Sep 12

An advertising shocker from Dell

Did someone spike my drink? Is this a flashback from the drugs back in college? Some kind of post-hypnotic suggestion?

I just saw a commercial from Dell and liked it.

Rather than dwell on specs, deals, Inspirons or Latitudes, this spot tells the story of a young girl who uses a computer to make her dream come true. It actually tries to engage on a human level.

It’s not that Dell hasn’t tried to connect with customers before, it just has a history of failing in spectacular ways.

Three things about this commercial stand out. First is the voiceover, which is that of the fictitious young Annie. This eliminates the fairly nondescript “cool guy” voiceover we often get when PC makers don’t pony up for a famous actor.

Next is the music. It’s quirky and fun, in a similar way to the first MacBook Air ad, which helped popularize Israeli singer Yael Naim and her song New Soul. Dell has tapped a little-known Texas band called The Strange Boys, using their song Be Brave. Good find. (And good reason for creative people to claim those nights at the bar as a tax deduction — you never know what bands you might discover.)

Last, there’s the production. As I mentioned in my previous article (Where do bad ads come from?), a lot of things can go wrong when you produce a commercial, especially a fanciful storytelling spot like this. Annie herself is charming (good casting) and the finished spot achieves a quality not seen in Dell ads for eons. Knowing the challenges a creative team can face with Dell, agency Y&R deserves kudos.

This is not to say that the spot is without issues. Thanks to the “rules” of PC advertising, poor Annie is forced at metaphorical gunpoint to break character at the end, saying “Powered by Intel Core processors.” This is what happens when razor-thin profit margins get companies addicted to Intel’s money.

And as long as we’re letting a little thing like reality intrude in this discussion, there’s also the fact that Annie could have done just as well had mom and dad bought her an HP, Acer or Toshiba. Dell’s me-too computers don’t come with additional daydream support.

But never mind the man behind the curtain. This isn’t an article about Dell’s business model, marketing budgets or long-term viability. It’s about Dell’s advertising — which, for the first time in memory, actually shows a sign of hope.

Can science explain this unexpected phenomenon? No, but maybe I can.

Just a few months ago, Dell shuffled its marketing personnel yet again and installed Allison Dew as VP of Global Brand and Consumer Marketing. I know and respect Allison. She supports creativity and understands the value of marketing. I admit that this is a wild theory, but maybe, possibly — she’s being allowed to do her job.

Dell does need to heed the old adage, “the fastest way to kill a bad product is with good advertising.” If it hopes to achieve real success, its customers must be delighted when they open the box. And it has a long way to go before it’s in any real danger of that happening.

But hey, if Annie can have her dreams, Dell can too.

If you’re curious, the Annie spot also comes in a 60-second version.

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  • Mario

    I like the Ad too. I have one only question: can a simple young girl do all these things easily with a Pc? The Quality if the video Annie created is beyond her real capabilities, so rhis turn this good ad into a lie.

    What do you think?

  • ksegall

    I think that the state of moviemaking software these days is such that kids can do green screen and other effects fairly easily. What’s funny is that a small legal disclaimer does appear at one point that says “Software sold separately.” One more reason to get a Mac.

  • Jurassic

    The production values are good, but the message (the important part of the ad) is not worth the price of the ad.

    The ad shows a girl editing a video on her Dell laptop. This is something you can do on any desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone (and has been a simple feat for years). There is no special benefit shown to using that Dell laptop.

    A good ad needs to be more than just entertaining, otherwise it’s a waste of the advertisers money and a waste of the viewer’s time. A good ad also needs to show something compelling or different that benefits the purchaser.

    That little girl could be using any computer, running any operating system. The ad, by the absence of any information about the laptop, implies that Dell has nothing uniquely saleable to say about its product.

  • bmovie

    Nobody except lawyers reads disclaimers. Alas, the only company name we actually hear is “Intel”. I’ve looked up from my computer a few times to have a glimpse at this commercial…sweet, but done many times before. Could Dell be marketing to women?

    Thank Zarathrustra it’s not “Dude, you’re getting a Dell”, but where is that heart-thugging, memorable tagline that the old Y&R agency was so famous for coming up with? Where is that old “USP”?

  • ksegall

    As I said up top, Dell PCs don’t have any significant advantages over other PCs. However, I don’t totally agree that it’s a waste of money to advertise a parity product. In fact, when your brand is at parity, creating a personality is the only way to win new customers. You have to prove that your values are in sync with your customers’ values. Of course, it won’t work if you don’t put a ton of money behind it, and build a high-quality campaign. (Dell has only one ad so far.) And it won’t work if your products disappoint your customers after you worked so hard to win them.

  • ksegall

    Unfortunately, ih this case Y&R served up “The power to do more.” Which is about as bland and generic a theme line as you’ll ever hear.

  • Gonji

    I watched the commercial before I read your comment. That final sentence just comes out of know where. For me, I totally lost my train of thought about the ad and wondered why the hell that line was there. It was as if the magic of the ad, and it did have some magic, just disappeared in a flash. Shame on you Intel for enforcing such ridiculous rules for other companies that use your products

  • Dmitri Bilgere

    Thanks Ken for a thoughtful and informative post. I appreciate the window you keep opening on your thought processes about advertising. Your messages about shared values and corporate authenticity have really hit home for me.

