360DigitalInfluence

Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide
Paul Sherer

by Paul Sherer
Category: Media, Technology

When Apple users were part of a devoted cult, they were willing to put up with the way Apple does business – never admitting problems (until now), keeping its users in the dark about serious bugs even when its own discussion forums are filled with dozens of people struggling to fix the issues. But the iPhone and the resurgence of the Mac have brought in millions of new customers from the world of Microsoft, and they’re not willing to give Steve Jobs a pass when the technology they depend on fails to work right. They’ve seen this movie before — Microsoft Vista — and it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Apple is having serious quality control problems with the iPhone 4 going well beyond the antennae problem that being discussed at the press conference Apple is holding at this moment. There are at least two severe problems with iOS4, the upgraded operating system that runs the iPhone. Most of the millions of existing iPhone 3G and 3Gs customers will update their OS, as they will be prompted to do automatically, and wish they didn’t.

iOS4 is excruciatingly slow on the iPhone 3G, starting with the several seconds it takes to unlock the phone. Switching between apps can be glacial, to the point where I’m less likely to use the app at all. Users are struggling to figure out how to revert to iOS3 while keeping their data intact.

Worse still, people who own both an iPhone and a Mac – i.e., Apple’s best customers – have had their calendars screwed up by a syncing bug between the iPhone’s Calendar app and Mac’s iCal. If you’re a busy person who depends on these applications to keep track of dozens of upcoming appointments and other important tasks and your calendar stops working reliably, that’s a very, very big problem.

Apple, as always, won’t acknowledge the problems, even on its own forums, and customers are very unhappy (see http://discussions.apple.com/thread.jspa?threadID=2495372 for the calendar problem and http://discussions.apple.com/thread.jspa?messageID=11919484&tstart=0 for the slow performance problem).

My suggestion to Apple? Stop thinking that the rules no longer apply to you, and start being more honest with your customers.

When we work to help clients through a communications crisis, we advise them to stop the slow leak of damaging news and come clean. If your product or the behavior of some employees doesn’t meet the company’s standards, your customers and employees need to hear that from you. Then show you’re doing everything you can to fix the problems – and get them fixed. Otherwise each bit of negative news will trigger a new news cycle built on the story line that this is a company in crisis (see Toyota).


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Does anyone feel like they are watching the Apple-version of LeBron’s “Decision?”  Sure, one is a device and one is an athlete – but they are both monumental brands in their respective industries being faced with very difficult decisions.

It is hard to argue that both the iPhone 4 and LeBron are at the top of their game – sure there are others great players, but these are the two heavyweights of their markets and its not very often they have been tested the way they are now.

Almost every man, woman and child (even those of outside of Cleveland, New York and Miami) are aware of the drama and speculation surrounding the free agency choice LeBron James made last week.  It has become a parody many cannot resist having some fun with (my favorite being the skit from the ESPYs last night) and has drawn the attention and commentary of celebrities, politicians and just about anyone with a blog and remote interest in basketball.

Equally so, almost everyone knows about the iPhone 4 antenna issue.  The way the iPhone 4 antenna “problem” has played out over the last two weeks feels very similar to me to the LeBron “Decision.”  Both spurred great excitement around their arrival (iPhone 4 hitting the market and the day LeBron became an official free agent).  Both had to make big decisions in very small time frames.  Both are on the receiving end of mass media and public pressures (where to play? what to do? when to do it?).

With the LeBron decision already made, here are a few things I think Apple can learn…

