News Analysis: iPod campaign reaches crescendo

Apple's digital music player iPod possesses both cult status and mainstream appeal. As UK consumers await the launch of the iPod Mini, Ian Hall asks how PR can help Apple to maintain the gadget's must-have status

The hype surrounding the iPod reached extraordinary heights last month when its maker, Apple, asserted that those sporting the digital music device would rather be robbed than be seen wearing something less trendy.

In a scenario reviving memories of kids being mugged for their Nike Air Jordans a decade ago, Apple was responding to an anti-robbery initiative which advised iPod carriers that they were being targeted by street criminals because of the device's distinctive white earphones.

Apple's rather implausible but spirited retort came in a month that saw a glut of iPod coverage and Apple engaged in PR issues on two further topics: the fierce debate over the illegal downloading of music and delays to the iPod Mini's launch.

The iPod, an elegant gadget the size of a deck of cards and costing up to £400, launched in November 2001 and has achieved the rare distinction of achieving mainstream popularity without losing its 'cool' status. More than two million iPods have been sold worldwide and it is widely perceived as the benchmark for hard drive-based digital music players.

Surge in coverage

Apple director of corporate comms for Europe Alan Hely says the iPod is just one element of Apple's assault on the music market and its engagement with consumers' 'digital lifestyles'.

Joss Hastings, account head at Apple's retained agency Bite Communications, says the PR for iPod has been 'very media relations driven'.

UK mainstream media coverage of iPod soared from 52 articles mentioning the brand in the first quarter of 2003 to 372 articles in the last quarter of 2003, according to PressWatch Media (see chart). This was both by fortune - a major PR fillip came from the likes of David Beckham being pictured wearing the distinctive white earphones - and by design as Bite's media targets widened in the run-up to Christmas (when The Daily Telegraph described the iPod as the 'retail sensation of the year').

The coverage has continued to spiral: the first quarter of 2004 saw a voluminous 662 pieces of mainstream coverage. August.One Communications head of consumer PR Reuben Milne describes iPod as a 'shining example' of what can be achieved by 'PR in the most complete sense - word of mouth and influencer-seeding, getting DJs to talk about them as though they owned one'.

Likewise, Lewis PR creative vice-president Nick Leonard says: 'With iPod, Apple seems to have hit the Holy Grail by delivering a fully integrated marketing strategy with all elements in sync.' This is significant, Leonard adds, because Apple was 'often outmarketed by, some would say, inferior products. No such problem now - Apple is no longer a computing company, it's a multimedia entertainment company with savvy marketing to match its innovation'.

But the consensus is that the product's undoubted quality and the respect Apple retains as a company has made promotional work for the brand relatively straightforward.

TheFishCanSing joint partner Dan Holliday argues: 'Apple knows it doesn't have to run around making tenuous connections with youth culture because it helps define it. Apple understood that with a genuinely great product, there's no need to overcook the media relations, you just let the product speak for itself and word of mouth will do the rest.'

Not all of iPod's coverage has been positive, though. The latest problem with delayed supply of the iPod Mini, which will now launch in July, followed criticism over iPod's internal rechargeable batteries. But overall, criticism from even hard-to-please trade hacks has been minimal, with one article on tech newswire CNET.com entitled 'Five reasons not to buy an iPod' concluding: 'While not ideal for some niche activities, it's still hands down the best-designed MP3 player in the world.'

It is tricky to identify iPod's closest competition in such a rapidly evolving market. But encroachment on iPod's territory is expected from the likes of Samsung and competition will continue to evolve from non-hard drive-based portable music devices.

Philips insists its products, which include portable jukeboxes such as its HDD 060, aim to appeal to the mass market, whereas iPod 'appears to have a more specific, iconic following', according to media relations manager Tina Withington.

Given the growing competition, Killa Communications managing partner Richard Lamballe advises Bite to 'make hay while the sun shines', saying Apple will continue to generate hard news by evolving its product.

Brands2Life co-founder Giles Fraser says Apple needs to 'evolve and refresh (the) iPod story' regularly to ensure the 'inevitable' PR backlash can be forestalled. Above all, Fraser adds, Apple needs to keep demonstrating success to ensure iPod will be 2004's most-wanted Christmas present.

Hely, as you would expect, is bullish: 'We are at the early stages of something very big. We want to own this market - we will continue to innovate.'

iPod's PR strategy will be closely watched. This strategy, progressing hand-in-hand with product development, will be crucial for Apple as it strives to maintain its hard-won market-leader status.

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