What colour is your iMac?

The first week the new iMacs came out, our company rented one. People gathered around touching it and whispering to each other, “It’s like the new Beetle.”

Somehow, this silly little trick of marketing managed to get the entire staff abuzz. They felt inspired, excited. They wanted one, just like the panic for the Volkswagen beetle, because to have one is to express that you are the tip of coolness.

It’s blue. It has a mouse shaped like an Eskimo pie. Big deal.

Steve Jobs had another “silly little trick” (my words, not his) up his sleeve. As he introduced new purple, green and orange iMacs at January’s Macworld, he stunned everyone who listened with these words, “We think one of the most important questions now is, ‘What is your favourite colour?’ This is far more important than the mumbo-jumbo associated with buying a computer.”

You could hear the mouths gaping open. I was relating this story to a couple of our programmers, and they sniffed and scoffed at Jobs. Who would buy a computer because of its colour? That wasn’t all he said, though.

He said, “What [people] care about is, ‘I want to express myself.'”

I suddenly remembered watching him on television years ago, playing violin in accompaniment to the little black NeXT Computer cube on stage beside him. That’s what it always was about for Jobs. He has always understood that, in our pop culture, we define ourselves by our products. By our consumer choices. Or, as Canadian author Douglas Coupland puts it, we live in a culture where we have confused shopping with genuine creativity.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that using a computer is not being creative. I’m writing this on a computer right now (on a PC, by the way). I see graphic designers doing some amazingly creative things with Macs. My significant other, Shannon, does creative television work with a Mac.

People indeed express themselves on computers. But why an iMac in particular? Why all the excitement for this eggy-looking device?

It’s not just because it supports USB, has a 6GB hard drive, a speedy processor and a funny mouse.

It’s because Jobs knows that people express themselves by consumer choices. It’s not just that the product is superior (if at all) — it’s what you believe it does to you or says about you.

It’s like coffee. I shell out three bucks for a coffee because I think I’m pretty cool getting a Columbian at the Second Cup, even though it tastes pretty much the same as the joe at Tim Hortons. But if I bought a coffee at Hortons, I’d be the same as that guy who trains his dog to fetch the coffee from the take out window. I’d rather believe that, at heart, I’m a guy who wears a beret and is a connoisseur of things such as coffee, films and Kafka.

I’d venture to say that people express themselves creatively by purchasing decisions more often than by traditional outlets such as playing the violin. This is what marketing people call the power of branding. The brand is paramount. Some people, such as Tom Peters and others, even go so far as to say that the brand is a “promise of the quality you’ll receive.”

Macs are very fine machines, mechanically. But that’s just the quality behind the promise. The brand is that shade of green that makes you reach for your wallet. It’s the poster of John Lennon telling you to Think Different. It’s the shape of the mouse. It’s Steve Jobs playing violin. It’s that little apple with the bite in the top right corner.

My iMac is yellow.

Martin is project manager at a Toronto-based communications company. He can be reached at jasonjmartin@geocities.com.