The pristine white silicon giant needs no introduction when it comes to tech, innovation, and pop culture. All of us have been there - lusting over the latest version of an iPhone or craving for a Mac Upgrade, salivating over AirPods, or secretly wishing for an iPad but not being able to decide whether it's required or just another impulse purchase. And who can forget the apple fanboys/girls who defend apple products over Microsoft, android, Samsung, and others...
If I recall right, my attraction to the company was not the iPhone but the iPod - and for many, it has been a legit entry point into the Apple ecosystem. Upon seeing the reflective white music player with a touch dial, I couldn’t help but think "my precious" (in Gollum’s voice). What’s more surprising is, I am no musicophile, yet I was in awe of a music player.
Over the years, Apple has been quite vocal and visual with all of their product launches enough to make a space of their own in your mind - talk of top-of-the-mind brand awareness.
How do they do it?
Let's deconstruct how Apple enjoys a crazy mind-share as they go on building up the hype one product launch after another.
So, how do you build such a fan following?
Apple has been creating products that are either category differentiators or category creators. Right from the beginning, Apple has been quite strategic in its product launches. Their products all aim towards enabling us to “Think Different” by providing better design and easy-to-use intuitive functionality.
During the 2007 iPhone launch, Steve Jobs actually breaks down how the problem that iPhone is solving is different than the Smartphone competitors on the market. Positioning 101.
iPad was positioned as the post-pc device nestled between the iPhone and the Computer.Screenshot from the Apple Keynote of 2010 - where the iPad was launched
Apple identifies the challenges that come with introducing a new form factor or experience to an audience. If the audience won’t be able to use it in their day-to-day; it can totally backfire and this is where Apple relies a whole lot on education.
Apple is big on educating the customer, and this begins right from the 1st ever keynote where a product is introduced to the market - imagine this as a big classroom of sorts.
Wait - why am I talking about the keynote presentation here.
Well, Keynotes are very well a part of Apple’s video strategy. They seem to be a treat to attend in person. However, pre-pandemic it would be an invite-only thing for a closed set audience. Today, things are different, and the world witnesses a live stream from their homes.
Take a quick look at the earliest keynote of Steve Jobs introducing the world to the iPod or the iPhone - and 1 straightforward structure is revealed.
This structure is still consistent with Apple's product launch today as well.
Each step is a setup for what’s to come next - the strategy is brilliant.
By the time we reach the end; we feel this product is a godsend. And are all geared up for a pre-order.
Check out the video of the original iPod Keynote as it was introduced to the world for the 1st time
Here’s a breakdown of the 1st ever Apple iPod Keynote
- Category Creation -
Steve Jobs walks us through the portable music space and brings to the foreground the various products (disc players, mp3 players, thumb drive, Hard disk…) available in the market. He lists down all the possibilities right from the cheapest to the most expensive at the time.
- He then highlights the highest segment and mentions that this is where they want to position their solution. There are 2 primary reasons for this -
- #1 to prime the audience with the promise - "1000 songs in your pocket."
- #2 to prep the audience for a price point - 300+$ in this case
- Disregard the competition - Steve Jobs does this in a very effective way; much like a lawyer. He builds a strong case of the existing products and positions the iPod as the solution; the only solution.
- Ultra-portable aka “Fits in your pocket”
- Demonstrates the size as a comparison to a deck of cards
- Followed by the product reveal on-screen
- For a final reveal of the physical product in steve’s hand
- Result: The crowd goes ballistic
- Apple’s legendary ease of use
- Defines how people normally sort music using the hierarchy of Playlists, Artist and Album. Feels like something that we would take for granted today owing to Spotify or Youtube playlists.
- We are then introduced to the hardware more closely especially to a Unique Scroll wheel that helps one navigate easily using just one hand.
- A simple blend of Hardware and Software. Steve literally says, you all must have heard of “Plug and Play” but now this is “Plug, Unplug and Play!”