  • Take your time, but not too much: I’m not arguing that either party is taking too long, but responding in a timely manner is very important.  One report I read yesterday stated that Apple lost approx. $5B in market valuation since the issue started.  Not to say a company like Apple they can’t regain that, but it is a steep price to pay.  The longer you wait, the more the speculation will mount, the opinions of what you should/could/would/may want to do will pile up — and your ultimate decision will be criticized or debated. 
  • Stick to your brand/what you do best: LeBron went into uncharted territory with his one hour ESPN special and it wasn’t well received.  When I heard LeBron would host a one hour event on ESPN from Greenwich, CT, I was quite surprised.  The location (Boys & Girls Club was great – but Greenwich?), the format, the tone, etc. just felt packaged and it was wrapped in a commercial way that just didn’t feel right.  I was equally surprised this morning when I saw that Apple is now hosting an press conference tomorrow.  This seems very non-Apple to me, but the situation they are in is very non-Apple.  My hunch is that they stay true to their roots in how they manage this conference.  This will certainly be challenging for them as they’ll have to walk a fine-line between swagger and style and the more serious issue of what they plan to do to address the issue.
  • Get to the point: If you watched the LeBron ESPN one hour special about 15 minutes into it — you suddenly realized this was a 60 minute show, to find out a 20 second (or less) answer.  Q: “Where are you going to play next year?”  A: “Miami.”  Done.  People want answers around what you’re going to do and the why you’re doing it can follow (the details are still very important). Apple would do well to be up-front about this, provide the answer and then the right amount of details to follow.

Ultimately, how you handle your “decision” is quickly becoming almost as important as what you actually decide to do, but hopefully they’ll do it quickly, directly and with a bit of Apple style.

Now, lets sit back and wait for the next round of “The Decision” to play out…


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This past Monday, as I feverishly refreshed Engadget’s live Blog of Steve Jobs presentation at the WWDC conference, I was reminded of this excerpt from the book about the development of the Segway, Code Name Ginger, and this quote from author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

Apple has access to the same sort of raw material (in the form of people, technologies, strategies and tactics, etc) as their competitors, and yet is a very, very different company than all of them.  I’m not going to speculate as to why that is, this TedX video makes one argument, but I do think part of the answer – as suggested by the book excerpt linked to above which heavily features some of Steve Jobs thinking on promotions – is that the company is just more sophisticated and disciplined when it comes to marketing than most other technology companies.

Jobs presentation at the recent WWDC – and really, all his presentations – is a great showcase for some simple, straightforward marketing principles that more companies should employ:

  • Intensity: Apple treats its news like a precious commodity, hordes it, and announces it all at the same time. On Monday Jobs had 8 pieces of news. Most companies would string those out over 8 press releases and each would achieve the attention it deserves. By packaging them together their inherent news value becomes more, not less, significant.
  • Simplicity: Remember this article in the New York Times about the problem the US military has with PowerPoint? Apple doesn’t have that issue. Ever. Presentations are simple. A concept a slide. A word or two a slide. A picture in place of words whenever possible. Our minds seem to be wired to want to communicate in complex forms but to only understand things when cleanly and simply presented.
  • Credibility: Want people to understand how wonderful you are? Establish your credibility by showing them real, functional solutions (um, WiFi issues notwithstanding), and get partners and customers to help tell the story. If you’re giving them a big stage, they’d be crazy not to want to share it.
  • Beauty: Maybe it’s just me, but when Apple communicates something, it takes the time to make sure it’s presentation is, well, aesthetically pleasing. Look at the Engadget pictures. Sure the slides are text, or photos of hardware, but they look good. There’s nothing bad about being easy on the eyes.
  • Narrative: The presentation recognizes the importance of narrative, something I’ve written about before. This isn’t just a series of product introductions, it’s a story about what ‘we’ (Apple) are doing to innovate and create an even more compelling next generation of products. Narrative is important, it’s how people think, process and store information. There’s a story, an innovation story, behind everything Apple does, and it works.

By now, almost all the western world — and a good chunk of Asia and Africa — have all heard of Apple’s latest breakthrough product, the iPad.

The sheer number of impressions this launch has generated is in itself impressive. But what is even more impressive is the use of early adopters and key influentials to drive the story, enthusiasm, excitement and buzz for Apple, not the company itself.

Remember that Apple is not a company that is that into social media, yet check out the Twitter hashtag #ipad and end user blogs to get a sense for the mountain of coverage and interest generated for the iPad.

How does it do this? Good old-fashioned smart PR and a communications strategy that relies on the magnification effect of early adopters and influentials to amplify launch noise via traditional PR, Word of Mouth (WoM) buzz and aspirational excitement.

