The tech industry has a rich history of trying to add a bit of glamour by associating itself with celebrities, however tenuously. As with much of tech marketing, the tradition was entrenched by Apple and Steve Jobs. The late visionary was able to generate an unmatched degree of hype around a product launch and furthermore deliver on that hype with an event of unparalleled theatricality.
The speculative fervour that accompanied the build up to the original iPhone launch was unprecedented. It’s possible that the SEO (search engine optimisation) industry was spawned at that time too, as any story with Apple in the headline, however speculative or niche, was rewarded with a disproportionate audience. In that Pavlovian way publicity works, tech hacks sought the reward of traffic by shoehorning Apple or iPhone into every headline, no matter how flimsily supported by the accompanying body copy.
There is one downside to all this hype, however, which is to set expectations hysterically high. Any revelation short of miraculous runs the risk of being viewed as an anti-climax, so the pressure is on. Maybe this is why Jobs invested so much in the events themselves, establishing motifs such as the use of hyperbolic language, the Colombo-style “one last thing” reveal just when you thought the show was over and, of course, the celebrity endorsement.
Apple has tended to favour middle-of-the-road rock bands such as Coldplay when looking to import cool. Famously, at the launch of the iPhone 6 in 2014, Apple proudly wheeled out U2 to show how groovy and down with the kids they were. So convinced was Apple that they’d correctly interpreted their customers’ tastes they even forced every iTunes user to own the new U2 album via an unsolicited download. This turned out to be a miscalculation and the ensuing PR disaster forced Apple to release a U2 removal tool and U2 singer Bono to issue a contrite public apology.
The precedent had already been set, however, such that if a company now launches a new product without bribing a celebrity to pretend they’re already umbilically dependent on it, we feel they’re just not trying.
As with most gimmicks the celebrity endorsement needs refreshing regularly. A few years ago the fashion was for tech companies to give cool people grandiose job titles such as VP of Blue Sky Thinking Outside The Box. Will.i.am was named Intel’s Director of Creative Innovation back in 2011, while Alicia Keys was named BlackBerry’s Global Creative Director in 2013, only to step away from the role just a year later.
This week saw HTC, which has apparently been struggling to generate enthusiasm for its One M9 smartphone, turn to supermodel Jourdan Nunn for not only endorsement but design input. The fashion world, we’re told, is really into ‘body art’ at the moment, and Nunn is no exception, lending some of her favoured designs to a limited edition ‘INK’ version of the phone.
“Body art is an important part of my look and, as I don’t go anywhere without my phone, it makes perfect sense to combine the two to create a uniquely personalized accessory,” said Nunn. “The opportunity to work with a brand that is famous for design and to put my own creative stamp onto a beautiful looking handset was something that really appealed, with the HTC One M9 INK really capturing my personality.”
HTC is clearly trying to appeal to non-geeks with a stunt like this, and that’s not a bad idea, but the company consistently makes the tactical error of making major announcements at the same time as competitors with far larger marketing budgets. The M9 launch event immediately preceded that of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the INK launch came in a week that, inevitably, featured an Apple event.
Funnily enough, considering one of the major announcements was Apple Music, live musicians were relatively thin on the ground. Having said that Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails has got some kind of creative role at Apple, Drake came on stage and said some things and there was talk of Taylor Swift getting involved despite publicly denouncing rival music steaming service Spotify previously.
Music industry figure Jimmy Iovine, who Apple acquired along with cool audio accessory brand Beats last year (which, ironically, HTC used to own a chunk of), cryptically insisted “Apple Music is really going to move the needle for fans and artists.”
But maybe the celebrity tech endorsement is no longer effective, if indeed it ever was. Initial response to Apple Music has been muted, with even confessed Apple loyalists questioning what Apple offers that the Nordically understated Spotify doesn’t. Ultimately tech exists to serve a purpose and if you can’t demonstrate that no amount of showbiz glitz will compensate.