Nov 12

Creating buzz, Dell-style

John Gruber’s description of the new Dell XPS 12 was pretty darn good:

“It looks like a broken chair.”

Truth is, it also looks like a broken ad campaign. Not quite sure where to start with this one.

The headline of this poster is a tweet from one Christopher P. Boyd: “The Dell XPS 12 looks like a MacBook Air merged with an iPad.” This is funny in two ways.

First, that’s more like a product brief than a great quote. Second, who the hell is Christopher P. Boyd?

Turns out he’s a college kid with a blog containing one lone post and an About Page filled with WordPress placeholder text. Continue reading →

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. Continue reading →

May 12

The mysterious death of Dell Zino

If you’re a fan of murder mysteries, you might enjoy this one — courtesy of Dell.

The body has disappeared. There is no smoking gun. There is a distinct lack of witnesses. And nobody’s talking.

Whatever happened to the Dell Zino?

You may remember that in November of 2009, Dell churned out a somewhat bloated copy of the Mac mini. One of its dubious claims to fame was its selection of colorful lids. (Odd, considering that this device wasn’t to be carried around and shown off like a laptop.)

Of course, there is nothing unusual about a computer being pulled from the market. With scores of PCs being introduced every year, scores must die to make room. Continue reading →

Mar 12

Dell’s underpowered “power to do more”

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Guide provided a wealth of information about the cultures of countless planets. Yet Earth merited only a one-word entry: “Harmless.” (After further study, it was revised to be “Mostly harmless.”)

I’ve often borrowed this description in discussions of corporate theme lines. I believe that there are two kinds of theme lines: inspired and harmless.

Inspired lines capture the spirit of a company. They strike a chord with customers, forming a solid foundation for every ad to come. Like Nike’s old Just do it, or BMW’s The ultimate driving machine. Continue reading →

Feb 12

And now, a different kind of Apple book

True confession time:

I’ve written a book.

Something tells me you won’t be surprised when I tell you it’s about Steve Jobs and Apple. But this book is different. Really.

That’s because (a) I had a unique vantage point to some pivotal events in Apple history, and (b) this book focuses on one thing alone — the core value that has driven Apple since the beginning.

Insanely Simple is about Apple’s obsession with Simplicity.

You can see Simplicity in everything Apple does: the way it organizes, innovates and communicates. In fact, one could argue that it was Steve’s unrelenting passion for Simplicity that helped Apple rise from near-death in 1997 to become the most valuable company on Earth in 2011.

My observations come from over 12 years of experience as Steve’s agency creative director, from NeXT to Apple. Also relevant to my story are the years I spent on the agency team during John Sculley’s rule at Apple. And then I had some interesting (and often excruciating) experiences in the worlds of Dell, Intel and IBM — which made me even more conscious of what sets Apple apart.

To Steve Jobs, Simplicity was a religion. But it was also a weapon — one that he used to humble competitors once thought to be invincible.

Apple’s devotion to Simplicity is the one constant that can be traced from the first Apple II computer all the way to today’s iPad. Though the company’s success is built upon engineering and design skills, it’s the love of Simplicity that truly powers Apple, revolution after revolution.

Technically, this is a business book. The idea is that in a complicated world, nothing stands out like Simplicity. If you better understand how Apple’s obsession has driven its success, you can adopt the same principles to boost your own organization — or your own career.

That said, Insanely Simple is a general interest book too. It’s a fun read for anyone who’d like to know what it was like to work in Steve’s world during the rebirth of Apple. It will give you a better understanding of what makes Apple Apple.

Crass salesmanship alert: I think you’ll like it. In my book, as I do in my blog, I use my personal experiences with Apple, NeXT and other companies to illustrate the power of Simplicity — and to warn of the evils of Complexity. Many of my stories have never been told publicly, so you’ll find more than a few surprises.

There’s a bit more about the book here.

Insanely Simple is available April 26th, but you gain extra appreciation points if you pre-order — which you can do at iBooks, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound and 800-CEO-read.

Last, I invite you to join my new mail list over there in the sidebar. I promise not to abuse the privilege, and I’d love to make you part of my secret club.

Thanks all!

Sep 11

Michael Dell’s world of fantasy and delight

Studies  have shown it’s natural and healthy for males to have recurring fantasies. But still, the ones dancing around in Michael Dell’s head may be pushing things.

