Few advertisers are as watched as Apple – not just the consumers consuming their ads, but also the folks in the ad industry, like us, who are eagerly taking notes on Apple’s every move. Their approach to advertising has historically centered on storytelling through video and expressing their brand in minimalist ways. As Apple expands its role from a manufacturer of products to a provider of media (see our blog post about Apple TV+), we’re interested to see how this affects their advertising strategy.
Perhaps the most interesting change in Apple’s digital advertising strategy in 2019 was that their ad spend decreased by a drastic 68%, down to $76.3M from $243M in 2018. Their 2017 spend was $257M, so a decrease isn’t exactly new, but $76.3M is lower than you’d expect for a brand of this caliber. This decrease also meant that they received almost 10B fewer impressions than they did in 2018: 4.9B impressions in 2019 versus 14.7B in 2018. In the meantime, competitors like Microsoft and Samsung came out in full force, gobbling up impressions that Apple left on the table.
Video Leads While Social All but Ignored
How did they allocate their $76.3M budget? Their highest category remains desktop video, at 60% of the spend, followed by mobile video at 21% and desktop display at 9%. In 2018 these numbers were 83% desktop video, 8% mobile video, and 6% desktop display. A slightly different breakdown occurred in 2017, with 65% desktop video, 13% mobile video, and 17% desktop display.
Other than the emphasis on video, the other category where Apple remains consistent is paid social. They did not advertise on Facebook at all last year, spent less than 1% of their budget on Facebook in 2018, and about 5% in 2017. Twitter got more love than Facebook, including a slew of new accounts named after individual Apple TV+ scripted shows, but still, only about 5% of their budget in 2019* went to Twitter.
Unsurprisingly, Apple’s top-performing creatives for 2019 were videos. These ran the gamut from promos for the Apple TV+ series Dickinson and the Series 4 Apple Watch, and the much-lauded “Snowbrawl” iPhone 11 Pro ad. Apple further deviated from product-centric advertising with videos that celebrated holiday shopping and boasted about iMessage encryption. This is a marked difference from 2018 and 2017 creatives, which heavily touted iPhones, iPads, AirPods, and Apple Watches.
High Direct Spend
The method by which Apple is purchasing impressions is changing over time. In 2019, 97% of their spend share was made up of direct advertising, with the remaining 3% purchased through a variety of DSPs and ad networks. Their direct spend has been consistently high: 99% in 2018 plus 1% allocated to Google AdX + AdSense, and 100% direct in 2017. This shift indicates that Apple is exploring new avenues of reaching consumers as they begin to spend less on ads overall.
A Home Run for the Male Demographic?
Apple’s top direct site for three years running? YouTube. This is no surprise, given Apple’s emphasis on video and lack of investment in Facebook (which tops the investment list for many brands.)
Intriguingly, the second-place direct site for the past three years has been MLB.com. It’s a steep drop from first to second – 59% of 2019 impressions on YouTube and 11% on MLB.com – but the MLB numbers are significant nonetheless. In fact, Apple was MLB.com’s second-biggest advertiser in 2019 and 2018 (in terms of spend), and their top advertiser in 2017.
Some have argued that Apple’s target customer is “everyone,” but a 2015 analysis highlighted how men outspent women in every age category when buying Apple products. Does Apple’s affinity for Major League Baseball prove they’re trying to target men and millennials? It will be exciting to see how increased advertising for Apple TV+ alters Apple’s advertising trends, especially since their top show, Dickinson, primarily appeals to young women.
Other top sites include male-focused and nfl.com, espn.com, in addition to now-competitor Hulu, though it looks like most Apple ads on the platform focused on products rather than the new streaming service. We'll be keeping an eye out for any changes to this strategy in 2020.
Looking Ahead to 2020
While Apple’s digital ad budget dropped significantly in 2019, there’s certainly no cause for alarm: the brand has continued to explore new strategies such as diversifying their spend share and centering creatives around feelings and ideas rather than products. In terms of where the shifted dollars have landed, we’re assuming you, too, have seen the ubiquitous billboards and TV commercials deployed by the brand, not to mention a likely presence on OTT advertising to boot.
We’re looking forward to 2020, where we’ll see if Apple TV+ wins the streaming wars, if MLB scores an even higher share, and if desktop video and mobile video remain the top categories. There’s one thing for certain: we’ll keep admiring Apple as a brand that consistently innovates marketing and advertising strategy.
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*Pathmatics Explorer began tracking Twitter data in May 2019.
With over a decade of experience across digital marketing, content, creative, and PR, Sarah is a creative and dynamic thinker who loves to delight clients with unique and relatable content. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Sociology.