I've made it to Austin, TX, for this year's South by Southwest Interactive festival, badge in hand and ready to roll. Along with the steady stream of people, much of the social chatter is focused on arriving and sorting through an agenda of 900-plus panels and events. Some of my recent conversations with fellow attendees included the experiences created by brands for this event and a curiosity of what major announcements we might expect.
I was reminded how in 2011, Apple used the SXSWi festival as a powerful moment in time to brilliantly debut the iPad 2 to a captive and enthusiastic digital community in a spectacularly planned pop-up store. Spokespeople from Apple confirmed that there were no such plans for the newest generation of the device following the address on Wednesday by Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiling the “new” iPad. I couldn't help but see this as a missed opportunity to present the new product to 20,000 of the most connected people on the planet, particularly in light of the disappointment with the name of the new device, which landed with a dull thud.
I have always been one for features, not fluff, but as a brand communicator, I find the branding, or lack of branding of “the new iPad” really perplexing and quite frankly a decision that robs Apple, or at least its line of tablets, of some critical brand equity in a time when perhaps it needs it the most. There are significant enhancements to the product over the previous generations, and with the plethora of competitive devices in the market, why would Apple not continue what has been a successful brand-marketing strategy? Improvements in Apple products have generally been denoted by a change in name or at least an incremental numeral. Beyond a label that distinguishes new releases from previous iterations, one may argue that Apple's product name choice is part of what reinforces its brand identity. Perhaps there was an inherent knowledge that as consumers and media began to talk about the product across the web, they would invariable assign the “iPad 3” moniker to distinguish it.
It has been just five months since the death of Steve Jobs, who was known as much for his marketing genius as he was for creating innovative products that people never knew they needed. What the marketplace is now evaluating, perhaps above all, is the ability for Cook to deliver the consistency that his predecessor did. Big shoes to fill, but in the case of new product releases, Apple has a blueprint that has been tremendously successful. The product name and the experience created for it quickly becomes part of the vernacular used between early adopters and countless covetous consumers who will soon be persuaded to wait in line to buy their own device and to flood social channels as they start to share their experiences. Unfortunately, that won't happen for Apple at SXSW this year.
While slight of hand with a strongly branded product and a big debut at SXSW might have displaced some recent negative coverage and conversation, in the long term Apple may find itself needing to rely on our industry more than it had previously for reputation management and defense.
So with umbrella and hot coffee in hand, I head out today into the rainy streets of Austin to experience the digital and physical content, connections, and experiences created by brands and panelists. I look forward to sharing more with you in the days to come.
Chad Latz is president of the global digital practice at Cohn & Wolfe.