    To me, the Intel garbage at the end significantly breaks the “values rapport” that the commercial built up. It yanked me right back into, “Oh yeah, it’s an ad. It’s not about the values that the company and I share. It’s about them.” It’s too bad that Dell can’t take the gloves off and commit to what they started.

  • ksegall

    The unfortunate fact is, PC companies have become addicted to Intel’s marketing money. It’s the only way they can squeeze profits out of their products when the profit margins are so miniscule. Intel gives them tens of millions of dollars to own a few seconds of every ad that runs over the course of a year. The idea of shunning Intel’s money and making ads 100% pure isn’t even up for discussion with the PC makers. Compliance with Intel’s rules is just built into their system.

  • Dmitri Bilgere

    Thank you for your response.

    To me, the way they break the authenticity of the ad to “comply with Intel’s rules” is a symptom of the bigger reason why the OEMs are failing: People are expecting more from their devices, and expecting more from the companies that make them.

    I’ve noticed that there are two things that Apple has put into the consumer electronics space that the OEMs can’t seem to copy:

    1 – Apple has championed the idea that consumer electronics — computers, phones, etc — should be EXCELLENT.

    Through their marketing and through their products, Apple has said, “Devices should be excellent. They should be a joy to use. They may not have every feature imaginable, but the joy of using them should overcome that.”

    And they have delivered on that promise.

    2 – Apple has championed the idea that people’ experience with those devices (and with the companies that make them) should be CONGRUENT.

    Through their marketing and through their products, Apple has said “Our company values are consistent and congruent. We don’t talk out of both sides of our mouths. You can trust that we’ll have the same values tomorrow that we talk about today. You can trust that what we do one minute will fit with what we said 30 seconds ago.”

    And they have delivered on that promise, too.

    By pushing excellence and congruence so hard, Apple has raised the bar on what we expect from our devices and from the companies that make them.

    The result?

    First off, people now demand excellence in their devices. We no longer expect (or accept) the frustration that used to be so common in user experiences. A feature list isn’t enough — the device has to be excellent, or people will buy from someone who’s devices ARE excellent.

    Second, people now demand congruence from the companies that make those devices. We no longer expect (or accept) companies that talk out of both sides of their mouths. A company’s actions have to be congruent with their stated values, or people will buy from a company who’s actions and values ARE congruent.

    Back in the old days, incongruencies like the intel blurb at the end of this commercial were just par for the course — we were computer users, we were used to compromising. Honestly, we were used to humiliation. An incongruence like the one in this ad was no surprise. Incongruency was normal.

    But now, because Apple has raised the bar for everyone, such inconsistencies stick out. When Dell works so hard to get you to care about this little girl, and then has her shill for Intel at the end of the ad, it breaks the congruence. She might as well have said “I’ve been lying to you.” It’s the same emotional effect.

    And the people who feel betrayed by that aren’t “buying Dell anyway.” Not anymore. They are buying from Apple, where the marketing and user experience seems consistent, congruent, authentic, and excellent. Not perfect, certainly, but way better.

    I really wonder what the OEMs like Dell are going to do. They don’t have anything truly unique. People aren’t accepting frustrating crap anymore, and aren’t tolerating inconsistencies and lies. The enterprise isn’t blindly buying from them like they used to. Their days are waning.

    I love my iPhone, my iPad, my iMac — but more than anything, I’m grateful to Apple for raising the bar on excellence and congruence in every area of consumer electronics.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts, Ken. Am I near the mark on this?

  • ksegall

    I agree.

    One of the things I often bore people with is the theory that Apple has done much more than revolutionize the categories it’s entered — it’s been a catalyst for raising the standards of the general audience that buys technology products, as well as the other companies who create such products.

    I think that today, far more people put “design” on the list of things they look for in technology. They have an increased appreciation for products that not only look great, but make it easier to achieve high-quality results. Competitors have not been blind to Apple’s achievements and by necessity have begun to offer products that might satisfy those whose appreciation for design has been awakened by Apple’s success.

    Buyers will continue to become more sophisticated over time. So I agree that the companies who fail to get more sophisticated with them are going to lose in an increasingly visible way. There will probably always be a market for cheap technology crammed with features — but the profits will go to those companies who have a consistent philosophy of quality and stick to it. (Attracting people who are willing to pay extra for quality.) That’s already been proven by the fact that Apple has a far greater “share of profit” than any of its competitors in both the computer and mobile technology categories.

  • Dmitri Bilgere

    Hi Ken,

    I like what you say about Apple being a catalyst for raising people’s standards. I often wonder what computers/electronics would be like today if Apple had never existed, or had died in the 90s. A world where Microsoft reigned supreme forever? Would we still be using DOS? 

    Or would someone else had stepped up to the plate to raise the standard? But who? It really seems like it was a job for the one and only Steve Jobs. We got lucky. 

  • ksegall

    It’s a great topic. Given that Steve did what he did, it’s hard to imagine things being the same — but how different would they be?

    I’ve often thought about Apple’s early success with the Apple II. Big computers existed at that time. Surely someone would have invented a “personal computer” if Apple didn’t. But when? How would it have been marketed, and how would the category have developed? Fun to think about, but no way to know.

    The same is true of iPhone and iPad. You have to believe that handheld devices would have been developed at some time, but they’d obviously be quite different. Maybe more like a Samsung product, but without the copying part :)