With Great Content Come Great Brands

Content Quality Lesson: Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl Ad

Content QualityWith great content come great brands – to paraphrase Stan Lee.

So where are you going wrong? [Hint: Do you lack content quality?]

Thirty years ago, Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl ad not only broke the rules, but also provided a lesson for quality content that builds great brands. 

Yes—I realize you probably don’t have a Super Bowl sized marketing budget.

Steve Jobs understood the value of content quality before the term content marketing was coined. Great content requires a memorable story at its core.

Jobs didn’t leave his story telling to just anyone. He chose Blade Runner’s high profile director Ridley Scott.

Using the tagline “Why 1984 Won’t Be Like ‘1984’” Apple’s ad borrowed George Orwell’s storyline. At that time, Apple’s Macintosh was pitted against the IBM PC. In the ad, IBM becomes Big Brother.

Setting the standard for great content, the 1984 ad neither promoted nor pushed the Macintosh. In fact, the product’s only appearance was the line drawing on the runner’s t-shirt and it’s voiceover tagline at the end. This was sufficient.

The runner’s message was larger than the Macintosh. It positioned Apple as the spunky upstart challenging the dull establishment.

Television ads worked (and still do) on repeated viewings. Yet, Apple only aired this ad once for an audience to view. At a time, the only platform to see a video ad was television. This created scarcity and talkability, which news shows were happy to provide!

Content quality lesson: Why an ad won’t be like an ad

Here are the key attributes of Apple’s content lesson regardless of the size of your marketing budget.

1. Position your brand, not just your product.

Unlike most content marketing, Apple’s ad went further than just incorporating brand elements. It positioned the brand.

You need a hook your audience knows, particularly with a new offering. Apple positioned itself as the little guy against IBM, Big Blue. Critical point: It wasn’t subtle; every viewer got it. This isn’t new. Read Trout and Ries’s Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind.

2. Know your customer.

Apple’s key market was a new breed of computer users. Not only did they want to rebel against the existing way of doing things, but also they loved science fiction. (Take it from me—I’ve sold lots of science fiction in my career.) As a result, this content spoke its audience’s language.

This understanding became a core element of the Apple culture.

3. Use a classic story arc.

Deeper than Orwell’s classic tale was the David against Goliath narrative arc. Even more striking in 1984 was that the runner was a woman. While women’s lib was well entrenched in society, computer users were almost all men. At the time, Apple was literally David; it had tiny market share.

4. Include the element of surprise.

The ad incorporated emotion in the form of skillfully built up suspense and shattered it literally with a hammer blow. While built on the 1984 story, the ad changed the ending. Unlike Winston Smith, Apple’s runner is triumphant.

5. Build controversy.

The ad was either loved or hated. Apple’s board didn’t like the ad.

6. Created talkability.

The ad’s price, content and scarcity created buzz. In an era where marketers didn’t plan Super Bowl advertising support such as websites and social media, Apple planned 100 days of promotion for the Macintosh following the Super Bowl.

7. Measure results.

What did Apple gain? Take note. By 1984 standards, Apple’s ad was expensive. It cost $900,000 to produce and $800,000 for the 60 second media spot. (Note: To quality for advertising awards, the ad aired in the wee hours of the morning in a small tv market when no one was up.)

YET Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl investment yielded real measurable benefits, both hard and soft.

  • Earned media. In the pre-Internet, pre-social media, Apple received $5 million in free television time with post-Super Bowl news discussion. This was PR at its best.
  • Sales. Apple sold $155 million worth of Macintoshes in the 3 months following the Super Bowl.
  • Positioning. Apple cemented its position as the IBM competitor.
  • Corporate knowledge. Steve Jobs built his blueprint for product launches based on the 1984 ad and rollout.

Where do most marketers go wrong?

Great brands need great content. It’s not about big companies. It’s not about big budgets. It’s about BIG thinking.

The lesson: You need quality content to create and support your brand. It has to be unique to your brand, not chase the next Apple moment.

Take these 7 quality content marketing elements and apply them to your brand in a way that makes them new for your audience. To quote Apple: Think Different.

How have you used content quality to set your brand apart?

Happy Marketing,
Heidi Cohen


October 10-13th, 2022 in Arlington, VA.

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Join me to learn ways to transform the user experience.

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