Tag Archives: strategy

The Message for Marketers

At his recent death, Steve Jobs was widely lauded as a business, technology and marketing genius. The success of his company, Apple, and its iGadgets is indisputable. But genius, by its nature, is largely inimitable. What about the rest of us? (To borrow a phrase from an early Macintosh marketing campaign.) What lessons does Jobs offer marketers?

The conventional wisdom on Apples success includes:


  • The importance of design and product elegance
  • Controlling the whole product through vertical integration
  • Ensure a reputation for high quality
  • Building cool products

Like most conventional wisdom, these are of little help. You can do all of them and still not succeed. Let’s consider each of these chestnuts.

Many winners of design awards are not winners in the market place. Where are the Palm Pilots and Pet Rocks of a few years ago?

While Apple is more integrated than many companies, it has always borrowed, licensed or bought key parts of its products and has been willing to imitate what it thinks valuable. For example, though known for product design, Jobs hired agencies such Frog Design for the concept of the MacBook portables. Apple tried to develop its own processors, but prospered by abandoning this effort. Instead it became, like many other technology players, “Intel Inside.” Unlike say, IBM, Jobs could not be accused of suffering from a “not invented here” bias.

Quality – schmality. Quality was the cynosure of the IBM PC. Customers, however, became tired of paying for quality alone and stopped paying a premium. IBM took its quality and exited the PC business altogether.

“Cool” products are fine. Most of us would rather market cool than square, but this begs the question of where cool comes from. Most of the shopping list for homes or businesses contains a majority of decidedly uncool items. Some of the “coolest” aspects of products are ones we seldom notice, because they just work. The WiFi and Bluetooth networks, which pipes data to so many Apple products, come to mind.

Jobs did not always have the golden touch. Apples early products ranged from the moderately successful Apple II, to the failed Lisa (there was no market for a $10,000 dekstop), to the never achieved critical mass NeXT “scholars workstation,” to mobileMe, an online service which never gained traction and has been retired in favor of the new free iCloud.

Even the vaunted early Macintosh – “the computer for the rest of us” – was problematic. Despite advantages such as graphics, fonts, mouse, and transportability, it could never achieve more than single digit market share against the clunky PC. At the time, the PC was desk bound with a hard to read 80 column monochrome screen. It could run but one program at a time and print on a grainy dot-matrix printer.

The Mac failed to penetrate its initial target of the general corporate business market, so many early software developers chose not to write programs for it. Apple slogged on, when other companies would have cut their losses. Eventually a market – that of desktop publishing – found it.

From its inception, Apple under Jobs persevered, experimented and improvised as it rapidly evolved. Steve Jobs may be a modern version of the legendary hero Odysseus. Like Odysseus, who struggled against a seemingly limitless series of challenges, Jobs kept at it. Persisting, not by doing the same product, message or campaign but by continually improving and where necessary abandoning. Like Odysseus, he resisted the siren song of “me too,” while striving to define the brand which is his legacy. How much persistence does your marketing have?

Where Does This Via Lead?

Starbucks has what it believes is a better idea – premium instant coffee. This is hardly a new category, but instant coffee or most “instant” products have been more often positioned in terms of cost, convenience or other attributes. For example, the first commercially significant decaffeinated coffees were instant. Although there have been innovations such as freeze drying, which were claimed to improve the taste, instant coffees have been presented as trade-offs in which the consumer gives up a noticeable degree of taste.

Via, the brand name Starbucks has chosen for its premium priced powder, takes a different and somewhat risky approach. Namely that Via tastes like Starbucks’ brewed coffee.

The launch of the product has been interesting. It’s been supported by print, web, social media, event, and TV such as the spot below.

So far I can discover, Starbucks has not tried the more conventional package goods approach of coupons and sampling either by mail or newspaper inserts or at the types of outlets where Via will sell. Instead, they invited consumers into their retail cafes  for a blind taste test of Via vs. their conventional brew.

Both the on-line media and the in shop events are more involving than traditional product sampling. Introducing Via in a coffee shop, attempts to transfer the positive ambiance of the cafe and to the smell of coffee to initial experience. They hope to transform this into demand at non-conventional channels such as camping supply and sporting goods stores as well as their current retail and online channels.

So what’s wrong with this brew? How many will pay $0.83 for a Short coffee or $1.66 for a Grande with none of the Starbucks ambiance? IMHO, the taste of Via wasn’t substantially worse or better than what Starbucks serves in its shops. But that’s largely beside the point.

Coffee is not really Starbucks’ business, though that is what they sell, any more than watches are the real business of Rolex.

Starbucks’ real business is the experience of a welcoming place to go. There you can socialize, work, have a job interview or a business meeting. Hence the comfortable chairs, tables big enough to work on, quite background music, long hours, and often more amenable service than you generally find at a fast food outlet or donut shop. None of these are instant coffee occasions, so they should not be retrofitted into the flagship brand as a brand extension.

Business Week reports has high hopes for Via. I’ll be happy to debate that over a real cup of coffee.