Friday, October 10, 2014

Canon and the Perils of "Impossible" Marketing

On October 6, 2014, Canon started a countdown timer on one of their marketing websites. Up on the screen was the bold yet flowery proclamation:

                                                                                Canon USA, via DPReview

Of course, Photokina 2014 had already passed, so the chance of a major camera announcement was nil. Canon was obviously not going to do a major announcement after spending significant sums for their Photokina effort. Most observant people knew this. Instead, when the countdown timer hit zero, Canon's "See Impossible" campaign site was revealed. The disappointment was, of course, deafening. The result was doomed to be disappointing and you could see it coming from a mile away... but hey, it's the internet and some people just want to be wronged. There are a number of reasons why this campaign has been so negatively received:

  • The blatant attempt to create hype where none was justified.
  • The fact that memories are short in this business; Leica had to backtrack from pumped up pre-launch marketing that the X Vario was going to be a "mini M".
  • The actual campaign site is slow to load and devoid of any informational content
  • The perception that Canon is letting their product fall behind technologically while continuing to spend on high-profile advertising campaigns

Add it all together and you have one not-so-positive reception from the camera community. Aspirational campaigns like this one are rarely as effective as their creators hope them to be. They build up brand  image without creating an urgency for the customer to buy the product; the history of advertising is littered with the detritus of advertising efforts like this. One of the most famous was the Nissan 300ZX commercial from 1996:

Nissan dealer network hated it. Even though the commercial is well regarded and fondly remembered, the 300ZX was an expensive low-volume car that was discontinued in the same year that this commercial aired. The ad rocked, but it did nothing to get people into showroom floors to buy Altimas and Sentras, the cars that Nissan was actually trying to sell.

So if the ad people know that arty image ads have a low(er) chance of driving sales, why bother? Re-read the Canon ad copy above... in the measured dulcet tones of somebody like Richard Dreyfuss. In other words: because Apple did it and apparently it worked. Yes, Canon's "See Impossible" campaign is derivative of Apple's famous "Think Different" effort launched by the now famous "Here's to the Crazy One's" ad. Note that you could take Canon's wording and say it in the quietly resolute pacing of Apple's most famous ad. That's not a coincidence.

There's only one problem with emulating Apple on this one: that ad, though now iconic, was launched in 1997 when Apple was at a particularly low point in its history. Back then, it wasn't a great ad; it was laughable bravado. Despite our rosy view of the past, the initial reaction was not positive. Apple was the company of past glories, the Macintosh and the Apple ][... they were irrelevant to what was going on in the rest of the computing world. To put it into perspective, Windows 95 of things was alive and flourishing during this time.

Canon may have taken a page from Apple's ad history, but they have done so in multipleways. The first is obvious in that "See Impossible" is an echo of "Think Different", but the second reason is perhaps unintentional and a bit more ironic....

Advertising veteran Terry O'Reilly (of Under the Influence fame) sums up that period of Apple history as such:

"You have to put the decision to run the Think Different campaign into context. To suggest that Apple could be put next to geniuses like Lennon and Einstein and Edison in an advertising campaign - at that point in their corporate history - was outrageous. Apple was in a death spiral. The industry knew it, the public knew it, and the press knew it. 'Think Different' was more than an ad campaign - it was a brazen promise. It was almost as if Jobs wanted to create such an overreaching promise that his company would be forced to fulfill it"              

                               - Under the Influence: The Marketing of Genius

In other words, bold proclamations like Canon's "See Impossible" are aspirational in more than one way. They not only seek to instill an emotional brand connection in the consumer base, they are also about rallying the corporate troops. Few people want to work for a faceless organization where the work is of no lasting consequence. That Canon launched this ad campaign at the time that they did is perhaps more telling than they intended it to be. The ad copy is derivative of Apple's work: note the grammatical similarities in the quirks of "Think Different" and "See Impossible"... that can't have been a a coincidence on the part of Canon marketing.

The more unintentional similarity is in the timing of the two campaigns; both at a time when the companies have seemingly lost their innovative edge. Thankfully for Canon, Apple's situation was dire and Canon's is not. The iPod.. let along the iPhone... were years away and eons away from the harsh reality of Apple's financially troubled 90's. The first of a long string of hit products would soon emerge, the iMac. However, here is the genius: think of how a jellybean-shaped candy-coloured computer would have been received if "Think Different" had never existed...

This was all during the early days of the internet. Had "Think Different" been launched today in 2014, Apple would likely have been pilloried in the same way that Canon was. That's probably small comfort for Grey New York, the ad agency that was commissioned for this effort.

"We're going to use it as a messaging vehicle, but we're also going to use it internally to organize and marshal our resources in a way that's much more customer-centric than just strictly approaching everything from a product viewpoint that we've done over the years," 

     - Michael Duffett, VP, general manager of marketing, Canon

In all honesty, that's a bold assertion to make considering that most corporate reconnaissances are product-lead rather than sales driven. Apple didn't lift themselves out of financial peril by doing the hard sell thing. Instead, they opened up new markets for themselves with each new product launch.
 For Canon, the question ought to be: "What does it mean to be customer-centric when the majority of your customers are asking you to update your product?" This is the true lesson of "Think Different".... Apple managed to back that up with products that people wanted to buy.... many new products over the course of many years. It was an advertising gamble that won't be easily repeated or emulated.

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