Marketing ideas for startups: the Steve Jobs approach


When you consider that each of our stories are largely unique and that a great portion of success is situational, trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all plan for succeeding is probably close to futile. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, we are able to uncover puzzle pieces that might fit into our own stories.

It’s been just a little over two years since the passing of Apple’s co-founder, but the legacy of Steve Jobs and in particular the marketing lessons he instilled in Apple are alive and well.

Since Jobs’s passing, we’ve seen footage re-emerge in which he talks about Apple’s values and the way that the company approaches marketing. Looking back at the footage however, we can see Jobs evolving, distilling his approach along the way.

In one of the earliest known recordings of Jobs, he addresses the audience of the 1980 Insanely Great conference. The conference happened just a few months after Apple visited Xerox PARC — a visit which prompted Apple’s lifelong obsession with beautiful user interfaces.

Jobs talks about how he and Steve Wozniak fell into building fully assembled computers — Wozniak and Jobs had been peddling circuit boards up that point. They built 100 computers, sold 50, and were saddled with the challenge of selling the rest of their inventory. It’s at this point that Jobs first had to think about marketing and distribution.

As the demand grew, so did their marketing efforts. Sometimes, in the hustle of selling, there lurks a danger of losing focus on the product. Jobs and Wozniak had a really great product first — marketing followed.

When an embattled Apple re-introduced itself with the Think Different campaign in 1998, Jobs showed off an accompanying ad entitled The Crazy Ones during a special press event. Shortly before rolling the ad, he delivered one of the clearest explanations of Apple’s marketing strategy on record.

Jobs started by underlining clarity. More specifically, the type of clarity that would resonate with people. “To me, marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world, it’s a very noisy world. And, we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. We have to be really clear about what we want them to know about us,” he said.

So, how does one do that? Apple’s approach was to not fall into the trap of talking about features. In addition to clarity, the move would shield Apple from competitors that were better than Apple, at least on paper at the time. Jobs’s plan for restoring Apple to its former glory was to steer clear of all of that.

“The way to do that [restoring Apple in consumers’ eyes] is not to talk about speeds and feeds, it’s not to talk about bits and megahertz, it’s not to talk about why we are better than Windows.”

Instead, Jobs engineered an advertising campaign that would evoke emotion. He extolled Nike’s marketing prowess.

“One of the greatest jobs of marketing that the universe has ever seen is Nike. Remember, Nike sells a commodity. They sell shoes. And yet, when you think of Nike, you feel something different than a shoe company. In their ads, they don’t ever talk about the product, they don’t ever tell you about their air soles, and why they are better than Reebok’s air soles. What does Nike do in their advertising? They honour great athletes, and they honour great athletics.”

Apple contracted Chiat\Day, the company that created Apple’s 1984 ad which won seven awards, to make it clear who Apple was and what it stood for. Apple’s new ad wouldn’t directly talk about its products, instead it would position itself as an outsider with its Think Different campaign, backing the “rebels and misfits,” people who, despite being labelled as “crazy,” ended up changing the world.

It’s no coincidence that some of Jobs’s best marketing related talks are from the Think Different era. When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 after being ousted in 1985, he was on a mission to resurrect his fallen company. Right around the time of the campaign Jobs addressed an acerbically-tongued gentleman during a Q&A session at Apple’s WWDC conference. The man questioned Apple’s decision to scrap OpenDoc, Apple’s failed attempt at taking on Microsoft’s OLE framework which allowed applications to add different kinds of data to a document from different applications.

“I’m sure there are things OpenDoc does, probably even more that I’m not familiar with, that nothing out there does. And, I’m sure that you can make some demos, maybe a small commercial app, that demonstrates those things. The hardest thing is, how does that fit in to a cohesive larger vision, that’s going to allow you to sell eight billion, ten billion dollars of product a year,” responded Jobs.

For Jobs it was about the bigger picture and in particular, the decisions that would lead to the best customer experience — something invaluable for word-of-mouth marketing.

Apple’s disgruntled developer community in 1997 took a back seat to consumer interest. A consumer wouldn’t care about how an application worked, but definitely about the experience of it.

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you are going to sell it,” said Jobs.

Although Jobs did find enormous success later in life, perhaps one the most important lessons to take away is that he wasn’t necessarily a born marketer, nor did it interest him early in life — remember that Jobs dropped out of college after six months and spent 18 months dropping in on creative classes, including a course on calligraphy.

Prior to returning to Apple, Jobs had to figure out how NeXT was going to compete in the workstation market. Several years before his Think Different campaign strategy, Jobs experimented with feature competition.

In an internal NeXT video in 1991 Jobs detailed NeXT’s strategy for competing with the industry leader at the time, Sun. Jobs mentions user interface, multi-tasking, networking, its operating system and development environment. He specifically singles out Sun’s lacking user interface and the lack of third-party application software availability.

Although it’s not a public-facing video, Jobs mentions selling NeXT based on features such as productivity apps later in the presentation. Years later, Apple would be a leader in user interface design and its App Store would overshadow those of its competitors, but its marketing message would veer away from talking about these things directly.

In 1993, NeXT withdrew from the hardware business and subsequently laid off 300 of the 540 staff employees.

In the video Jobs says: “We’ve been listening a lot to them [customers], and we intend to listen even more to them, to continue refining this professional workstation market definition, and what is important to these customers and our competitive position against our number one competitor, Sun.”

Conversely, years later, Jobs famously said: “it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

In the end, perhaps Jobs’s greatest marketing accomplishment of all is the implicit notion that Apple creates the world’s best consumer products.



Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Ventureburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.