The Apple hype factory

A good product counts for little if you don't have a legion of fans to rave about it and it’s a game that Apple plays with great aplomb.

The world stopped when Microsoft launched its new Windows 95 operating system 17 years ago.

The mantra of the event was that the new operating system would “usher in a new era of computing”, Microsoft held 43 separate events around the world, which ranged from beaming the Window’s logo across the screens of Times Square, to launching the software in a submarine in Poland.

According to a post on Beta news, the launch received 20 magazine covers, 13,000 newspaper stories, 800 radio reports and 2000 television news segments.

The launch wasn't just a critical moment in personal computing but a testament to the power of hype. In today’s tech market, having a quality product might not be enough unless you have a legion of fans to rave about it. You need to get the media drooling over it and you need to create customers before the product is even on the shelf.

Interestingy, 17 years on and Windows is almost out of the hype equation and its no surprise according to Deakin University’s graduate school of business’ senior lecturer Paul Harrison.

“One of the mistakes that happened with Microsoft is that it become so prolific… the company also made so many mistakes with its products,” Harrison says.

“People stopping being able to trust them, and a critical part of that relationship is trust,” he says.

Apple has risen out of the ashes of Microsoft’s marketing downfall. It’s the company on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Search the phrase ‘iPad 3’ on Google and you will get thousands of rumours and stories, yet Apple is yet to formally announce anything about its latest device.

“A critical part of hype is strategic leaks… giving a nod towards a particular question and diverting answers to others,” Harrison says.

Silence also comes into the equation.

“By saying nothing they create an excitement about it. Because all we can do then is imagine what the product will be like,” Harrison says.

The reason why we fantasize about it is because our relationship with the brand transcends beyond its technological properties. Apple has created more than a fan base for its products, it’s created a religious like following.

The 'cult of Apple'

The 'cult of Apple' is a very real phenomenon and that resonates through its marketing strategy. According the Harrison, Apple’s stores are like its churches, and it cultivates its following with its nuanced product launches.

They are big enough to make a dent within the media, but small and local enough to not alienate customers. They make them feel as if they are part of the family.

This strategy has a physiological effect on people according to University of Western Australia’s, centre of software practice’s director, David Glance.

“There have been studies that have shown that the way an Apple fan feels about his product and religious further invoke the same part of the brain.” Glance says.

Glance contends that Apple’s ability to generate and manage hype starts with managing customers’ expectations of the product. With each new release, Apple creates expectations as to what should be in next in line of the product.

“One of the characteristics about Apple’s products is that they are never quite 100 per cent of what people want. Take the iPhone 4s for instance, people were left wanting more,” Glance says.

Glance says that in a way, this form of marketing freezes up technological innovation, as even when the technology to do something fully innovative is available, “Apple always does the incremental thing”.

Unusually, because Apple is leading the market and other companies rely on it to blaze new markets in technology, there is the less pressure on it to completely revolutionise its products every launch.

It doesn’t need to release a game changing product every year.

Image management 

But one aspect that Apple does manage meticulously is its company image. It has a direct correlation with its ability to produce hype.

Apple is more than happy for bloggers and news sites to speculate on its latest products, but when the company’s reputation is on the line, Apple will intervene. And intervene drastically.

It’s done so in the past month after the New York Times unmasked the poor working conditions within the Foxconn's China factory, Apple’s manufacturer of choice for its devices.  

Apple immediately took steps to lessen the PR impact, by sending over an independent body to inspect the factory and pushing for a worker pay rise.

The company also felt it necessary to punish the New York Times by giving its major competitor, The Wall Street Journal an exclusive preview of the new iOS, Mountain Lion.

When the iPhone 4 was accused of having a faulty antenna – or antenna-gate as it became known – Apple spent millions on giving free phone cases to customers that nullified the problem.

Apple seemingly takes a passive approach to the frenzy that invariably accompanies a product launch, but in fact it quietly watches its coverage, subtly influencing the positive and reacting swiftly and precisely to the negative.

The company knows its position in the media – the source of its hype - is a delicate balancing act in maintaining customer’s perceptions.As Paul Harrison says:

“The moment your customers perceive that they are customers or the moment they lose that trust it changes the nature of the relationship. It moves from being a private relationship to being a consumer relationship.”

That shift could spell an end an era in how we consume technology. It happened with Microsoft and it could just as easily happen to Apple.