The Weekly: 5 Steps to An Apple Announcement

This is the fifth in The Weekly, a series to be posted every Wednesday or so. Each will be a long-form, original piece that dives deeply into one topic. Each piece may be related to business, technology, gaming, design, entrepreneurship, economics, politics or any manner of other topics.  The idea is to shed some light on something that at least a few people will find interesting. I hope that you’re one of them.

Apple is widely expected to announce a new iPhone later today, possibly along with some other products.  They’ll announce even more next month at an additional event likely to be highlighted by a smaller iPad.  Companies like Nokia, Amazon and Motorola raced to announce new products last week. Unfortunately for the competition, only Amazon seems to understand the key drivers of success for Apple product announcements.  While their presentation was extremely well done, those put on by Nokia and Motorola missed fundamental elements that left their events forgettable, as they have been consistently for some time.  Here’s a look at the five things Apple will announce today that other competitors in mobile (except Amazon) fail to meet at their own risk.

1) It’s All In The Name

Whether it’s called iPhone 5, iPhone 6 or just “The New iPhone”, you can bet the product name will be just that short and sweet.  Each builds upon the legacy of the last phone, and consistent branding remains Apple’s trademark.  Android enthusiasts often scoff at this point, deriding Apple customers as fanboys content to buy anything with a number one higher on it than the product before it.  I fail to see what’s wrong with having a name that states, clearly, “If you liked the last one, this one’s even better.”

There’s a reason Sony has changed only the number following the PlayStation name for each of its home video game consoles since 1995: it allows the new product to ride the branding coattails of the previous one’s success while giving customers a basis to which they can compare the new product.  A product with lineage is one in which customers can feel more confident.

That said, use of a brand has to be more than gratuitous.  Motorola understands that their most successful and memorable product, to most potential customers, was the RAZR flip-phone of the early 2000s.  They seek to capitalize on that brand’s popularity by recycling the name for their new line of Android-based smartphones.  However, this use is ineffective and, what’s worse, disingenuous.  These new phones don’t share any fundamental traits with the original RAZR aside from the ability to make phone calls.  In its day, the RAZR was by far the thinnest phone on the market.  That’s not true of any of the new RAZRs.  The key differentiating factor that made the branding work simply isn’t present in these models.  It’s a little like if Apple released a device called “iPod Touch” that only had buttons and no capacitative screen.

Motorola’s new phones also suffer from double-branding: each product shares not only the RAZR name, but also the Droid name exclusive to Verizon Android devices.  Can you imagine Apple sharing a non-technical part of their product name with another company?  This is precisely the issue Motorola faces with “Droid” devices; although they are the primary purveyor of Droids, Motorola must share the name with HTC.

This speaks to a larger issue: even if manufacturers would like to use simpler naming schemes for their products, this is often stymied by their relationship with carriers.  Thanks in part to their devices’ popularity but more-so due to their cultural insistence for control, Apple holds the high ground against carriers, whereas most other manufacturers find themselves subjugated to carrier control.  Each carrier wants a product somehow differentiated against those available on competing networks.  Hence the “Droid” name being applied exclusively to phones on Verizon’s network, while otherwise identical phones may have different model numbers or names on each carrier.

Device makers are shortsighted in allowing their destinies to be controlled by networks that need their phones to succeed, anyway.  Whether Samsung, for example, sells phones on AT&T or Verizon’s network should be of little concern to Samsung, so long as the phones are sold.  Let the carriers compete for the devices; not the other way around.

Finally, leaders at device makers should insist their marketing departments not resort to cheap naming gimmicks in an attempt to gain attention.  Motorola insists on their products being spelled in all caps, such as with the “RAZR HD MAXX”.  Samsung is less guilty of this, but has a predilection with attaching meaningless words to their product names. Customers are left grasping for straws when trying to parse the differences between the Samsung Captivate, Samsung Infuse or Samsung Galaxy Exhibit.  In spite of its awkward name, customers have at least determined that the letter S followed by an increasingly large number tends to indicate Samsung’s latest flagship phone, such as the Galaxy S III, and those ending with “Note” indicate massive size and a stylus.

2) Product Differentiation

It’s bad enough that the same phone is often released with different names on different carriers; the issue is compounded when device makers release new products too similar to one another.  This is the case with the RAZR HD and RAZR HD MAXX from Motorola.  The “MAXX” has more storage, a slightly more useful antenna and a better battery.  It’s only marginally heavier and thicker than the regular RAZR HD, raising the question of why the lesser product exists.  The RAZR M, on the other hand, is definitively more affordable, smaller and lighter than either of its larger brethren, giving it a clearer place on the market.

Doubtless, naming is an important factor in differentiation, as well.  The Droid brand is effectively worthless in this regard as each product has only two things in common: Verizon as the carrier and Android as the operating system.  Droids have featured screens of all sizes, widely varying capabilities, slider keyboards and other features that, while perhaps appealing to a broad swath of potential users, do not indicate a specific value to customers.

To combat this, device makers should focus on the greatest differentiating factor their products offer, both from the company’s other products and from those of competitors, in crafting both their marketing strategy and product naming.  Apple does this with seeming ease, but don’t think it came easily: each product name and marketing strategy is doubtless the result of a painstaking deliberation process too many competitors shy away from.

