Exercise: Targeting an audience, pt 2

Brief

Investigate a major company and the style of photography they’ve used to market a particular product. Use any product that you find interesting as long as it’s been around for a while.

Analyse the imagery that was used in the past and its message or intent. Has the way the company delivers its message changed? Why do you think that is? Has the target audience changed?

Show examples and annotate the images with the main points that you think make them work – or not.

Reflect on this, using illustrated notes, in your learning log or blog.

Response

I chose Apple as the company and the Mac computer as the specific product (for the purpose of clarity: I am excluding laptop variants).

I’ll attempt as far as possible to focus on the imagery rather than digging too deep into copywriting.

1980s

The Mac was introduced in 1984, and while the one-off pre-launch TV advert was a high-concept take on Orwell’s 1984 with a call to reject conformity, the press advertising that accompanied the actual product release were disappointingly traditional. They mostly depicted the various software and hardware features (not the benefits) of the product, or honed in on a particular aspect of the augmented product offer (such as a free trial).

There were however a few notable exceptions that foreshadowed the more personal appeals that later Mac ads showed.

mac2

Having the handwritten word ‘hello’ on the screen helps to personalise the computer, up until now seen as a ‘scary’ business tool. Similarly, one of the smaller screens shows a smiley face. A clear attempt was being made to give the Mac a friendly personality, and by extension implying that you (buyer) will ‘get on with it’. It’s reassurance via anthropomorphism.

One suspects that different ads ran in different media, and while the first three above may have been in computer enthusiast magazines, the ‘personality’ ad would have been in more mainstream press. Apple demonstrated an ability to target distinct audiences early on.

1990s

For Apple, the 1990s was a decade of two uneven parts, both from a product and an advertising point of view – first the wilderness years after Steve Jobs’ 1985 sacking and then the new era when he returned to save the company in 1997.

Until Jobs’ return, Apple had been focusing on professional buyers, specifically in the creative industries. The ‘staples’ execution is clever in a meta way, in as much as it admits its own existence as an advertisement, and allows the viewer to project themselves into the making of the ad itself.

The ‘in your head’ execution tries to depict the creative mind but falls far short in my opinion; the imagery seems to hark back to the breakthrough ‘1984’ ad for no particular reason.

On Jobs’ return the product set was slashed and a renewed focus on the mass market began with the iMac.

Apple’s stroke of genius with this product relaunch was to unashamedly market the iMac as a lifestyle product. Cutting edge design and candy-bright colours differentiated the product from its beige PC rivals and – crucially from an advertising and branding point of view – lent themselves to highly visual advertising.

In terms of target audience, the iMac market is a million miles away from the ‘industry’ market of the preceding decade. The iMac ads from this era are virtually text-free zones. The look of the iMac is its number one selling point, and the advertising is as simple as it needs to be. The intended implication is that this thing looks so damn cool that you are totally going to want one. There is no attempt to depict the iMac in use, or even in a real-life environment – it just floats in white space (the pervasive Apple aesthetic ever since). You don’t even get to see a screen. It’s marketing a personal computer as a fun fashion accessory. Pure aspirational advertising: ‘you wanna be cool? get one of these!‘.

Yet at the same time Apple realised that it could not alienate its core market of graphic designers etc. The professional standard product, the Power Mac G3, was given an iMac-like design overhaul, but its advertising style was quite different: showing the internals of the machine, appealing to the more rational, technical side of the buyer, whilst still enjoying the halo effect of the hugely popular baby brother.

1999powermacg3

2000s

While the core iMac product underwent a couple of redesigns in the 2000s, its advertising aesthetic didn’t change too much. The exception came in a campaign that ran from 2006-2009 that focused on pitting the Mac against its rival, the Windows PC.

apple-im-a-mac-uk-adverts-970-80

In a major departure, the ads featured no hardware or software, just two actors playing personifications of the Mac and its rival the PC. It circles back to the 1984 launch ad ‘Mackintosh’s Personality’ (even down to the use of ‘hello’) but gets its message across in a much slicker, more contemporary way, and in an aesthetic reminiscent of Apple’s iconic product ads.

The campaign uses a combination of sign currency and social differentiation tactics. The personalities (in the UK version anyway) are recognisable as characters (in this case from Peep Show, the sitcom) as well as actors, so the viewer brings preconceptions to the imagery: PC is staid, stuffy, uptight, corporate, while Mac is cool, trendy, easy-going and all about fun. It’s clear who we are supposed to identify with. The social differentiation goes further than most similar messages: it’s not “Hello, I’m a Mac user“, it’s “Hello, I’m a Mac“.

Again, this is evidence of Apple noting the shifts (or rather, as they hope – expansions) in its target audience. In simplified phases: Apple had sewn up first the graphic professional market, then the ‘cool’ end of the mass market – and now wanted to make headway in the more mainstream markets, both business and personal. For the first time in a long time, Apple needed to explain its product appeal in comparison to something else.

2010s

As a mature product, the Mac generally gets little by way of advertising support compared to the likes of the iPhone. It seems to now be enough to just remind people what the iMac looks like. In a sense it’s a return to the original aspirational iMac ad format – ‘just look at that cool design‘ – without the shock of the new.

iMac

One major difference is that the screen is often to the fore now – one of its major USPs is its display quality, so contemporary iMac ads often feature a photograph within a photograph.

There was one recent ad I found that at first glance seemed to be a little insular or self-congratulatory: it simply depicted the design evolution of the iMac since launch.

the-evolution-of-the-imac-from-1998-to-today-12

The more I thought about it though, the more I realised it was another example of very clever targeting. This ad isn’t aimed at new customers, it’s for existing Mac owners. Existing owners can look at a ‘regular’ iMac ad and think, ‘yeah, I already got one of those…‘ (validation), but this ad is really making you say ‘isn’t it about time I got a new one?‘ (aspiration).

Summary

Apple has used various styles and techniques over the years but has largely settled on an identifiable aesthetic – white, minimalist, photographic, product design-led, simple text. With the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, it becomes more evident how they have refined their visual style and messaging in order to appeal to different markets – graphics professionals, hipsters, mass market, corporate, repeat buyers…

I think however one thing to point out, given the wording of the question set in the brief, is that Apple seems to change its message or imagery not so much to keep up with changes in target market behaviour or tastes, but rather to drive these behaviour or tastes – to expand its target markets. From a marketing point of view Apple likes to position itself as a leader rather than a follower.

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