, even between seemingly similar ones such as – feature phones vs. smart phones, an enterprise database vs. a data warehouse, a photo sharing service vs. a video sharing service. They differ in the way you express value to prospects, the needs of customers at different stages of a deal, the importance of partners and channels, and a host of other things. And don’t forget that better products are just plain easier to market period.

Companies – What works for big companies doesn’t always translate to smaller ones and vice versa. An established company can get away with things a new company can’t because of reputation and status. Large companies can sell a vision because prospects believe they will be around in 5 years to execute on it. Big companies can throw dollars at tactics to make them move quickly (I’m doing a series of face to face round tables with CIO’s for a large company that I could never do at a startup for example). On the other hand startups can move exponentially faster on things like content marketing without processes slowing them down. I’ve worked with startups that have launched blogs in a matter of days, where I’ve seen large companies take a week to move a single blog post through their approval process.

Founders/employees – A small company with a famous spokesperson can do things a company with non-famous folk can’t because they come with built-in credibility. A launch event with Steve Jobs just isn’t the same as a launch event with Stephen Elop. It works at startups too – if your founder is Marc Andreessen or Jimmy Wales you can do things that a startup founded by someone like me couldn’t because the world is already paying attention to what they say.

Prospect Behavior – This is the worst one. A spectacularly successful tactic or campaign run for a specific product from a specific company in a specific market may simply cease to work because prospect behavior changes. Banner ads that were novel last year just don’t convert anymore. Events that were crowded are now empty. Your prospects are getting flooded with email and aren’t opening your drip the way they used to. The economy goes soft and customers close their wallets. These are hard to predict (but if you are measuring results you can usually see them coming) and when they happen there’s not much you can do aside from pick up your ball and play somewhere else.

At a conceptual level there are things that are always common to marketing that works (and this is the stuff you read about in the marketing text books): focusing on well-defined customer segments, communicating customer value (vs. feature/function), delivering information that is helpful to prospects, etc. – but these are high-level concepts. The gorey details of HOW you will get that done right now, for this product, in this market, for these customers, is where the marketing magic happens and is a whole lot harder than it looks.

48 thoughts on “Why You Can’t Market like Apple (or Why Marketing is Hard)”

    1. Thanks Jason,
      It’s natural I think to look at successful companies and try to figure out what’s working so that you can emulate it. Sometimes that works, particularly if there are similarities between the markets, the products, the companies, etc. The problem is what people start taking a lesson learned for one type of business and try to apply it to another. It might work but you better test it first because it’s just as likely to not work.

  1. Great post April – I think anyone in communications, public relations and/or marketing grapples with this. I tend to think you need to think differently and see themselves as they really are and proceed accordingly. As you suggest – what works for one does not necessarily translate into success for the other. Cheers and was as always happy to share this. Andy

  2. Symbol inflation is easy enough for a geek to understand. The first kiss is the moon. The two hundredth kiss is barely noticed.

  3. On the mark again, April.

    The fallacy that gets overlooked is no one can be just like Apple. There is only one Apple. You can take inspiration from, learn from and watch Apple but you CAN’T be just like them.

    Tastes changes, markets change, needs change, etc. What doesn’t is the need for marketing geeks to be pushing themselves and not expecting stuff to work every time as well as looking for new ways to do things, new segments, etc.


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  5. Everyone wants to be the winner. Your points are excellent, as it is essentially impossible to be “like” Apple. A few years ago it was Google, before that Cisco, Sun, even Microsoft (yup).

    This reminds an article in WSJ titled “how to be like apple” and associated post.


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  7. OOft. Preach! A nice refreshing post – just discovered your blog and am enjoying soaking up the reams of advice, thanks for sharing with us April!

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