Here’s some of the ground rules:

1. Carefully pick and choose your hero product(s) for the year and put as much wood behind these arrows as you can. The iPad was THE launch of 2010 for Apple. The company maintains ongoing influencer relations, a thorough reviewer’s program, and ongoing engagement for other products, like their laptops, iPods, etc., but the focus was iPad and later this year iPhone OS version 4.0. That’s it. Laser-like focus, picking and backing your product bets, not spreading the wealth across a wide product range that all cry out for PR support, even though they may be close to end-of-life (EOL) and have reached the downward side of the S-curve. The other products bask in the halo of the hero products. See what the iPod did for Macintosh sales post launch? See what the iPhone has done for iPad sales?

2. Focus on long term influencer and early adopter relations and engagement. These are your natural allies. Cultivate them, let them talk for you because they ultimately carry far more weight and credibility than your own Press Releases, blog posts or advertising. Engage with not just technology influencers, but with business, social and celebrity folk that give you brand cache and style. It’s no accident that Stephen Fry is an Apple fan boy, so is half of Hollywood, thanks to decades of engagement with product placement on set and off set, with the stars themselves. Every episode of Seinfeld has a Macintosh and a small statuette of Superman in the background. Check it out next time re-run comes on. At one point, Jerry Seinfeld had a Mac too (and probably still does even though he did ads with Bill Gates last year).

So how does this translate into the iPad launch? How do these uber-strategies map with launch tactics? Well, here’s a synopsis:

The iPad launched officially on April 1, but embargoes were set for March 31. This means a wave of launch buzz and hype 24 hours prior to people being able to buy one (not counting the rumours and speculation in the prior nine months).

Key influencers were seeded with Product Verification & Testing (PVT) units three to four months out in some cases, depending on when these units were deemed stable enough and of sufficient quality to pass muster for people that will forgive non-production machine foibles because they love the technology and because they consider themselves Apple-insiders. These units went to key Apple business partners/friends (remember Google CEO Eric Schmidt got a pre-production iPhone and not so surreptitiously flashed it at Davos, where it stole the headlines rather than dry economic prognostications?), celebrities, technology gurus, etc. Also note that they all honoured the strict Apple NDAs — no insider wants to be ostracized and get thrown out of the club.

Journos/key bloggers in the US (a very select few, high impact folks) had their iPads under NDA for a week prior to launch, enough for them to play and enjoy, but not enough time for them to be too heavily critical. Launch reviews reflect that and it’s commonsense when you think about it. The shine always rubs off the shiny new toy the longer you have it. This early enthusiasm sets the tone for the launch coverage, providing the initial launch gestalt.

Celebrity Twitter-ers helped fuel the social media buzz. Stephen Fry was on the US West Coast at launch (funny how that happened) and put up video of the un-boxing of his iPad. He openly Tweeted he had one a day prior to the rest of the population. Robert Scoble did the same thing, except for the video of the unboxing (he later went out and bought two more iPads because his family kept hijacking his — and Tweeted about it). Reviews popped up the day before the official launch by Walt Mossberg and David Pogue in the US — two of the most highly respected tech journos in the country. Surgical media placement and engagement for maximum impact rather than a broad ‘hit as many as you can’ approach most companies take.

Foreign (that is, non-US) media got flown to a glitzy New York event and even if there was no pricing for their markets, they got to play with units at launch in salubrious surroundings and with high profile Apple execs. They in turn also had the opportunity if they were keen enough to buy their own units in the US, which judging by the coverage, a good few did, thereby continuing the buzz momentum.

And the result is, as you can see, a wave of initial great coverage that drives WoM, then sales and sets the tone.

More importantly its a self-reinforcing cycle of clever, surgical market engagement that fuels Apple’s mystique as a cult rather than as a technology company.

And the interesting thing is that other companies with ‘insanely’ great products could be doing the same to build their own mystique and stories. Mass communications doesn’t have to be massive, just smart.

Postscript: The iPhone OS 4.0 was announced a few days ago. Only Apple developers are supposed to have the beta code for testing. Stephen Fry, who last time I checked can’t cut a line of code, Tweeted yesterday that he had just installed it on his 3G iPhone. General availability for the masses is not expected until the northern hemisphere summer/autumn (fall).

Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide