Way back in 2002, when Kelly Clarkson and (gulp) Nickleback were on the top of the charts, Apple was nothing like the $516B behemoth it is today. Having only recently released the first iPod, Apple was still a small fry — valued at less than $7B, barely in the same conversation as Microsoft, which closed that year worth nearly $300B.
At the time, an estimated 97.5% of global users were still using Windows, and “tech” was a land for the geeky, not the Gen-X mainstream. Apple needed a way to convince the market to switch.
Mainstream consumers in 2002 were like:
The initial plan: the “Switch” campaign
Remember that, back in 2002, choosing between Windows-based PCs and Macs was a risky proposition. Macs seemed “creative” and, as a result, unprofessional for anyone besides crazy ad executives and designers who liked wearing colourful socks. Apple needed to convince the market that Macs suited everyday people — and that you could switch from Windows without refurbishing your sock drawer.
Apple turned to renowned filmmaker Errol Morris to direct a new ad campaign called, simply, “Switch.” Steve Jobs described that the people profiled in the campaign weren’t actors; they were “ real people who have switched from PCs to Macs, telling their story in their own words.” All of the ads were shot in the same treatment: a single person speaking to the camera against a white background. Some of the ads featured celebrities like Tony Hawk, Yo-Yo Ma, Will Ferrell and the members of De La Soul. And in every story, the real person touched on a key Apple sales point. For example, in the below, Sarah Whistler, describes Macs as “intuitive” in a way that PCs aren’t.
Want to know how the campaign turned out? Like this ad, it sucked. No measurable growth in iMac sales. No new subscriptions to Macworld magazine, a bellweather of Apple’s health. Revenues rose slightly in 2003, but only on the strength of sales of the iPod.
One analyst said “It’s not likely that Apple can do anything to change the structure of the industry. For them to get to 5 or 8 percent market share doesn’t seem like something that can happen, given the way the business is going right now.”
A New Storytelling Approach
Fast forward to 2006 — and try to ignore the news about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes tying the knot in an Italian castle. Things down in Cupertino have changed for the better. Apple closed the previous year with a $53B market cap, based on the extraordinary growth of the iPod, which was now in its fifth generation. But Apple was still having big problems translating its newfound success as a media and accessories company back to its core product — computers.
In June of 2006, Apple launched a new campaign called “Get a Mac”. Visually, this new campaign looked similar to the failed “Switch” campaign — a minimalist white background and a dialogue direct to the camera. Only this time, instead of one person, there were two.
In the first quarter of the campaign, Mac sales increased 12%. By the end of the year, Apple had sold a record breaking 1.6 million Macs, increasing revenues by 39%. By 2009, when the campaign concluded after 66 videos, Apple was setting new sales records year after year.
Why was Get a Mac a success?
Let’s recap. Two campaigns. Both campaigns have the same look and feel. But one does nothing, while the other one kickstarts sales records.
What’s the difference?
The secret is a storytelling term called a “dilemma”.
A dilemma is a difficult choice between two unlike alternatives. As audiences, we are most engaged by stories with a clear dilemma that lets us decide how we would act.
Did the Switch campaign have a dilemma? Sure, the “real people” were telling us about why they had decided to switch from PC to Mac. But for us, the ads feel like a lecture. If you’re like me, you’re thinking what the heck do I care about what kind of computer you use? If the ad hadn’t been interrupting whatever TV show you were watching, you’d skip it immediately.
Today? You’d be fast forwarding that ad within 2 seconds.
But the Get a Mac campaign was different. Here was the same key dilemma — only this time, the dilemma was acted out for us, the audience. We got the pleasure of watching the way that the two choices interacted with each other. As they did, we got the experience of deciding for ourselves which character felt best.
The proof is in the pudding. To this day, Get a Mac remains one of the most popular campaigns of all time.
Here’s another one:
These aren’t just entertaining stories. If you pay attention, the same sales points are there. (What’s the key sales point in the ad above?) And, sure, Apple’s the storyteller, so they’re rigging the game. But what’s more important to notice is how easily and quickly we take in information about the dilemma, and how easy it is for us to decide emotionally which side we like.
There’s a reason for this. Apple has framed the dilemma in a way that is deeply meaningful for us as human beings. This campaign doesn’t say, “Buy a Mac and you’ll get entered into a draw to win something that’s not very good.” It says, “Buy a Mac and you will become something.”
The dilemma isn’t PC vs. Mac. It’s about becoming — what kind of person do you want to be? Do you want to be stodgy and resistant to change? Or do you want to be at ease with the technological revolution? At the time (like now), this was a complicated choice. This deep dilemma gives this campaign authenticity.
What’s the dilemma in your story?
Your story has a dilemma too. Chances are, it’s not the dilemma you’d expect. To get to the heart of your dilemma, you need to dive deep into what your product or service represents for your target audience on an emotional level.
Yes, emotions. Dilemmas are rarely conceptual. They are generally spoken in the language of feelings — the dialect of our inner world. Dilemmas are rarely about pithy choices, like whether you’re having a Tall or a Grande today.
Dilemmas relate to the most universal questions of our humanity — issues like fulfillment, belonging, becoming and individual freedom.
How do you discover your dilemma? By working on the emotional language of what your product or service represents. Don’t be satisfied with simple analysis like “my product makes my customers happy.” That’s not authentic. Dive one level deeper to feel out how your product is situated in your customers’ emotional world.
Need help? I guide organizations to the core of the optimal dilemma for engaging their customers, aligning their workforce and activating their strategy. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or jordanbower.com and let’s explore how I can help you tell a more authentic and engaging story today.