Apple vs. Sony: A Tale of Two Marketing Campaigns

Last Updated Dec 14, 2009 7:50 PM EST

There's no single business discipline on the face of God's green earth that inspires more polarized viewpoints or confusion than marketing. I'm not exactly sure why that is, but I've often pondered the question in previous blog posts. The only reasonable conclusion is that great marketing is all-too-rare and mediocre or bad marketing is all-too-common.

Why that should come as a surprise to anybody, I don't know. It's a classic bell curve that applies to pretty much everything. In any case, the all-too-rare variety of great marketing can be a real game changer, while the far more common form of mediocre or bad marketing can be an incredible waste of capital and resources. And sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

Moreover, consumer companies often hang their hats or even bet the company on a marketing campaign. In that case, they're taking a big risk that may or may not pay off. Case in point: Two marketing campaigns that, when contrasted, provide surprisingly clear insight into what makes the difference.

Apple Mac vs. PC
The Mac versus PC campaign is far from just an ad campaign. It was a big bet and a true game changer. Why? Before the campaign, someone in the market for a PC would initially consider a laundry list of products from Dell, HP, Lenova, Acer, Sony, and of course, Apple. After the campaign, the initial buying decision is down to two: PC or Mac. Maybe not exactly a 50-50 choice, but much better than picking from a laundry list. Think about it. It sounds subtle, but it's not. It's huge.

And the timing was perfect. PC users were indeed becoming frustrated with all the complexity and security issues associated with Microsoft Windows. At the same time, Apple's iPod/iTunes and iPhone experience had spawned a large, new crop of potential Mac buyers. The potential for a "halo effect" was there, but only because Apple's Macs truly deliver on the promise of the ads.

Contrast that with the following --

Sony Vaio
In case you haven't noticed, Sony has recently blanketed TV and the Internet with ads that attempt to differentiate Sony products from a vast field of competitors in each product category by creating synergy between Sony's products. Make no mistake - this is not just an ad campaign. Sony is hanging its entire turnaround on its ability to demonstrate synergy between its products. This is a very big bet for Sony.

Now, the Peyton Manning - Justin Timberlake ads are actually pretty good, but there's a big problem with the campaign. IMO there is no synergy between Sony's products. Sony movies don't play any better when you download them on a PS3, play them on a Sony Blu-ray disc player, or look and sound any better when played on a Sony HD display, a Sony audio receiver, or a Sony Vaio PC.

Moreover, the attempt to differentiate Vaio PCs from other PCs is sort of laughable. I spent my entire career in IT. I'm working on a Sony Vaio SZ notebook right now. And in terms of what people spend 99 percent of their time doing on PCs, there really is no significant, sustainable difference between PC brands. The only differentiated PC is, well, a Mac.

So, we have two major campaigns by major consumer players. Both take big risks, but only one will actually deliver on its promise and return on investment. That's great marketing. The other won't. That's bad marketing. Can you see the difference?

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