While questions remain, Apple’s marketing strategy is finding its center

There’s been a lot said about Apple — plenty of it unflattering — in the vacuum since its last product event in October 2012, but Monday was Apple’s(s AAPL) turn to redefine where it’s going and what it’s striving for as a company. It did this partially through a total visual renovation of iOS — from the colors to the fonts, menus, apps, icons and more — but it also created a marketing video and a TV advertisement intended to reestablish Apple’s vision in the minds of consumers and the tech industry.

You can watch the ad here or see the posterized version. The response has been quite positive. Some see it as Apple’s first “post-Steve Jobs” manifesto, and that seems about right: it’s the company moving from the “Think Different”/”The Crazy Ones” underdog ethos that governed Apple under Jobs to the new “Designed by Apple in California” tagline. This message, which has always been affixed to Apple’s products in one way or another, looks like an embrace of its true position as a giant of industry while playing up its longtime design-centric heritage and adding a subtle reminder that your Galaxy S 4 is not from a U.S. company.

Apple California adIt’s a departure from Apple’s product-oriented ads that have dominated the iPhone era. But it may also be a course correction from a series of not-so-loved Apple ads from last year. And for those who’ve observed this somewhat painful transition, it’s not surprising then to read reports that Apple’s messaging machine has been a bit out of whack with Jobs no longer around.

What is Apple trying to say?

Bloomberg reported Tuesday that Apple’s longtime ad company, TBWA/Chiat/Day, is unhappy with a lack of focus coming from Apple marketing in the post-Jobs era:

Since his death, the meetings are run by Philip W. Schiller, senior vice president of marketing, which has meant less clarity about what the company wants its ads to say, people familiar with Apple’s advertising said.

Once Jobs had made a decision, no one at Media Arts Lab argued for long. Now, its creative staff becomes frustrated more often when Schiller shoots down ideas, they said.

Apple Genius adFor years Apple’s ads displayed an iPhone on screen with just a finger and a disembodied voice talking up a specific iOS feature; it simply showed the product and what it could do. Things veered off in a different direction (and tone) last summer when Apple made a series of ads meant to highlight its customer service, something the company deeply values. The ads were, however, not well received, and Apple ended up removing all traces of the campaign from the web and TV. The follow up ads showing Siri used by various celebrities were mocked for a different reason: it was a bit of a surprise that Apple would resort to celebrity endorsements instead of letting its products speak for themselves.

On the other hand, Apple’s latest round of ads released before WWDC have been embraced. It seemed like Apple was getting back to its roots with emotion-appealing ads that didn’t make a hard sell, but focused on what you can do with the iPhone (take photos, listen to music, etc.).

Attention to detail

But an Apple insider observes that things are still amiss. Ken Segall, Apple’s former ad man, points out a glaring departure from Apple’s longtime house style: the ad refers to “the iPhone,” which you would never hear Jobs or any executive utter because it was officially banned from use inside the company — Apple prefers “iPhone,” no article, similar to how Amazon(s AMZN) refers to “Kindle.” But somehow this made it into a high-profile series of television ads? It’s either sloppy or Apple truly is loosening up in this new era.

But Segall also noticed this about those ads:

Apple’s spots live on a different plane. They say that human-focused technology has a special place in our lives. They say that Apple understands what makes people tick.

But beneath the emotion and the art of them, these spots contain a simple selling message. Almost literally, they say “More people use iPhones, so you should use one too.”

It is yet another departure for Apple: as he notes, most of Apple’s history of advertising the Mac was the opposite — don’t use what everyone else is, think differently.

So which is it? Buy an Apple device because it’s been specially designed by California hipster artisans that will “enhance each life it touches” individually? Or, buy an already ubiquitous Apple device because 600 million people can’t be wrong?

It’s hard to tell if only marketing wizards care about such message inconsistency; after all, Apple has sold more 37.5 million iPhones between January and April this year. But Apple’s strategy might regain a little more clarity and consistency in the fall when Apple is ready to do what it does best — announce new hardware.