Apple Unpeeled: What Can Brands Learn From Its Ads?

“It doesn’t matter if Apple make crap ads” – so said Mark Ritson on our webinar with him last month. His point was that the strength of Apple’s brand – its massive familiarity, media presence and range of top-drawer distinctive assets – make the quality of its communications irrelevant.

But is that true – and in any case, are Apple’s ads good or not? If you listen to awards juries, they certainly are – the brand regularly carries home Lions, Pencils, Effies and all the other industry gongs.

But when you ask ordinary viewers to rate Apple’s ads, a different picture emerges. Unlike Facebook, Amazon, Google or Microsoft, Apple have never scored a 5-Star ad on our Test Your Ad database. Move away from tech giants to its phone competitors and we see strong ads for Samsung and Huawei where Apple tends to get 3-Stars at best. A lot of its most celebrated and award-winning ads, like 2019’s “The Underdogs”, about an Apple design team, only scored 1-Star.

What’s behind these low-scores for one of the most famous brands in the world?

Apple’s ads, like their products, have a very distinctive aesthetic. Their directorial style is usually closer to indie filmmakers than most other ads, with a muted palette and a naturalistic approach to dialogue and sound. Where they do use a soundtrack, it’s often drawn from the fringes, using underground or up-and-coming acts.

Compare that to most mainstream advertisers, who generally use bright colours, clear storytelling, familiar music, etc – all to create a quick and easy sense of connection with the audience. When it doesn’t work, it’s mind-numbing – but when that connection clicks, it makes for 4- and 5-Star ads  Apple’s idiosyncratic approach often seems to want to keep a distance between the ad and its audience. Apple ads, in other words, are cool. And cool stuff doesn’t stay cool if everyone can get it.

Mark Ritson is right that Apple can – for now – get away with this approach. 3-Stars – which is the usual ceiling for the best Apple ads, like the “Welcome Home” dance video – is a good score for a tech ad, and when you factor in the acclaim and earned media some Apple ads get it’s clear the brand doesn’t need to change.

But brands without its built-in advantages should not look to Apple as an example. The brand has permission to be quirky, and do things like release a 7-minute comic film about its “Underdogs” team struggling with home working in lockdown. (A great film – but in the classic Apple tradition, only a 2-Star score). It’s notable that Apple’s direct competitors don’t attempt to imitate its style. They are well aware that brands working in a mass medium like TV or video advertising generally need to appeal to a mass audience.

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