To hear Michael tell the tale, life is sweet. All this talk of a post-PC world doesn’t phase him. Quite the contrary. With HP leaving the PC business, his eyes light up at the idea of gaining PC market share. So it goes in his recent comments to Financial Times.

Only a few problems with Michael’s logic.

First is the fact that HP decided to get out of PCs for good reason. Even though they sell more PCs than any company on earth, HP believes the smartest thing they can do is abandon ship. That’s because (a) PC profit margins are microscopic, and (b) it’s only going to get worse as PCs continue their descent.

Second, it’s hard to deny that demand for PCs is fading. Not only have the prognosticators lowered their global sales estimates, so has Michael’s own company. It was just one month ago that Dell cut its sales forecasts for PCs, citing “weakening consumer demand” and other causes.

Third, Michael was publicly downplaying his PC sales as recently as April, making sure we were all aware that Dell was now more focused on the enterprise, with PCs only representing one third of their business. The most positive thing he could say about PCs was that Dell made a “modest profit” on them. “I’m just level-setting what Dell is today,” he said.

He speaks optimistically of Dell’s prospects in tablets too—despite the fact that the 5-inch Streak is dead and the 7-inch model is languishing at best. For some reason, Michael’s fantasy here is that things will somehow be different when and if the tablet competition heats up. In fact, Dell will be one of dozens of tablet-makers all sharing the same OS, slugging it out for a sliver of the market.

“We are very distinct from our competitors,” says Michael in that Financial Times interview. Hard to argue with that.

At least IBM and HP stopped having those PC fantasies.

Sep 11

Crapware: the search for lost profit

Apple enjoyed pointing out the difference

Everyone knows that crapware is just a fact of life in the PC world.

From my conversations with people, I’m not sure they understand why.

Basically, it has to do with profit margins in the world of PCs. Or, should I say, the lack of them. When competition became fierce in PC-land many years ago, the PC makers had to compensate for the fact that they were cutting their prices to the bone. So they started renting out their spare rooms to strangers, so to speak.

It was only about three years ago that I attended an advertising meeting with the chief marketer in Dell’s consumer division. He had crafted his plan to meet sales targets for the coming year.

(Note: in marketing meetings inside Apple, we absolutely never talked about meeting sales targets. We only talked about doing good ads. The operating theory was that if we did our job right, higher sales would be the result.)

At the proper point in the meeting, Mr. Marketer made mention of the crapware on Dell computers. And yes, he called it crapware. He pointed out that margins being what they were, crapware actually accounted for just about all the profit on each sale. He invited the agency to come up with new suggestions for companies who might want to join the club — and pay Dell for the right to clutter up their PCs just a little more.

Macs, of course, don’t have this problem. You might get a demo copy of iWork, but that’s about it. Two reasons for this: (A) Macs have a very high profit margin, and (B) Steve Jobs has taste. He was no more willing to bloat a Mac with crapware than he was to slap one of those perma-bonded Intel Inside stickers on his MacBook Air.

Macs have that higher profit margin because those who buy Macs place a value on what Apple brings to the party: design, simplicity and reliability. They’re willing to pay more to get more.

The end result: while Apple makes only 7% of the revenues in PCs, its products account for 35% of the entire industry’s operating profits. Seems to be pretty good incentive for Apple to continue working just the way it does. No crapware allowed.

Now that mobile devices are dominating technology, history is repeating itself.

Crapware wasn’t even a thought on the first smartphones. Now it’s becoming ubiquitous. Same reason as above: intense competition has carriers scrambling for profits. Apple continues not to scramble.

Interestingly, in this category, it’s not like Apple products cost so much more. Thanks to Tim Cook’s operating skills, it’s not easy for competitors to undercut the price of iPhones and iPads. So even at a similar price, Apple pulls in the lion’s share of this category’s profit as well — literally two thirds of the available profit, according to Asymco’s last report.

What’s a smartphone seller to do? Crapware to the rescue!

Mike Jennings reports his crapware findings for PC Pro. In a wide range of Android phones, he found a treasure trove of crapware installed by carriers: multiple app stores, security software, game demos, etc., etc. While you can remove this stuff from PCs with a little effort, not so with smartphones. Most of it is here to stay, installed in such a way that it can’t be removed by the user.

