Dec 13

Samsung: victim of its own DNA

Oh, to be an electronics behemoth.

With its infrastructure and reach, Samsung has the power to build products in infinite categories and ship billions of products worldwide.

However, there is something very wrong with one particular strand in its corporate DNA. It’s the one labeled “marketing savvy.”

Here’s a company with a number of hit products in the mobile space and an advertising budget several times that of Apple. Yet, despite a few creative moments, something deep inside keeps pulling it back to advertising mediocrity.

See Exhibit A above. This is the newly released 2.5-minute piece being deservedly slammed as one of the worst commercials ever made.

Let us not belabor its many offenses. It’s just hard to imagine anyone past age 16 conceiving this ad or believing it would be a good way to represent the company when it’s the only major player in the category. (There’s a particularly funny take-down here.)

The big question is: how does something like this happen?

I can only offer conjecture — but it’s conjecture based on a few facts.

Samsung is the type of company that partners with a number of agencies to produce various marketing materials. I use the word “partner” loosely, as Samsung-sized companies tend to treat agencies more like vendors than true partners. Their marketing executives tend to guide agencies with a firm hand.

As contrast, note that Apple (at least in Steve Jobs’ time) chose one agency and treated it as a real partner. Yes, there were spirited debates — but the agencies’ opinions, advice and creative abilities were appreciated.

The relatively consistent advertising quality you’ve seen from Apple over the years is the result of this partnership. The erratic quality of Samsung’s advertising is the result of a more complicated approach with heavy-handed oversight.

Clearly there are some talented creative people sprinkled about in the Samsung empire. Love it or hate it, the campaign in which Samsung poked fun at customers lining up at the Apple Store had strategy and attitude going for it. The expensive long-format spots on the Super Bowl and Oscars took creative risks and got noticed.

But it seems that every time Samsung starts to look like it’s becoming a smart marketer, it shoots itself in the foot.

Witness the ridiculous, sexist Broadway-style event it held at Radio City Music Hall to launch the Galaxy S4 smartphone. And now look (if you dare) at the monstrosity at the top of this article.

Obviously, this new video was not created by the same crowd that made Samsung’s better ads. In fact, it looks like it was made by people with only a fleeting familiarity with good creative or good strategy. It feels like a translation of a bad idea originally conceived in another culture — which it very well may be.

Long ago, I considered taking a job with Samsung’s agency in the US. The deal breaker for me was the continued involvement of Samsung’s in-house agency in Seoul. I have no idea if that group still exists, but based on the look and feel of this Gear commercial — we can safely say that its spirit lives on.

It seems that Samsung has no one in a position of authority who appreciates the art of brand-building and the value of creative consistency. Unlike Apple, which puts care into both products and marketing, Samsung focuses heavily on product. Thus, its marketing has a self-destructive ebb and flow to it.

This is not to say that Samsung will soon implode. Many forces continue to push it forward. There’s just this gravitational pull that keeps holding it back.

That’s because when it comes to marketing — it just can’t stop itself from being Samsung.


  • Peter21

    Totally agree. I cringe when I see Samsung ads, and it is truly an example of bad marketing (e.g. no consistency and typically very lousy ideas behind their ”concepts”). The matter of the fact is, Samsung is merely a company that spills out products in a very rapid pace, flooding the market to make a quick buck in the current product cycle not thinking too much about its users or the user experience. Apple on the other hand does the opposite, and makes sure that the user experience makes sense (Quality product, quality features like iMessage, Facetime, iCloud, Photostream, quality apps, worldwide OS updates for at least 3 generations of phones). Anyhow, … a question for Ken: Have you -on behalf of the ad agency- ever pitched an idea to SJ (and/or the Executive Team) that was totally burned to the ground? Any specifics you can mention? Also, any pitched idea/concept from the agency (and you) that they loved from the beginning and was implemented almost unchanged?

  • hannahjs

    Was this a football commercial? I imagine it might win over some guys, even over 16, in their sports bar camaraderie, who high five each other when the hands-free dude bests the loser every time. Later, a guy like that might furrow his brow and google Samsung’s girl-getting Gear, having run out of pick-up lines and willing to try any gimmick.

