Apple and Samsung’s Battle of the Brands

Courts can rule on patents, but marketers will settle who's loved most

Russ Martin September 27, 2012

Courts can rule on patents, but marketers will settle who’s loved most

This article was updated on Sept. 27 at 2:33 p.m.

In Korean, there is a concept called “tuhon.” It’s not easy to explain in English, but Joe Musicco is trying. Seated in his small corner office at Cheil Canada on King St. East in Toronto, the creative director explains how the idea has shaped his agency and its largest client, Samsung.

“It’s kind of the way we talk about ourselves,” he says. “There is no direct translation to English but what it basically means is a relentless drive to succeed. Culturally speaking, that’s something that’s very much embedded in the DNA of Cheil and of Samsung as well.”

As Musicco explains, the company has worked to spread the tuhon ethic through its global offices and its agency. Cheil Worldwide, which is headquartered in Seoul, describes it in a book of recent work as “achieving the impossible, against all odds.”

If Samsung is going to unseat Apple as the coolest mobile brand on Earth, it’s going to need this fighting spirit.

Apple customers love their Mac products to the point of obsession. Last year a group of British scientists found that Apple imagery stimulates the brains of its fans in the same way religious imagery affects believers. Apple fans don’t just use Mac products, they believe in them.

Much of Apple’s $600 billion value is driven by the near-maniacal frenzy surrounding each iPhone launch, the latest of which was planned for Sept. 21.

The iPhone is currently the most popular smartphone in Canada, with 32% of the market. Until last year, that title belonged to the homegrown BlackBerry.

According to IDC Canada, which tracks the mobile market, smartphone dominance now fluctuates each quarter between Apple and Samsung. One quarter Apple will lead, the next Samsung.

Apple declined to comment for this story, but it’s undoubtedly acutely aware of the back and forth, as is Samsung Canada’s vice-president of marketing, Andrew Barrett.

“In the mobile market, there are really two dominant manufacturers and brands,” Barrett says. “There are lots of other manufacturers in the industry, but the two leadership roles are pretty much solidified right now with Samsung and Apple. That’s how we see it.”

IDC data shows that Samsung is number one in feature phones (non-smartphones), a space Apple isn’t in. Together, feature and smartphone sales make Samsung the number one handset manufacturer in Canada.

Samsung may sell more phones than Apple, but since it launched in 2007, the iPhone brand has held the title of “coolest to own.”

Samsung parodied this obsessive fan culture in its Super Bowl ad last winter, which was created as a joint effort between 72andsunny and Samsung’s American and Canadian marketing teams.

The spot opens outside an Apple store with a lineup of earbud-wearing fans apparently waiting for some new release. A woman is spotted on a nearby bench using a Samsung phone. “Samsung?” says one of the characters in line. “I could never get a Samsung. I’m creative.” Another interjects, “Dude, you’re a barista.” The man shows his phone, a Galaxy. Cue the tagline: The next best thing is already here.

The direct reference to the iPhone was a one-time approach Samsung isn’t planning on repeating, according to Musicco (*or is it?). He wasn’t involved in the spot’s production, but his agency faces the same challenge as its U.S. partner on the Samsung account: competing with a brand consumers love.

“Apple has had a bit of a stranglehold on the emotional attachment,” Musicco says. “I think the ad worked really effectively to undermine Apple’s position in that regard. It worked extremely well in terms of throwing the first punch.”

Featuring a competitor’s product in an ad is a tactic that works in the short term, but not over a long period, Musicco says. The latest ads for the Galaxy SIII, released in Canada in late August, focus on the phone’s features, like its super-fast camera and ability to tranfser content (“beaming”) to other Androids by touching the two phones together. They make no mention of Apple.

“Given that [72andsunny] managed to establish momentum with an ad that competitively took Apple on, they’ve now moved to a phase where they’re actually talking about the product in very human terms people can relate to,” he says.

Steve Chazin, Apple’s former senior director of marketing for strategic programs, found the Super Bowl spot amusing.

“It’s cute,” Chazin says of the ad. “It makes you want to pop your head up and say, ‘Why am I an idiot to stand in line with these other drones and get the next iPhone? Why should I pay more for something that is marginally better than the one before it?’”

Still, Chazin, who worked at Apple for eight years and is now vice-president and general manager of Norton data services at Symantec, remains unswayed. “You already know the answer,” he says. “The answer is that [the advertising] works.”

The reason Apple customers are such steadfast loyalists, Chazin says, is because the company’s marketing reaches them on a human level. It recognizes they want to simultaneously be accepted and feel special.

