Am I the only one who cringed during Samsung's recent debut of its Galaxy S4 smartphone? In my 35 years of covering the tech industry, that was easily the most unique product launch I have ever witnessed.
I am still unsure what Samsung's real message was given the fact that it put more emphasis on theatrics than product specs and features. In fact, a sign outside the Radio City Music Hall, where the event was held in New York, called this launch "Episode 1." In the end, the Broadway-style show took away from the product's true value and place in the market. Even worse, the company drew criticism for its sexist portrayal of women. If the goal was to stun and stagger us, then in that sense, Samsung did succeed.
Had Samsung done its homework, it would have known that stagecraft and product launches rarely mix. One of the more interesting failures was an early 90s Radio Shack product launch in the US that ended with an NYPD officer riding his Harley onto the stage to illustrate how the mobile device could be used in a "mobile setting." It left the audience members shaking their heads and much of the event's media coverage was adverse.
From time to time, a Sony launch at a Comdex or CES event would pull out all the stops. The launch would not only introduce new products but also famous actors who were about to star in a Sony-backed movie. One in particular that stands out in my mind is when then-CEO Nobuyuki Idei introduced Spiderman stars Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. At the time, most of the audience hadn't heard of them and their appearance fell flat.
I witnessed another theatrical product launch disaster up close and personal in the mid-90s in Boston. Laplink had wanted Get Smart star Don Adams to endorse the product, but his appearance fee was a hundred grand – a bit too much for this small company to spend. Instead it opted for old-time comedian "Professor" Irwin Corey, known for his salty language.
Before the event, I was invited to a lunch with Corey and was asked to help emphasise the importance of keeping his jokes clean and relevant. Of course, he had a mind of his own and when he got up on stage, his humour was all over the place. By the end, he had offended many of the media reporters who had attended to hear about the product, not to be upset. To be honest, I came away remembering Corey but not much about the Laplink product itself.
The goal of a tech event should be to showcase products, not talent, which distracts from the intended message. The one time flaunting talent did work was when Sony introduced director George Lucas and took the opportunity to explain how he would shoot all of his future movies in digital format, pushing aside the use of film in the future. In context, someone like Lucas worked perfectly.
It is very important to remember that members of the tech media attend events to cover the product, its virtues, and how it will affect their readers; they are not there to be entertained – or worse, insulted. They have a job to do, and that is not the job of a theatre critic.
Forget the glitz
For this reason, Apple's product launches are aimed specifically at a media-rich audience, not at a mainstream audience that needs to be entertained. Apple depends on the press and social media voices to get its message out, which has proven quite effective. Samsung's real mistake here was thinking it needed to cater to a global audience in order to get the product noticed – that was what inspired its glitzy Galaxy S4 smartphone launch. Now, when people think of the new smartphone, they’ll also think of this embarrassing product launch.
Sure, Apple does have a bit of entertainment at some of its launches, but it is always in the context of the product launch itself. Tony Bennett, Bono, John Mayer, and the Foo Fighters have all played at the end of events, but those performances were always following music-related announcements. None of the performers has been part of a skit or even asked to endorse the product being launched. Apple's focus is always rightly on the technical details of the product and how it can impact people's lives.
So if Samsung is smart, this "Episode 1" will be the final episode. A truly great product should stand on its own. The razzle-dazzle seems like an attempt to shroud the lack of real innovation in the hardware, even if the software shown is interesting. (After all, how can anyone see with sequins in their eyes?) My advice to companies: Keep it simple and lay out the value proposition to a targeted audience. Let the product sing for itself.