The higher marketing art of self-comparison

Embedded engineers used to do trade studies before selecting a processor, evaluating technical features and performance of competing processors and scoring the positives and negatives of each under consideration. Semiconductor firms produced application notes and detailed information on their latest processor, with instruction timing and comparison benchmarks. Engineers tore through these notes, looking for an edge that would swing a decision one way or the other.

In 1982, these processors didn’t have names, they had numbers, such as the Motorola 68000 and the Intel 80286. But a change was imminent. The Intel Architecture became ingrained in the IBM compatible PC, in large part due to the popularity of Microsoft’s operating system. Software compatibility became a much stronger consideration, as projects could save a lot of money and time by not rewriting code. The system became much more of a focal point than the processor.

The technology marketing revolution ensued. In 1991, Intel launched the “Intel Inside” campaign, designed to raise end-user awareness. By 1993, Intel shifted their branding from the nerdy 80586 nomenclature to the much more elegant Pentium. The official reason was trademarking considerations, but the real motive was creating a name which would stick in non-technical consumer minds more easily.

Intel branding and technology stuck so well that few of the faithful (or the captive, depending on how you view it) would ever consider changing to a competitor. With much less fanfare, Intel stopped comparing their new processors to anything but their old processors. There was no need. No more app notes or benchmarks, except when discussing how to optimize a feature. Self-comparison became the order of marketing.

The self-comparison marketing machine runs on factoids and hints on future roadmaps. For instance, in the recent announcement for the 4th generation Intel Core processor family:

Speaking at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, David (Dadi) Perlmutter said Intel reduced the platform idle power of its 4th generation Intel Core processor family based on the next-generation “Haswell” microarchitecture by more than 20 times over the 2nd generation while delivering outstanding performance and responsiveness. He also said Intel will add a new line of even lower-power processors based on the same microarchitecture to its roadmap starting in 2013.

Create the comparison, then deliver it. Today, the only time you’ll see an Intel processor compared to something else is in the blogosphere, or in the voice of one of their competitors trying to point out something. That rarely draws anything but a very indirect response, and usually does little to influence the faithful. So it is, the advantages of leader marketing, and Intel made it an art form.

Apple is now mastering the self-comparison strategy of technology marketing, having established a similar leadership position. The recent Apple launch event brought a wave of percentages. 91% of tablet web traffic goes to iPads – with a joking reference to not knowing what those other tablets are doing. The new iPhone 5 is 18% thinner, 20% lighter than the iPhone 4S, and has a new connector that’s 80% smaller.

For the Apple faithful, the iPhone 5 is a welcome advance, and certainly in total stacks up fairly well against competitors. The much faster A6 processor, 4G LTE radio, a new 4″ retina display, and 3 microphones to help with tasks like voice recognition are definite improvements. An improved 8MP camera with panoramic mode and other features helps.

Some of what Apple didn’t say was fascinating. Not many specifics on performance, and a broad statement on slightly better battery life. In spite of Apple having over 20 patents on NFC, the iPhone 5 didn’t incorporate it. They also didn’t go after a key feature Samsung is marketing heavily: Wi-Fi Direct, the technology behind the instant picture sharing shown in their commercials.

Then, there’s that new connector. Lightning. So cool, it can be inserted either right side up or upside down. The ooooohs and ahhhhhs were so loud, they drowned out the realization that every iPhone accessory is suddenly obsolete, and by not going to a micro USB solution like nearly every other phone manufacturer, things are once again proprietary.

The bottom line here is: If you’re an Apple user, the comparisons to anything other than the Apple world don’t matter. The iPhone 5 initial build of 2M units sold out in 24 hours, and people will gleefully wait weeks to receive their phone. This is amid technologists speculating about limited yields on the Sharp display or the A6 chip itself holding back supply. That new connector will be a temporary nuisance, but once the old ones disappear all will be forgotten.

If you’re Samsung, or Nokia, or Motorola, the battle is still very uphill. The iPhone 5 isn’t great compared to other phones coming this fall. An example: by some accounts in the blogosphere, the Nokia Lumia 920 is actually better in a feature-by-feature look. But that’s offset to the point of discredit in many minds by a mysterious, yet-to-be announced ship date:

There’s also a huge market share mountain, and carrier adoption and support, for any competitor outside of maybe Samsung to overcome. For Apple, it’s one more frame in the marketing sequence, and the scarcity helps increase the cachet of the iPhone 5.

My tongue-in-cheek exchange with one of my cohorts, just before the launch event started, shows the range of emotions involved:

There will be teardowns, reviews, and more comparisons shortly as iPhone 5 units hit the streets, which will continue to build the hype and the religion Apple has built. Most consumers won’t spend a lot of effort doing comparison shopping, except maybe a few that will be shaken off by the price tag. Those that want an iPhone 5 will not be denied.

Self-comparison marketing is an art, and it’s only for those with undisputed leadership, a faithful following, a relatively high switching cost, and a lot of confidence.

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