Think of each iPod name: Touch, Nano, Shuffle, Classic.  Each immediately strikes at a core feature: iPhone-like functionality, small size, really small size and budget-friendly, old-school with a bunch of storage.  MacBook Airs are lightweight and portable; MacBook Pros are more powerful.  Can anyone explain the difference between the Dell Inspiron 660 and the Inspiron 15R without going to Dell’s product page for details?  How about the Droid Xyboard as compared to the Droid Incredible?

3) Skip the Specs

While Apple’s marketing may revolve around each product’s new features, the company doesn’t get its panties in a bunch over tech specs.  How many people know that the iPhone has a Retina display, as opposed to the precise resolution of one of the new Motorola phones or the new Nokia Lumias?  Apple obviated the pixel count and replaced it with a simple thought: “This screen’s resolution is so high that your eyes can’t see the individual pixels; it’s like reading newsprint.”  You and I might geek out over the technical details, but most people just want to understand what they mean to their daily lives.

I have no problem with phones that tout themselves as “4G” devices, because that conveys something simple: faster data.  Phones boasting “4G LTE” connectivity muddle the issue.  To the vast majority of people that know both of these terms, they mean the same thing; to most people, “LTE” is just a jumble of letters at the end of a name.

At least in the case of “GSM” versus “CDMA”, professional users can differentiate between network compatibility. LTE simply stands for “Long-Term Evolution”, originally a placeholder term meant to designate the future speeds of all major cellular networks.  Just because networks are “LTE” does not make them compatible with one another, as iPad customers outside of the US sourly experienced when the 3rd generation iPad.  Indeed, this was a rare case where Apple allowed the tech specs to creep back into their branding, and it served only to confuse or frustrate customers that thought they’d have access to something they didn’t.

People are more receptive to specs when they are offered as simple decisions.  Apple customers know and expect each iPad or iPhone of a generation to be just as fast and powerful as the others.  They’re happy to make a choice based on two factors: connectivity and storage.  These are simple choices with clear benefits or consequences: more space to hold media and applications and whether they can access the internet when away from Wi-Fi networks.  Customers of competing companies must be vigilant in understanding whether speed or battery life changes markedly between devices, along with storage and connectivity options, muddling the issue for customers.

Where possible, it’s best to skip the technical numbers and instead extoll the real-life benefits; when a choice must be left to the customer, keep it simple and precise.  Apple offers 18 different third-gen iPads, but it doesn’t feel like it, because each choice is simple: 16/32/64GB, Wi-Fi/AT&T/Verizon, Black/White.

4) Let Us Buy It

You can be certain of one thing above all others today about the new iPhone: Apple will tell you when it will be available for purchase, and how much it will cost.  This might seem simple, but it’s shocking how many companies skip these details.  Microsoft’s event for their upcoming Surface tablets said nothing about pricing or release dates.  Nor did Nokia’s event last week about their new Lumia smartphones.  Motorola announced the price for the RAZR M but not for the RAZR HD or HD MAXX.  Amazon did.

Offering a call to action is absolutely essential to a successful announcement.  Even if a company succeeds at exciting customers, if it does not offer them a way to act on this excitement, it goes to waste.  In some industries, making announcements well in advance, perhaps without launch dates or pricing, is a necessary evil.  Game consoles like the Wii U must be announced well ahead of time because of the long development cycles for necessary software.  Automobiles are announced well ahead of time because of the amount of time required for testing and production.  This simply isn’t the case for mobile devices today.  Even the initial iPhone, though announced six months prior to its release, was given a launch month and price on the day of its announcement.  By failing to provide potential customers with a date and price, Nokia and Motorola have failed in giving customers the information necessary to make a choice between their devices and Apple’s new iPhone.

5) Provide Long-Term Value

Apple is often derided for their relentless upgrade cycle, with new phones arriving each year.  Pundits scoff annually that it’s better to wait for next year’s model; one suspects they’re all still using the original iPhone, or more likely a BlackBerry.  But there’s a hidden truth to these arguments: sometimes, for some people, it makes perfect sense to wait for next year’s mode.  That’s because Apple customers know they can expect to receive meaningful updates over the course of their products’ lives that add new functionality that keeps them up to date.  Even iPhone 3GS, now a three year old device, will receive new functionality when iOS 6 is launched this fall.  Upgrading is easy, as well: simply plug an iPhone into a computer with iTunes or use Software Update on the device directly and a few minutes later, you’re up to date.

It would be comical if it weren’t so sad that Apple’s “closed” platform offers so much more lasting value to customers than the “open” Android platform.  I’m sure that statement will get me in trouble with Android power users, who would proudly boast of their ability to root their phones and upgrade them to the latest version of Android, while circumventing the artificial limitations imposed by both their phone’s manufacturer and carrier, but that’s precisely my point.  I’d ask those enthusiasts to place themselves in the shoes of their parents or less tech-savvy friends, and ask if they’d be capable of accomplishing the same.  Google promised lasting value with Android.  Device makers consistently claim their phones will support future updates, then renege on these promises once customers have made their purchases.  At least Motorola was honest in their announcement last week, offering $100 off new phones to previous customers.  Apple’s product strategy is to add value to existing devices until their hardware can no longer support it, trusting that pleased customers will upgrade to a new Apple device instead of jumping ship in frustration with broken promises down the road.

Watch today’s Apple news with these five points in mind.  Though they seem simple, these are the core elements that make Apple events successful and newsworthy.  Why only Amazon seems to have cracked this formula is difficult to understand, and competitors will continue to flounder until they understand there are far more basic elements than a cult following to explain Apple’s success.