Perception Problems

I hate religious squabbles, like one recent war of words.  I speak not of invectives thrown concerning the inappropriate placement of a proposed mosque in New York, but a string of nasty words cast upon a private discussion group debating if the iPad is a real computer.

Zealots … they are never more fierce than in geekdom.

The group in question is an invitation-only cluster of former gurus involved with a now obsolete mini-mainframe system.  Each member is brilliant yet more opinionated than a lame-duck congressman.  Aided in part by a member journalist who once covered that mini-computer beat, and who now chronicles everything Apple, the group exploded into strings of sneering over the viability of the iPad for people who want to do work as opposed to consume content.

I think it started with a dig about USB ports.  Who knows.  The rhetorical blood flowed regardless of who fired the first stray round.

One segment of this group maintained that the iPad was not ‘good enough’ for people who wanted to do ‘serious work’, two concepts that are completely personal in nature and thus entirely subjective.  The marketing jockey of this group (me) noted that the iPad was designed for the content consumption market, and that anyone wanting to do more with it might need to look elsewhere (yes, it is my job to pour gasoline on smoldering embers).  The discussion rapidly devolved into one camp who maintained the iPad was an expensive toy and others who felt Gawd himself shat it.  Each team grabbed whatever proof points they could to bolster their case and slay the other side’s perception.

Perception is the game.

Political advisors often echo the age old sentiment that “perception is reality.”  If the majority of the population believes the sun will rise in the west, it will … until it doesn’t.  If you think “they are out to get you”, then you will behave as if they actually are (and even if you are not paranoid, they may still be out to get you).  What the market believes is what your brand will be, and this shapes people’s preferences.

Which is why Apple products sell so well.

Apple has mystique, which my dictionary defines as “a framework of doctrines, ideas, beliefs … endowing the person or object with enhanced value or profound meaning.”  In other words, brand based on perception.  When iPods were still new I encountered a grown man in a Best Buy store who demanded an iPod.  When I asked him why not a different MP3 player, he had no reason.  He knew nothing of the technical specifications, competing price points, or even what restrictions the iPod might place on his music listening existence.  But he knew he wanted one because it was “cool.”

Like Mojo Nixon said, You Can’t Buy Cool.

This brings us back to the iPad and market perceptions.  It may be unfair to think the iPad cannot be made to do useful work.  The growing stable of apps offer some tools for office-like productivity, and there is even a smattering of apps for geeks (though these seem largely restricted to cheat sheets for programming languages and some iPad-specific modeling gizmos).  But given Steve Jobs death grip on the iPad experience — almost Disney-like in its wonderland fixation — a perception exists and grows that iPads aren’t going to serve buyers who need anything above content (when I tried to find a separate email client to install on my girlfriend’s iPad, none could be had and Apple discussion groups pointed to a prohibition against such software).  This perception will keep certain buyers from acquiring an iPad.

And LG knows this.

Faster than a congressman can say “kickback”, LG noticed this market perception and cast FUD concerning iPad dysfunctionality.  A VP-level LG spokesdroid said “It’s going to be surprisingly productive.  Our tablet will be better than the iPad.”  Granted, for a product that has not seen daylight, these claims are as vaporous as Britney Spears brain.  But the fact that LG has seized upon the perception of what iPads cannot do shows how one can take perception and through PR try to make it reality.  “Honey, give the kids the iPad to watch movies during the trip to grandma’s.  I need the LG-Android so I can finish a proposal for work.”

Perception then is a weapon, either to make sales for yourself or prevent sales for your competitors.  Image caused Apple to sell 13 million iPads in under five months. Image also caused LG to try choking Apple’s sales flow until their Android pad enters the market.  Members of my techno guru group used either evidence to support their prejudice about the iPad.

The marketing lesson is that perception is imperative.  A brand undefined or undefended will cause sales to suffer.  Applied against a competitor, it can cause their sales to suffer.  Steve Jobs’ crew knows branding and we can expect a backlash as more Android slate vendors (Acer, Toshiba, Motorola, etc.) jump on the iPad perception pig pile.


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