Of course, those who don’t care about such things will continue to point out the benefits of an “open” system. Those who do care about such things will go with the phone maker who also cares about such things — and help pump up their profits even more.

Aug 11

The tough and brief life of Streak 5

Dell’s Streak 5 phone/tablet may now officially be classified as phone/tablet/dud.

Visitors to the Streak 5 page at are now greeted by the above, with Dell giving it the happy spin: “Goodbye, Streak 5. It’s been a great ride.”

Interesting what qualifies as a “great ride” in Dell’s world: a product ill-conceived from the start, then sabotaged by some of the clumsiest ads in the business.

Trying to figure out how to cash in on iPad-mania, Dell decided it could wedge itself into success. “Hey, if tablets are so popular at 10 inches and phones are so popular at 3-4 inches, we could virtually own the 5-inch category.” And own it they did — for the nearly undetectable group of customers who actually wanted such a thing.

Rather than being the perfect size Dell proclaimed it to be, Streak 5 was too big to be a phone and too small to be a tablet. That much was obvious to anyone with eyeballs.

Not content to hobble Streak 5 with an awkward size, Dell went the extra yard by hobbling it in other inventive ways. Streak 5 was launched with Android 1.6, while the rest of the Android world was already onto version 2.2. And its unlocked version was actually priced higher than an iPad. Perfect.

Oh well, least they could make some good ads for it, right? Uh-uh. Not that this blog is the perfect measure of such things, but Streak 5 actually earned two posts here for advertising embarrassments in its short, tortured life. (See those here and here, if you are so disposed.)

If Streak 5 were a real child, Dell would be facing charges of neglect.

But don’t worry. You can still get a 7-inch Streak. And though they’ve certainly taken the scenic route to get there, rumor has it that Dell is finally working on the 10-inch size that’s been such a terrible burden for iPad.

So farewell Streak 5. At least you got to enjoy one great ride. Dell strapped you into the back seat and drove directly off the cliff.

Jul 11

Dell’s perfect train wreck

If nothing else, at least Dell is consistent. Change agencies, change marketing chiefs, change CEOs … the end result is always the same: ads that break new ground for tedium.

This time it was a Herculean effort. This isn’t just a new ad — it’s the culmination of a 10-month journey. Deciding it was time to shake up its marketing effort, Dell conducted an all-out agency search, went through all the presentations and evaluations, selected a new agency for each of their market segments, and finally released the hounds to do their creative magic.

After all that, the first work from the new consumer agency, Canada’s Sid Lee, finally appears.

Maestro, hit the Play button.

My goodness, where do we start.

Dell explains that the theme of this new campaign is More You. This is icing on the cake after they recently introduced their new brand theme line, The power to do more, along with that other theme line, You can tell it’s Dell. One can never be too thin, too rich or have too many theme lines.

In a WSJ article about this campaign, Dell’s chief consumer marketer Paul-Henri Ferrard explains, “We realized it was more important to connect more emotionally with customers.”

Dell’s emotional copy goes basically like this: “It has an HD webcam, killer audio… Get this loaded Inspiron 15R now for only five-ninety-nine ninety-nine, powered by the second-gen Intel Core processor family.” That’s connecting, Dell-style.

The Festival of Emotion continues with the following product visual that remains on the screen for about six seconds:

In still-frame form, you can savor things on this screen that the human eye could never absorb in real time.

I’m disappointed that You can tell it’s Dell isn’t in here, because both of their other theme lines are. Although I probably shouldn’t count The power to do more, because you practically need an electron microscope to read it. This is a tribute to the staying power of the Dell marketing person who insisted that this line be present.

Dell’s own press on this campaign trumpets the campaign theme, More You — yet in this entire spot, those words only appear as a throwaway at the bottom of the product screen.

I will assume that More You is meant to describe how Dell computers make it easier to be you. I can only assume — because there is scant evidence of that in this ad. After the basketball player states that his Dell “helps me try new moves, on and off the court,” all we get is the Goofy Dance and a list of product features.

Trying to decipher the meaning of it all, I’d say that switchable lids are supposed to be the big deal here — though that feature is merely shoehorned in with all the clutter. It would never dawn on Dell to create an ad about one feature alone, as Apple did with the iPad Smart Cover. Better to just cram every possible selling point into an ad.

We are assured that other ads in this campaign will follow. Given the brief synopses that appear in various articles, Dell’s imagination is running wild.

