This is my week for marketing lessons, it seems. I was just confronted with another doozie after seeing the Pixar film UP and contrasting the film's pre-launch marketing with the pre-launch ad for the Palm Pre. My revelation is this: If your product is truly extraordinary, sometimes it's best to say as little as possible.
A Film Too Good For Words
Taking the afternoon off from my usual marketing podcast prep and promotional activities for The BeanCast, I went to see the new Pixar film, UP this week. Now, for months the film's approach to marketing has baffled me. I've seen every preview and wondered how a movie featuring an old man in a floating house could possibly be entertaining. And when the reviews from Cannes started coming out, I became even more baffled. People talked of tears and standing ovations and I looked at their little teaser campaigns and uninspiring trailers and asked, "This would make you cry!"
But then I saw the movie and choked back tears repeatedly, while laughing myself silly. It wasn't just a good animated film; it was the best film I've seen in years, period. High praise, I know, but there you have it.
Trusting in Gold
Then I suddenly understood why they marketed as they did. First, (and the lesser point, in my mind) there was no way to sell the emotional elements of aging in a children's film without actually seeing it first. It's just too big an issue to convince people that it's perfect for a kid's flick. But second, they knew exactly how good their film actually was. This second point is truly key. They knew in their hearts that few people could sit through this movie without tears welling in their eyes. It was a gamble on their part, but they had the wisdom to realize it was better to leave the actual selling of the movie's charm to the press and critics, rather than spoil the plot points with too much promotion.
Such tactics are not unheard of. Franchise movies like the latest Star Trek get away with it all the time. But it takes a truly special new IP to embrace this approach. One of the only one's I can remember that got away with this tactic in film marketing was the Penny Marshall film, Big. But when you're sure you have gold, it's the best possible means of marketing. It's an approach that relies nearly entirely on trusted sources to build your buzz -- news, critics, social buzz and the best friend raving about it.
But can Palm get away with it?
Throwing Away Conventional Wisdom
This is probably the single most important week in the history of Palm. They've bet their entire company's future on the successful launch of their new Pre smart phone. And the once dominant player in the smart phone category is now struggling to prove their relevance once more.
Conventional wisdom would say that they should be showcasing the user experience and all the cool things their new product does. There should be demonstration video and commercials a la iPhone app spots, that show interaction with the interface. They should be focused entirely on the product and telling us why it's great.
Now my first reaction was, "WTF!" I mean, I get the spot and I think it's a brilliant visual representation of a living interface for your lifestyle, but the pragmatist in me said, "The core market of tech enthusiasts are going to mock the living crap out of this! Don't they listen to TWiT? Don't they watch Tekzilla? They'll be ruthless on this one."
Then I took a deep breath and the lesson I learned from UP came back to me. And the question occurred to me: "Could the Palm Pre really be that good?"
Bold Move or Desperation?
In product launches we always fall into the formula rut of selling features and trying to tie in benefits as an afterthought. But as tech advances, it becomes increasingly difficult to recreate just how good the user experience can be in any marketing materials. And the result is usually spots that simply get in the way of the single most important message point that needs to be made:That there's no way to describe how completely awesome this is -- you just have to try it.
And clearly the demonstration spot doesn't do squat for you anyway if your product sucks. Look at the Blackberry Storm. They did a great job of demonstrating how cool the device could be, but the reviews came back trashing the thing. And not a single person I've met with one has had anything but derision for the device.
So getting back to the Pre, I'm willing to go along with their approach for the moment. Maybe they do have something special. Maybe they should build hype alone, and rely on buzz to do the heavy lifting of selling the finer points of the user experience. But that user experience better be damn good. If it is, I'll be here praising their efforts all the louder. But if it's not, they won't just fail -- they will also be mocked as they fall. Because just like there are brilliant examples of subtle launches that created a sensation of positive press, the road is also littered with the bodies of products that never measured up to user expectations.
So my lesson for today, is don't be afraid to gamble and let your users drive your sales. Just make sure you're holding a set of aces when you play the hand.