As we’re inundated with hero shots of the iPad every day, on every billboard and the back of every magazine cover, it appears to be a good time to rethink the relationship between advertising and product, between marketing and innovation. It’s not that Apple doesn’t spend any money on advertising – no, it was pouring a whopping $500 million into its launch campaign for the iPad. But what is different is that Apple’s marketing doesn’t have to be clever or utterly creative. In fact, it is stunningly not so. No major social media campaign needed to be sparked, no user-generated content contest needed to be held. And while the ongoing tongue-in-cheek anti-Microsoft ads are undeniably cute, they are not really an advertising revelation. Gone are the days of the bold “1984” campaigns. Today, Apple has earned enough attention to forgo any ostentatious marketing, in fact, so much that a cleverly orchestrated campaign would distract from the brand rather than boosting it. The company simply displays its products – that’s all it takes. Apple’s products are viral without any viral marketing.
Viral and ‘spreadable’
Before digging more into this, let’s pause for a moment to examine the term ‘viral,’ which has come under scrutiny recently, not for the first time but more critically, since transmedia augur Henry Jenkins, in ever-so-dramatic fashion, “declared war on viral media.” Jenkins wrote: “Until marketers understand the consumer's active agency and the social mechanisms shaping their circulation of content, they are doomed to insult and alienate the very people they are hoping to attract.” Jenkins suggests we replace ‘viral media’ – and, by extension, ‘viral marketing’ as the discipline that produces ‘viral media’ – with the new term ‘spreadable,’ arguing that this would more accurately reflect the consumer’s agency and the dynamics of content-sharing. Fair enough, yet Jenkins, in his academic fervor, underestimates practitioners. They know the social mechanisms of sharing all too well and are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the built-in contagious distribution of a product and the spreading of cultural memes as content that accumulates meaning as it is passed on. They are not one and the same, but innovative marketers use both notions and the outcome is similar, which is why, for the sake of simplicity, I will stick with the catch-all ‘viral’ in this post.
Advocacy and amplification
But back to Apple and the relationship between product and marketing innovation. At the Marketing 2.0 conference in Paris this spring, I had the pleasure of hearing Steve Knox from Tremor, Procter & Gamble’s word-of-mouth marketing arm, illustrate the underlying cognitive principles of viral marketing. In his view, there are two dimensions that matter: advocacy and amplification. If you have a strong brand advocate (a passionate user) but lack the appropriate channels to amplify his/her evangelism, you won’t have much of a viral effect. You are stuck with early adopters, derived from sociologist Everett Rogers’s “diffusion of innovations” theory and so perfectly portrayed by Rob Walker in his New York Times Magazine column, but without critical mass they will not convert into mainstream success. On the other hand, if you muster strong amplification, yet for a product without vocal advocates, you will fall into the over-amplification trap: Awareness of the product will quickly dissipate or, worse, the over-exposure might backfire and inadvertently shed light on the product’s flaws as the gap between visibility and user advocacy will create a suspicious gap just waiting for the blood-sucking blogosphere to be exploited. Simply put: If you generate a lot of talk, but there’s nothing to really talk about, you may end up with a lot of chatter, but no true social conversation – and thus no viral, no networked distribution.
Disruption and transcendence
So what makes a product worth talking about? Fox’s theory is intriguing: he points to two main principles of viral effects that emulate cognitive models. First, the product needs to disrupt a cognitive schema, a mental model that the mind produces to consolidate divergent information into one convergent worldview. We’re lazy and fearful creatures, easily intimidated and overwhelmed, so cognitive schemata help us make sense of the world around us by simplifying it into templates. They allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting a vast amount of information. Here’s an example: A plane in the air matches our mental model of a plane but a plane on the Hudson River presents a stark violation to our cognitive schema of a plane. It will therefore create much more attention than the routine plane picture we’re used to. It is – in other words – disruptive.
As these mental models keep us sane, it goes without saying that any truly disruptive innovation will often prompt a “This is crazy!” response. “This is crazy,” as in “This disrupts my cognitive schema.” An instant messaging service – that’s familiar. An instant messaging service that only allows up to 140 characters? That’s crazy. Paying credit card bills online. Nice and convenient. Sharing one’s credit card history with others in public? Crazy! An audio player you can walk with? Crazy! Why would you do that? Because you can. Because it’s different. Because it’s unexpected. Because it’s disruptive – and exactly what Roberto Verganti meant by describing innovation as “radically changing the meaning of things.” Steve Knox would call it “radically disrupting the cognitive equilibrium.” The surplus is (new) meaning.
Now, granted, this kind of cognitive schema violation has always been the hallmark of effective advertising: tearing objects out of context, deconstructing their original meaning and giving them a new one, breaching expectations, etc. However, the difference is that advertising does it after the fact, after the product is made or hit the market. Advertising must interrupt to disrupt, and it usually comes too late, when it is only needed as a cover-up for the lack for a truly disruptive product idea. Jeff Jarvis boiled it down to the stinging claim: “Advertising means product failure.”
The second principle of a viral effect is to take two existing cognitive schemata and combine them into a third, transcendent notion. The iPhone, for example, blended the mental models “mobile phone” and “computer.” The iPad blends “book reader” and “computer.” Or take Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian entertainment company, self-described as a “dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment” – a blend of Vegas and traditional circus. Or Starbucks: a blend of fast-food shop and community hang-out (or, on a higher level, an amalgam of coffee and social space, as the British pub is one of beer and space).
Show and tell
Truly innovative products apply either of these principles – they are disruptive as they violate cognitive schemata, or they blend two different schemata into a third, transcendent one. In any case, you end up with the most desirable product you can imagine: a category killer. Its viral effect is implicit, and as it is genuinely disruptive, that is, worth talking about, all you have to is as a marketer is to make the product visible and provide the means for amplifying the evangelism of the most zealous product advocates. That’s exactly what Apple does.
Successful innovative products are always viral because they disrupt and/or transcend and accumulate meaning as they are being shared. Their distribution will be contagious, and by being passed on by advocates they become a cultural meme that is more powerful than anything your marketing dollars could ever buy.
Of course, this also removes the artificial barriers between product development and go-to-market, between product design and branding, between product innovation and innovative marketing. They are inexorably intertwined. The product is the story. The story is the product. And it’d better be viral.