In one spot, a young Dell user explains how technology allows her to “indulge her passion for Justin Bieber.” In another, a grandmother shows how a Dell tablet lets her stay in touch with her grandchildren. Will wonders never cease!

Interestingly, Dell actually claims that this campaign positions them as a “lifestyle” brand. In their dreams, maybe. This ad is simply a moving-image version of what Dell normally does badly — catalog advertising. What we get is an unimaginative image of a person with lots of specs sprinkled about, with the price being given the most prominence. This is Dell’s lifestyle, not the customer’s.

I will say this: it’s a remarkable achievement when the 10-second leader at the start of your ad is more engrossing than the ad itself.

In most companies, ads like this are reason enough to fire someone. Oh, right. They already fired their agency, didn’t they. This is from the new agency. Never mind.

Jun 11

Apple’s new high vs. Dell’s new low

If anyone ever questioned the value of creativity in marketing, Apple and Dell are currently staging a public demonstration.

Scratch that — it’s actually more of a public debate.

With its new iPad ad, Apple argues that creativity can make a message more interesting and important. With the first ad in its new brand campaign, Dell takes the position that creativity is an unnecessary frill.

Here’s a quick look at two efforts that live on opposite ends of the creative spectrum.


Since Mac vs. PC ended, I haven’t fawned over too many Apple ads. What kind of fanboy am I? Well, we needn’t dwell on that now. This ad is Apple’s best in recent memory.

In fact, this is one of those ads that makes me jealous. It doesn’t try to be clever, it just is. It makes the point that iPad represents a sea change in computing without feeling self-important. And, miracle of miracles, it does all of this without using the words magical or revolutionary.

Against visuals of iPads doing various things in the hands of different people, Mr. Voiceover sums up what makes iPad so darn interesting:

“Now we can watch a newspaper, listen to a magazine, curl up with a movie, and see a phone call … [and more] … because now there’s this.”

Many tech companies fail to grasp that simple, everyday speech can be the most intelligent way to present a product. Here, Apple describes iPad using the most ordinary words, but combines them in a way that feels totally fresh — and important.

This spot is actually a continuation of two previous iPad ads, both of which were more lofty presentations of Apple’s philosophy. In this spot, Apple does not stand up to proclaim “we believe…” (which can come off as arrogant to some). It simply describes how iPad changes the way you look at the world.

This is the toughest kind of copy to write — unpretentious, intelligent and compelling. Whoever is responsible should take a very big bow. This ad fits well with the best in Apple history.


When Hollywood directors could no longer bear the thought of being associated with a film, they used to cleanse themselves by giving the director’s credit to the imaginary Alan Smithee.

From the first glimpse of Dell’s new $80 million campaign, this could well end up being the first marketing effort ever credited to Mr. Smithee.

The ad you see here was featured in a recent Advertising Age fluff piece, accompanied by quotes from Dell’s chief marketing person. So I can only assume it’s for real — even though it looks and feels like a placeholder awaiting real photography. And a real designer. And a real writer. And a real strategy.

This ad is significant because it marks the beginning of what is supposed to be Dell’s first-ever brand campaign. It’s meant to provide the big, overarching message for individual product ads yet to come.

In other words, it is supposed to be to Dell what Think different was to Apple. I’ll go out on a limb and predict it won’t have quite the same impact.

The only positive thing one can say about this campaign is that it will provide income for stock photo sites specializing in hackneyed people shots.

There are a total of 34 words in this ad. 15 of them — almost half — are the same five words, repeated three times. The power to do more serves as headline, theme line and last line of copy.

Why pound these words into our thick skulls? Perhaps it’s to distinguish Dell’s use of The power to do more from all the others who are using it — including Norlift Fork Lifts, Belkin High-Performance Routers,  Lenovo Docking Solutions, GE Healthcare, Kensington iPad Batteries and who knows how many others. (The 5.6 million Google results for this line were making me groggy.) This is originality, Dell-style.

And it’s not like the remaining 19 words are jewels either. In Dell’s world, boring words fit like a comfortable shoe:

With a range of solutions in cloud computing, interactive learning, healthcare, efficient IT and global services, Dell gives you…

Basically, Dell is saying that what sets them apart is that they churn out a boatload of stuff. So they choose to deliver an undistinguished message built upon an overused theme.

Makes you want to run right out and buy a Dell, doesn’t it?