Wednesday, August 17, 2011

iPad vs the Rest: It's the Marketing, Stupid

James Kendrick of ZDNet wrote a nice article today on why no one can challenge the iPad.  His thesis is not that the iPad has an unassailable first-mover advantage, that consumers automatically associate "tablet" with "iPad," that the iPad has the superior ecosystem, or any of the other arguments that are usually made.  Rather, according to Kendrick, it is the end-to-end pre-purchase experience that Apple presents the consumer.  While I am sure the other factors play a role as well, I think that Kendrick is on to something.

Essentially, Kendrick's thesis is that no one cares about the technical features of their tablet. Unlike a computer, the majority of buyers don't think of a tablet as something they need, but rather something they want.  They want the "magical" experience that Steve Jobs offers them, from his initial unveiling of the iPad at a frenzied press conference down to the last detail of his gleaming white Apple stores.  

By comparison, other tablets are aimed at the tech-savvy crowd, and come from companies whose DNA - and marketing message - is computing rather than consumer electronics.  Even if a competitor could come up with a marketing message that appeals to the masses, Apple's "coup de grace" is "carrying the magical marketing experience right to the cash register." Other tablet makers simply lack the infrastructure to even compete on the retail front.  Not only do other tablet makers lack their own retail channels, but the shopping experience that is offered is abysmal, writes Kendrick:
Go in any Best Buy or other big box retailer that carries tablets and there’s no telling what you’ll find. Maybe there will be a counter with tablets scattered all over. Maybe some of them will actually work. The only consistent part of the retail buying experience for tablets is that the sales reps don’t know much about any of the products, much less help you decide which one is right for you. They don’t care, frankly, and that message gets through loud and clear.
In the online channel, where design is more fluid, cheaper, and under the manufacturer's control, the other tablet makers should in theory be able to compete on the shopping experience.  However, writes Kendrick, this is not the case:

If you don’t believe that, simply visit and try to buy a TouchPad. It’s in the Home & Home Office section, and the first thing you see is not magical marketing, it’s a small sales page that compares the two models of the TouchPad. No pizazz, no marketing, just click to buy.
The same holds true for all online retailers selling tablets. They are designed for selling computers [emphasis mine], and expect the customer to have some idea what they want coming in. Their sites aim to help you decide between competing products, which assumes some prior knowledge. There is no sales technique at play, simple point and click to buy. Or to leave, which is apparently what most customers are doing if sales numbers are accurate.

So what can tablet makers do to compete with the Apple juggernaut, besides having better marketing campaigns?  A couple of off-the-cuff ideas:

  • Control the retail channel: either do a better job partnering with existing retailers, or set up more stores like the Samsung Experience.
  • Find alternative distribution channels to the traditional consumer electronics retailers, where they can be the exclusive tablet offered in the store.
  • Create a more compelling brand story around their products.  Apple realized long ago that computing is personal, and that people would identify with their computing devices like they identify with their fashion choices.
Ultimately however it will depend on tablet makers getting outside of their computer-seller box and getting into technology-as-fashion.
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