  • ksegall

    Throughout my time working with Steve Jobs, I experienced both extremes. Some ideas were rejected from the start and some were loved at first sight. (And then of course, many ideas were debated and revised along the way.)

    An example of rejection: An ad that played off the fact that virtually all agencies for PC companies created their ads on Macs. Steve rejected it because he felt that the moment it ran, those companies would tell their agencies to get rid of their Macs. So much for that idea.

    An example of instant love: The HAL commercial that ran on the Super Bowl in 1999. Steve loved it when it was presented six months prior, and the as-produced script was virtually unchanged.

  • Andrew

    Personally, I feel bad for those actors. Aside from that, it’s a painfully bad commercial for a painfully bad product. At the same time, even one of those watch devices that functioned well wouldn’t be very compelling. I hope Apple doesn’t chase the rest of the tech industry into that rathole.

  • Nameless Coward

    Samsung needs fresh DNA for sure. Too much inbreeding cause these kinds of things.

    As far as marketing the watch goes I wouldn’t know how to make a true and honest commercial that really doesn’t sell lies and fantasies that can’t be met.

    I do not believe in the product, not does Samsung.

    Samsung has nothing but cold dead hardware, there is no eco system. No soul.

    This watch needs at least this and therefore it is DOA.

    Perhaps they can buy commercial time during all these CSI type shows and shoot a similar style commercial fantasising about being your own little snitch and tell on the neighbours christmas tree, that they hid very well from the outside. But because of the watch he could make undercover shots for evident. Yes!

    I can help but think the real add in question was just a joke on Samsung by the add agency?

    Could it be just a joke Ken?

    And how would you approach making an add for Samsungs watch?

  • Nameless Coward

    damn you auto correct

  • Jack Lewis

    “Samsung is merely a company that spills out products in a very rapid pace”

    Merely I guess is used to make this feat seem trivial somehow…

  • Jack Lewis

    “Samsung has nothing but cold dead hardware, there is no eco system. No soul.”
    Soul? There must be some app for that…

  • Dave

    maybe Korean woman are that shallow!

  • Vivek Srinivasan

    Awful commercial… Its really creepy…

  • Gary Deezy

    Somewhat off topic, Ken, but how do you feel about the new DELL ad? I thought it was tasteful, upbeat, and captured a bit of “Apple magic.”
    What are your thoughts?

  • ksegall

    Not likely that it’s a joke. If it is, it’s as bad as being a joke as it is being a commercial.

    Admittedly, it’s very easy to criticize and vastly more difficult to offer up a solution. But a good campaign doesn’t spring up at a moment’s notice and it’s certainly not a one-man job. You need a great briefing and a team of smart people to arrive at a great idea.

    I’m just curious to see what kind of ad they produce next…

  • Nameless Coward

    Yeah me too, should be a blast. They have no compass.

  • ksegall

    I think it’s very good.

    A friend of mine is now responsible for Dell’s advertising and she’s noticeably raised the quality with this “This is a story…” campaign.

    Unfortunately, Dell has two big problems. First, they don’t make much of an investment in advertising, so these efforts are mostly invisible. Second, at this point it’s pretty hard to convince anyone that Dell has any magic to offer.

    But you have to start somewhere…

  • Greg

    Bad casting. Why does he have a bad French accent? There is nothing likeable about him. Contrast that with the Apple ad. The kid they chose was perfect for the message. Wouldn’t have worked as well with an Abercrombie and Fitch type kid.

  • Julian

    Particularly with the way it ends, I assumed that the ad as a parody. If it is not a parody, then it is very scary. But even as a parody, which I assume it is, it is also fairly senseless in the construction – although a normal girl would not be impressed by such a man, even the core victory, her number being given, was actually given before any reference to any device. You could argue the classic Coke ads are hugely successful in just showing people having fun while drinking Coke, so there is an association formed, and this ad is trying to do something similar. But it looks a lot more desperate by showing some losing bumbling guy in the background – I can’t imagine the Coke ads doing that. Secondly, why on earth is he losing anyway – it appears very arbitrary and purposeless.

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  • freediverx

    Dell won the race to the bottom and they dragged the rest of the PC industry down with them. Congratulations. Now what?

    Hilarious to see all the experts who keep urging Apple to target the low end of the market and to focus more on ‘marketshare.’

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