Is Windows 7 too good for Apple to FUD?

Opinion: Apple was blindsided by Windows 7. It wasn’t the product which they saw coming, it was the sustaining marketing budget and positive reviews from Apple loyalists like Walt Mossberg they didn’t see (though several Mac fans have told me that Steve Jobs has taken Walt to task and he is changing his tune).

As a result they have shifted their negative campaign against Windows Vista into a FUD campaign against Windows 7 using innuendo and association to disparage Microsoft’s new platform. You can see the ads here but broken promises and PC News are pure but well done FUD.

Granted Microsoft is having a few problems with its “Family Guy” special (and who else now suddenly wants to watch this and bet on who advertises on it?). If you didn’t click on the link, Microsoft pulled support saying there was “inappropriate content”. It’s on my TIVO now for sure.

But back to FUD; Scott McNealy and Sun tried the same tactic for most of the 90s and watched their market share and profitability drop sharply as a result. Will the same thing happen to Apple? (By the way read the likely comments and notice how many Mac fans don’t actually know what FUD is).

Danger of FUD Campaigns: Is Apple the Tech McCain or George Bush?
FUD or the act of driving Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt towards a challenging product has its roots in political negative campaigning. We certainly saw George Bush, the ex-US President; use this to great success during his election and John McCain fail using a similar strategy against Obama suggesting, done right or during the right situation it can work but that it isn’t a sure thing.

Negative campaigning has a tendency to focus an audience on the other guy and you trade off trust in order to do damage to your opponents chances. It didn’t work in the latest US election because the party driving it had burned up too much trust during the prior administration and didn’t have it to spend to beat Obama. I might add that with an older presidential candidate and an inexperienced vice presidential candidate the danger of having this backfire was vastly higher for the Republican ticket who started the mudslinging suggesting folks not use weapons that they very vulnerable to.

For Sun, and tech, the effort did do Microsoft a substantial amount of damage but it also made Sun appear weak and took time away from Sun presenting its own products. In effect, Sun did slow down Microsoft’s sales but they also sacrificed their own to do so because while they were disparaging Microsoft they couldn’t seem to explain what made their stuff better. As a result HP and IBM became bigger beneficiaries of Sun’s Microsoft focus than Sun did. And look at Sun now.

In addition, and this goes back to trust, disparaging a competitor spends trust. People simply begin to trust you less because, as a competitor, you aren’t a trusted source of competitive information and you’ll likely often make mistakes in your own favor. People dislike buying from firms they don’t trust and, over time, buyers’ trust in Sun decreased dramatically.

Finally, as a market leader, you are often in a position to train those that follow you into the market. Once you achieve dominance, the lesson learned that negative Ads worked will likely be used against you. You can see this is the recent Verizon/Google Droid iDon’t campaign which is, in my opinion, very effective; Apple taught them how to do this.

When FUD Campaigns Do Work
Negative campaigns work the best against incumbent products and people because we don’t like change as a race and first must be made to see the politician in office or the product we currently use as inadequate. But they have to be balanced with campaigns that focus on your product’s strengths. Apple is trying to do this with one current spot that focuses on their better customer satisfaction scores but they seem to be focusing too much on what Microsoft used to do wrong rather than what they need to do right.

FUD campaigns are generally best when run for a short period of time and to gains a point advantage like winning an election, the longer they run the more people question the honesty of the firm running them and Apple’s strongest asset may be trust, if they burn a significant amount of that up, well when you are at the top of a hill, and Apple has hit amazing highs this year, then all roads lead downwards.

Still, as campaigns of this type go, I think Apple has set a record for length and consistent quality. The ads have generally been funny, entertaining, and successfully delivered their payload of Microsoft FUD but things have changed and maybe Apple needs to respond to that change. Mac fans clearly love the ads but they won’t grow Apple’s market and these ads won’t even get them to buy new PCs, for growth Apple needs to convince Windows users and telling lies about Windows won’t do that, because these users like Obama voters, knew better. This was the Sun mistake, at some point you have to focus back on selling what you have not just attacking the other guy.

Wrapping Up
Last week I spoke about Apple being blindsided, the proof was an ad campaign that seemed to assume Microsoft would be unable to respond, much like they have been unable to respond after previous launches. This isn’t the case this time and the danger Apple now faces a wave of new products and if they don’t focus on their advantages and continue to pretend that Windows 7 is Vista they will likely not get the response they are used to getting. More important, if they want to build excitement around a new product like their iPad, they may have lost too much trust to now be able to pitch something new as successfully.

Apple increasingly is at danger of drifting into Sun over focus on a competitor territory, recall that at one time Sun could buy Apple and thought it wasn’t worth the investment. Times changed, they can easily change again. It’s great that Apple ran the longest FUD campaign in history; it may be time to collect the trophy and go back to building and selling great products.

Vista is dead and as much as Apple wishes otherwise, it likely is time to move on.