The CES vs. the Steve Jobs Apple Pitch: How Not to Sell Cool Products


I’m not at CES this year and I’m feeling better about this decision all the time. The early press pitches (many are streamed and/or live blogged) are falling into the same boring pattern and you’d think, after watching a decade of Steve Jobs doing it right, these folks need to get a clue. Unfortunately they haven’t,  so I’m going to walk you through pretty much every big press pitch folks will likely see at the show and you can, like me, be glad you aren’t one of the poor saps having to sit in the audience, half hung over, wishing you’d taken the day to sleep in. (Yep the other “problem” at CES is too many parties and, for me anyway, too little tolerance for alcohol).  

We’ll contrast it with a classic Steve Jobs Apple pitch. 

The Steve Jobs Apple Pitch

This starts with a lot of anticipation for what is about to be announced. Apple seeds the audience with Apple employees who are set to applaud and cheer at key moments and help drive the momentum.   Typically they put about two layers of these folks around the reporters who seem to be the focus (duh) of the event.    

Jobs would personally spend hours working on his talk and making sure every little part of the pitch (before he got ill) was timed to the second. From how the products were to be showcased to what the flow of the talk was going to be.  

If you’d been to a good religious revival event you’d see the similarities. From top to bottom the design of a Steve Jobs product pitch was to get people excited about the product. 

Opening is to frame what is to come. It may be about sales if that product is a refresh, it may be about what others are doing wrong, but initial comments are on creating the appearance of need and Apple’s past successes directly related to this need.

He then moves to product and product and presents it like you’d present scripture.   The Image takes up the primary position on stage (often as one or two large pictures) and it is presented outside in.   In other words external beauty then functions.    When they move to demos each is fully rehearsed and there is (though there have been exceptions) enough redundancy so that if there is a failure the audience doesn’t see it.   

Typically he announces only few things, often only one line, to maintain focus and he leaves one surprise for the end to hold the audience.   

People have been known (ok this happened to me once, don’t tell anyone) to walk out of a pitch by Steve Jobs thinking it is the best thing they have ever seen only to later realize the guy didn’t really announce anything that wasn’t already known.  

CES Pitch

This starts out with a lot of people wondering how long the thing will be and worrying whether they will be able to make it to their next appointment. They are tired, particularly as the show goes through the week, from little sleep and lots and lots of walking on cement.   Many are reaching pain thresholds and have the attention span of a 2 year old. The only real anticipation is getting through the door when the event is over to avoid the door line.  

The presenter has likely been changing their pitch up until they are on stage and the folks that did the staging, and the executive who is speaking, don’t even appear to know each other.   It often seems a surprise to both if the executive stands behind the podium or runs around. Speaking in a monotone seems to be a key skill of the CES speaker and it often looks like they’d never actually used, or would use, the product they are pitching.  

If you’ve been in a bad school lecture you would get a sense for who this works. Speakers read from prompters badly, from notes, or right off the slides. If there is any energy on stage it has died and gone to heaven. 

Opening is to talk about what a great company and executive team there is. Often with lots of slides of sales trends, financial results, or other data that will work as a sleeping aid for the audience. Eventually they’ll get to product and it likely will be their entire portfolio. At this CES it may be TVs, Tablets, White Goods, speakers, and/or Smartphones. A lot of focus on what is in the product (LEDs, processors, metals) but little time is spent getting anyone excited about any product and demos, if they are done, give way to sweeping self-serving statements on who great this stuff is. To stay awake bloggers and reporters tear the stuff apart. Sound effects are typically the one or two reporters who have succumbed and are snoring in the audience (more likely later in the week).  

At the end folks are focused on getting out of the room and on to the next event, no attempt for that one last thing.  

I’ve often seen (and this happens to me a lot) that it can take a day or so to realize there was actually something really cool announced someplace in the pitch but it got lost in the noise.  

Wrapping Up: Apple vs. CES

The reason why Apple is the most successful company in the segment, well one of them anyway, is that they focus on creating excitement around their products and their competitors generally don’t.     Under Jobs, and I am worried they are losing this, they focused on building demand around their offerings successfully while others seem to focus on just getting through their similar events.    In the end, like any event that we attend, if we are entertained and excited that will likely translate into product sales, if we are bored probably not as much and that leaves us with the big difference between an Apple launch and a typical CES launch.   We look forward to an Apple launch, we look forward to the end of a CES launch.  

There is actually a book on how to do an Apple Launch called Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs.    Last time I recommended a CEO read it, he stopped talking to me. That’s just nuts.   

Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group. To read more of his articles on TechZone360, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Chris DiMarco

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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