- He mentions 3 points specifically to make the iPod stand-out
The above points are so well orchestrated in a sequence that towards the end of it - you will think of getting one. And it is at this moment - we hear Steve mention
- 5GB HD | Firewire | 1000 Songs in your pocket | 10 Hr Battery life for 399$
Apple has perfected the art of a product launch via keynote and to this day we can see hints of the same structure in their presentation. To sum up,
- Define the Category
- Disregard the competition
- Major feature positioned as a benefit
- Apple’s Legendary Ease of Use - Simple | Think Different | Clean Design
- A new jargon that sounds techie
- Drop the price
We now take a look at the 1st ever iPod Ad
The ad is in an edutainment format introducing people to the new world of iPod and how they will be using it - right from
- Song Transfer via iTunes
- Ultra-Portability of the device
- Fits 1000 songs right in your pocket
From Edutainment to Entertainment
Next came the set of colorful ads over the years that put in the idea of iPod + iTunes as one could not use iPod minus iTunes. Soon enough, iTunes was introduced to Windows, which meant many new users could now use iPods via their computers.
It was around this time when iTunes was gaining popularity, and the music scene was changing - iTune ads featured artists like U2, Eminem, Black Eyed Peas.
This AD strategy was beneficial all around as;
- Apple got artists to feature in commercials
- Artists got the benefit of the distribution of their songs via commercials
- The audience got introduced to iTunes + iPod
And slowly but surely, Steve Jobs did what he set out to do
- He put 1000+ songs in everyone's pocket.
- He redefined the music business forever
- He created an ecosystem for audio distribution - to the point that audio broadcasts became known as "Podcasts" and are now a widely popular format of audio content that people love to listen to.
Around Apr 2021, Spotify took the lead from Apple in terms of subscribers - approximately this achievement came in after 15 years.
Enough Education - how do we take the audience deeper down the rabbit hole (the funnel)
The silhouettes against colored backgrounds became a staple visual for the iPod.
Apple moved on to the next iteration of ads that are primarily not about the music but rather more about its effects on your day-to-day. This is a favorite format for Apple to date as we see this being used for the AirPods so efficiently.
In Wild Postings, we see a protagonist wearing his music and walking away, minding his own business as the world around him seems to change in a sort of anthropomorphic kind of way. As he walks by a set of posters, the characters within the poster come to life and groove to the music. The protagonist senses something is different and pauses the music - the posters are back to normal. As he hits play, the posters come back to life.
The main idea is the person has undergone a change without them knowing about it.
When we as an audience see the ad, we are in on this transformation.
This is a favorite structure for Apple to this day, and it continues from iPod - AirPods.
Continue to read more on this below :)
Airpods (1st Gen): Stroll
Here again, we see that the ad begins with the protagonist pairing them to their iPhone and sets on a journey where he loses himself in music ending on a high where he looks transformed from where he started off.
Airpods (2nd Gen): Bounce
A new generation of AirPods makes way for a new commercial, and it follows the same structure as we discussed above. However, there are subtleties that Apple indulges in, and indeed the commercial is a beaut to watch out for.
Structurally, the ad starts off in the same way where we see the protagonist for the first 5-8 seconds without an AirPod, doing - nothing. Then, he picks up the pods, and there's music, and suddenly we see the protagonist being playful and goes for a stroll. Only to discover that well the world is his trampoline.
Visually striking, the commercial has been shot beautifully with few moments that are sure to make your eyes pop - especially the scene where the protagonist goes through a manhole.
AirPods go Pro
We see a girl walking through a crowded, noisy street and chooses to put on her AirPods Pro - drowning the city noise as the music crescendos in. We still can hear the car noises, and then the protagonist activates the "noise cancellation" mode by pressing the stem of the pod - the result of this is felt both in audio + visual.
In terms of the audio - we can now hear only the music.
Visually we see the protagonist on the same street, however, in a night setting that is now vibrant compared to the subdued hues of the day view.
Again, we see the same trope of how the protagonist is/are transformed while using the products - the universe around them changes to much more fun and enjoyable experience.