“When you look at their commercials, at least up until recently, they have always been, ‘You’re a little bit special, a little bit different. You’re unique. You stand out’,” he says.

At the same time, they act as an invitation. The famous “Think Different” tagline and campaign are a perfect example. Consumers were asked to “think different” from the mass of PC users, but it also implied inclusion. Think Different, like us.

“Apple has done this amazing job of helping people feel like they want to be a part of this inner circle of people,” he says. “For the price of an iPhone you can join the club. You can take the sticker out of the box and put it on your car and be a member of the clan.

“At the end of the day, people buy the iPhone or the iPad not because of what it looks like on the outside, which is easy to copy, but because of the heart and soul of it,” says Chazin.

Even at a glance, it’s easy to see how similar the two devices are and in a series of lawsuits Apple has claimed Samsung copied its designs. On Aug. 24, a jury in California awarded Apple $1.05 billion in damages, asserting that Samsung infringed on Apple’s patents. One week later, on Aug. 31, Apple lost a similar case in Tokyo.

Lawsuits between the two are ongoing in Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia and the United Kingdom. They involve dozens of patents, products and lawyers.

It’s enough to give any jury a headache. U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh summed up the sentiment of the legal feud when she asked Apple’s team of lawyers if they had been smoking crack.

The courts are judging which company copied the other and how different their products are, which could also be vitally important in the battle for market share.

“With the exception of a few iconic brands in the market, many devices look very similar from afar,” says Krista Napier, senior analyst and leader tracker for IDC Canada’s mobility division. “Brands will need to differentiate themselves, either through marketing, device design, price point, or a combination.”

Another factor at play, says Napier, is access to apps. Apple’s success in befriending the developer community has helped it maintain its place in the mobile market. (See “Pick a Side” pg. 46.) “One of the things that makes Apple so attractive is all of the apps you can use with it, and that you can use them not just on your phone, but on your tablet or whatever device you have,” she says. “That ecosystem is very important.”

Ken Segall was the worldwide creative director of Chiat/Day LA between 1997 and 2000. His team came up with the “Think Different” campaign, and Segall later acted as a consultant for the brand, assisting it during the launch of the first iPhone.

Even if the iPhone loses market share, Segall thinks it will retain its place as the most coveted mobile brand thanks to savvy marketing. “In the phone market, the iPhone is the defining brand and I think will always have a major share of mind if not share of market,” he says. “I don’t worry they’re going to be eclipsed. I think the industry will always look to Apple for the real innovation and the gold standard of what phones can be.”

For Segall, part of Apple’s genius is its approach to public relations, including the way it works with carefully selected journalists. “PR is the lesser known and lesser acclaimed of Apple’s talents, but it’s a big part of it,” he says. “The marketing is great for its creativity, but the PR has always worked hand in hand.”

Segall remembers meeting with Steve Jobs to decide which words to associate with new products. “What used to amaze me is that we would distill the thought down to a sentence that Steve could go with,” he says. “He would repeat that thought at his product launch over and over. It’s interesting to see the mechanics of how that works. He would repeat something and you’d read the press coverage the next day and they’d pretty much just play it back.”

“I thought, ‘Wow, how’d he do that? He’s a magician’.”

And while Jobs is gone, his company still seems to hold a magical power over many consumers.

Samsung’s Barrett thinks the company is ready to break the spell, though he acknowledges it won’t be easy. To illustrate the challenge, Barrett often uses a metaphor when speaking to the press about the Samsung brand. The brand, he says, is a bit like the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man.

“The Samsung brand, a few years ago, was a brand that was strong, formidable, well-built, well-engineered, technically incredibly sound,” Barrett says. “But unfortunately, like the Tin Man, our brand didn’t really have a heart and soul. It didn’t really have an emotional connection with the vast majority of Canadians.”

At the same time, Samsung’s main mobile competitor was becoming one of the most beloved brands on the planet. Both Barrett and Musicco know hardware is only part of the solution. The best specs don’t guarantee the best sales, nor consumer approval. That approval comes only from reaching customers on an emotional level.

To accomplish this, Samsung would be wise to heed the advice of the Wizard. “Remember, my sentimental friend,” he told the Tin Man, “that a heart is not judged by how much you love, but how much you are loved by others.” 

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 8 issue of Marketing.

* Since this story was first published in the Oct. 8 issue of Marketing, 72andsunny released another ad aimed squarely at Apple fan culture and timed to coincide with the launch of the iPhone 5.