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Apple & Consumer Reports: of PR losses and gains

Mention ‘iPhone 4’ now to anyone and chances are the response will be ‘faulty phone’. Apple’s detractors have always perceived the brand to be low on utility/value and high on aesthetics. This whole antenna problem falls right into their waiting hands. Given the propensity of Apple fanboys to come to the defense of Apple every time there is a negative mention in online forums, sing paeans about Apple products and view everything else as infra dig , they are sitting ducks for those who wish to see Apple fail big time. Apple is the brand that some would love to sock it in the eye. The situation is helped along by Apple – especially with their PR practices.

At the eye of the storm is the negative publicity for iPhone 4’s reception problems, thanks to what is generally viewed to be a faulty antenna. I haven’t used the product so can’t make a personal comment over the quality of reception but based on reports doesn’t seem to be a rare, one-off problem. So instead of taking the issue head on and nipping it in the bud, the now infamous ‘don’t hold it that way’ email response of Steve Jobs stoked the fire. It sent out a signal (no pun intended) that Apple denies any scope or chance of a fault from their end. There was even talk of using bumpers as the solution – but Apple refused to offer them free. Maybe it was a logistical nightmare, cost issue…whatever but such a gesture could have worked wonders. If they could give refunds to those who bought the 1st gen iPhones at a higher price, why not give bumpers?

And then came the press release which attempted to explain the problem. While it kind of admitted the problem it also said that such a problem occurs even in other phones – Nokia, Droid et al. But what was picked up was that Apple is offering a software solution to a hardware problem (though it seems to be a hardware problem) – furthering the perception that the company is arrogant, doesn’t admit to mistakes, offers poor value etc. That said, I have personally experienced hardware problems with 1st gen Apple products – a faulty CD loader in Powerbook, the external casing that would peel off in the Macbook etc.

Bad news travels fast. And when it involves a brand whose fan base thinks they can’t do no wrong, everyone loves to pile on the agony. Scanning through blog comments on the iPhone 4 reception issue it appears that there are many who are fully satisfied with the iPhone – reception included. As one commenter pointed out in The Economist:

I’ve tried my hardest to recreate this fault on my new iphone and failed. I wonder if the explanation is more complicated than has been made out. Are only certain batches of phones vulnerable?

And then the Consumer Reports article happens. It has perhaps made Consumer Reports a household name in markets they didn’t even know existed. The sound byte of ‘iPhone 4 is not recommended’ has got picked up across the globe. Apple added to the woes by removing threads from their online Discussion Forums on this particular report (since the question was not ‘technical in nature’). Such censoring will hurt Apple’s image even more. While the report gives the iPhone 4 full marks on all aspects, except the antenna issue – that is what will stick in consumer’s minds.

Sadly all the other great features of iPhone 4 – the retina display, multi-tasking the Apple way, FaceTime etc are getting drowned in the noise. The last thing thing Apple should do is to remain silent or police the negative questioning on its forums. But that seems to the first thing they have done. It sends out a message that consumers are responsible for fixing the problems they have (by buying  a bumper or holding it differently), not Apple. Worse, it strengthen the notion among a certain section of consumers that this brand is all hype and no substance.

bhatnaturally

Ex-ad man. Love advertising, Apple, tech, digital, design and all things creative. VP - MarCom, @Robosoft. Views personal. See disclaimer for more.

http://www.bhatnaturally.com