This technique of fusing the fantastical with the every day is known as Magical Realism. Not so uncommon when it comes to brands and advertising - however, Apple seems to have mastered the art of creating the aura of perfection, magic, and good design via their communications.
AirPods Pro also introduced a new feature called "transparency mode,"; wherein you can choose to hear the ambient sounds around you.
How do you show this feature visually?
It's quite simple - we see our protagonist dodging people on the street or purchasing a pen, or catching a bus in a day sequence. All of these activities are possible even with the iPods using “Transparency Mode”.
With the juxtaposition of 2 contrasting visuals - apple successfully communicates how the AirPods Pro can be used with "Active Noise Cancellation" or with the "Transparency Mode."
There are further nuances that I will come to in some time.
For now, let's move on to the next ad!
The latest commercial for AirPods Pro is “Jump.” Apple uses the same narrative structure as earlier, however, with a nuanced twist.
We see our protagonist sitting, he puts on the AirPods Pro and starts walking, and slowly gets in the groove of things and jumping, skipping ropes all around - in shadows, in real, in graffiti… There's a scene where we see clotheslines across buildings used as jump ropes; however, our protagonist skips the invite.
Everything seems the same - however, it is Apple, and definitely, it's more than meets the eye.
There is a big difference between "Jump" and the other commercials for AirPods to date. In all of those, we see our protagonists on a self-discovery phase where they realize their potential.
In "Jump," right from the get-go, the protagonist is very confident as he strolls across. And this is one of the first times we see the protagonist interacting with the community and everyone around. The populous is not just a background to create contrast as with the earlier commercials. Here the community plays in the foreground with our protagonist. Sure there are times when we see the protagonist kind of on their own journey. However, these are moments in the commercial versus the entire commercial.
I couldn't put my finger first - as to why this approach had been taken. There has to be a reason for it, I thought.
So I looked back at when the commercial was released. Apple released "Jump" on Mar 15, 2021. I also went back to look at the release date for "Snap" - it was again sometime in Mar 2020. Interestingly, Apple has taken down "Snap" from their Youtube Channel.
As I was searching for reasons online - one thing that I couldn't help but get out of my head was that the Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak last year worldwide. Could that be the reason that Apple took down the "snap" video? It makes sense, at least in my head - we are shown a commercial where the protagonist is out on the streets against the actual landscape of a worldwide lockdown?
This is not confirmed; however, just my logic and could be wrong.
Coming back to "Jump," we see the protagonist jumping all over the place, and that too is not by themselves but rather with the entire community. With the pandemic serving as our background and our united experience as a society, it makes sense why Apple decided on the community approach.
One other piece of information is different this time around, and I scratched my head to figure out why the change in approach - why is the protagonist moving all across the screen. In the previous AirPod commercials, our protagonist is always moving towards screen-right most of the time. So, for example, you might catch frames in "Snap" where the lead moves towards the screen left - however - once the AirPods are connected - she changes directions and continues to screen right!
Time for some film theory foundations - I will make this fast.
As a basic - you need to know that Screen Left signifies Home; whereas; Screen Right means Destination. In this way, when we see a character moving from left to right - it represents progress, whereas a movement from screen right to the left signifies retreat.
Filmmakers over the years have mastered these techniques, and its become their second skin.
As an audience we have also been observing these on a subconscious level and feel the emotion based on the choice of direction.
In "Jump," we see the protagonist moving from the right to left for the first time, and that got me thinking? Why?
There needs to be solid reasoning behind this. I searched online; however, nothing relevant showed up.
So here's my 2 cents - as a species, we all have started staying in more than venturing out. Remote work, Hybrid work setups are all the foray, and in the last 1-2 year period, people have actually formed stronger relationships within smaller communities of their own. This may be one of the main reasons why the protagonist in "Jump" seems to be going Right to Left more often than Left to Right. Its a subtle allude to turning back home.
Also, the sequence where he goes left to right is the graffiti where we see him individually moving forward - maybe, symbolizing the progress one makes in their career. So there is progress that is happening, but overall there is a lot more homecoming that we have seen. Think about creators, professionals, migrants who moved out of cities to their hometowns.
It's incredible how Apple and its Creative Agency, Directors, Cinematographers absorb the overall sentiment and deliver a piece of video, commercial, or communication that is definitive of our time.
It's easy to say that it's just a commercial - however, it's a piece of work dipped into our times, is conscious, and communicates beyond just the gloss that an ad film is usually thought of.
Few more ideas make each of these ads shine and make us feel wow.
How Apple displays the transformation that you can expect
Each of the mentioned Apple commercials starts off with our protagonist minus the use of the AirPods; in the first 20 odd seconds, they put them on and escape into their own world - literally at times. Take a look at the screenshots of the first and last frames, and the transformation is evident.
Structurally this is a basic format for any story - we are introduced to a character, they go through a journey, and towards the end, they are transformed into better versions of themselves. While this is a famous structure for all stories - usually the journey is where the character discovers themselves and realize their potential. The discovery usually happens based on a conflict that the character finds themselves in where they struggle, learn and come out powerful.
In the apple commercials - Apple products help the protagonist to discover themselves and their potential - moving them away from darkness to light.
We see our protagonist from a long shot in a shadow looking towards the screen left. Here we are unsure of the emotion of the character.
In the end, we see our protagonist looking towards the right with a warm smile - it makes one feel good/ hopeful.
This time around, the character is inside their apartment alone, poignant facing towards screen left.
Bouncing through the city, we end with the protagonist's frame perched high up on a high-rise - calmly chilling overlooking the city - enjoying his solitude. This is in stark contrast to the first scene, where the apartment walls kind of feel like a cage.
It's rush hour, and we see our protagonist amidst a lot of human traffic trying to find her way. It's confusion all around till she uses the AirPods.
After all the back and forth of fun and reality, we finally see the protagonist smiling and happily seated on a bus in the real world.
In the real world, she presses the pin while facing towards the left side.
While in the alternate reality, we see her facing right - take notice of even her position on the frame.
The first frame in "Jump" is an interesting choice - we see the protagonist on the right in a seated position.
This is literally the end frame - where is our guy! Well, look just above the "AirPods Pro" text - our guy is in mid-air in the middle of the frame. A fascinating choice, considering the entire world today seems to be in a sort of limbo much like him.
I couldn't help myself - just want to point out 1 additional detail of the start frame. As mentioned earlier, we are living through a pandemic, and most of our time has been indoors for the past 1.5+ years. If we see the framing of this shot - it's composed as a frame within a frame - with few people seated on the left. In the foreground, we see a rod that separates the frame in 2. Our protagonist sits nicely in his own frame in between the building and the tree.
Hoping you get the drift of how the culture of our times actually inspires of what comes on screen :)
Over the years, these iconic Apple Ads have created a more robust brand voice for sure. However, their mastery over the video format combined with pure storytelling skills ensure that Apple stands out from its competitors. While most of the competitors try to tell about the features - Apple, since Steve Jobs's re-entry has been focussed on telling about the story of the consumer and their world.
What about the features, you ask?
Well, that's covered in the keynote, right?
Over this last year, Apple has taken its annual keynotes to the next level while adapting to social distancing and other protocols. What was once a joyous day of gathering is now a Live Stream of the Keynote showing off the Apple Campus, nearby locations, and what not - in a pure elevated Apple fashion. The transitions from one speaker to another are seamless and visually satisfying and streaming across in HD. Apple has literally created a benchmark for Live Stream Events.
Take a look at the "California Streaming" event (Sept 14, 2021).
For now, the score is settled as the tech giant seems to have not only perfected the art of storytelling via video; but also is upping the act further by adding nuances that are not just visual but subliminal.
Consciously we are wowed by the visual, however, the subtextual layer is where Apple captures our minds. The feeling is the same as liking a particular color - we don’t know why we like a particular color - we just do.
Mine is yellow. What’s your favorite color? :)