Narrative Spotlight: How Apple Dominated the Resolution Conversation with Retina Display

Catapult has recently been shining the spotlight on companies that understand how to lead the market by creating industry narratives and vision. These are companies that have hit the narrative mark. This means their communications follow the principles of Strategic Narrative Marketing. We started with a post on Patagonia, outdoor adventure retailer, and its move over the last couple of years to take a political stance and align the company around advocacy for public lands.

This week’s example dates back to 2010 when Apple introduced Retina Display, and it is an example of a company creating a new category. I worked for a CEO who would bring up this example frequently in marketing meetings. The moral of the story was always: think like Apple.

Apple and Samsung were head-to-head in a war to create better screen resolution for customers. Samsung had the corner on the smartphone market and the iPhone was still only a few years old. Apple debuted the concept of Retina Display in a live telecast by Steve Jobs as part of the iPhone 4 announcement. Apple claimed that Retina Display offered such high-density resolution, the user could not distinguish individual pixels.

The announcement swept the industry and has stuck around. It became the new way of describing Apple’s displays for phones, computers and iPads. Apple had a unique opportunity when releasing the iPhone 4. It could have just talked about how great the resolution was and announced, “ground-breaking resolution!” Instead, Apple took the opportunity to create a new category and a new way of defining an entire technology.

This announcement did everything an industry narrative is supposed to do:

  • It set a new industry standard.

Apple’s introduction of Retina Display changed the conversation around display resolution and created a new way of talking about a technical topic. Pixel dimensions, while important to consumers, were not easy for the average person to understand. When Steve Jobs defined Retina Display, he brought a new perspective to the conversation and made a technical topic interesting and relatable.

  • It got an incredible amount of media attention.

This is not always automatic after a company launches a new category, but we are talking about Apple in this case, so of course, the attention followed rapidly. Within moments, and over the following several years, the internet was abuzz with discussions about Retina Display. Tech publications put out pieces defining it, debating whether it is worthwhile, and speculating whether it would continue to be part of all of Apple’s offerings.

  • It created controversy.

Sometimes Strategic Narrative Marketing can mean casting an industry vision that creates controversy and sparks discussion. After the announcement of Retina Display, many controversial posts were published, stating that Apple’s branding was “false marketing.” This led to discussions on the science behind Retina Display.

  • Competitors were talking about it.

Less than a year later, Samsung introduced the Super AMOLED Screen, which was supposed to be a better deal all-in-all than retina display and company spokespeople went on the record saying so.

  • Competitors started jumping on board.

Shortly after Retina Display hit the scene, claims that HDTV was the same as Retina Display were published and in 2012 rumors surfaced that Samsung was actually making Retina Displays for Apple. This was confirmed and announced in 2013. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em — seemed to be Samsung’s strategy.

Through a series of odd events and international moves, I’ve had both an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy over the last few years. I’ll be honest, I like my Samsung way better when it comes to display, UI and camera. But, I use my iPhone as my main cell phone now because Facetime. … and iMessage, and integration with my Macbook, etc.

I’m not alone, though. Many technologists agree that Samsung products are superior to Apple’s. It’s an ongoing debate with passionate advocates on both sides. There’s no doubt about it though, Apple is the sexier brand and Apple is dominating as the third most profitable company in the world! (Fortune ranks Samsung as #15). If you want to be fair and talk just smartphones, Apple still dominates. According to reports in 2017, Apple almost doubled the smartphone profits of Samsung.

While Samsung may have had a great product in the AMOLED technology, the marketing around the products emphasized the numbers—the actual pixels and resolution. Perhaps Samsung thought the numbers would speak for themselves, however that wasn’t the case. In contrast, when Retina Display was introduced, Steve Jobs emphasized the limits of the human retina to distinguish pixels. The announcement became about the way Apple screens were so pixel-dense they trick the human eye into thinking it sees a continuous object.

As you can see, Apple’s rollout of a new industry narrative was successful. This is just one example of how we can learn from a company like Apple that is clearly hitting the narrative mark.

If you need a refresher on what a strategic narrative is or if you would like to take a free strategic narrative assessment to find out whether your company meets the mark with its messaging, you can find out more here.