Apple's Charger Take-Back Is a Model for Ongoing Brand Engagement

The Response in a Crisis Points the Way to Relating to Consumers All the Time

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Apple has asked customers to trade third-party USB power adapters for a nearly half-off discount on its branded accessory. This comes after a Chinese flight attendant was reportedly electrocuted last month while using an iPhone as it was charging. The take-back program has been hailed as a brilliant PR move to defend Apple's brand, because it shifts blame to a charger unsanctioned by the company, though investigators haven't confirmed that conclusion.

There's a bigger idea here, though, that makes this program a model for brand engagement overall.

I've always believed that consumers buy products and services, not brands. Marketing helps get them to make those purchases and, ideally, provides supporting contextual information over time. But consumers don't maintain ongoing virtual relationships with brands, per se. Relationships are the give-and-take of consumers and businesses doing things in the real world. Brands, especially nowadays, are the outcome of that experience, not its substitute, and metrics like repurchase frequency, premium pricing and customer satisfaction its measure. Branding is its narration.

Yet most of our engagement strategies assume the exact opposite.

We produce content to enrich our customers' virtual lives, primarily by entertaining them, and then measure its value based on how much time they spend consuming, liking or sharing it. We acknowledge the existence of these relationships in real life mostly by providing customer service when things go wrong with a product or it otherwise conflicts with users' expectations. We talk a lot about consumers owning the ideas of our brands, and less so about the fact that they're stuck with the things they buy from us.

Apple's charger deal suggests a different approach to engagement: Why not replace much of that imaginary brand engagement with exchanges, upgrades and updates for the stuff we sell?

Every product or service would have an ongoing value to the company from which you bought it. You could accrue discounts -- imagine dollars for months of ownership -- for an exchange when a new version came out, or be rewarded with special offers or features for contributing ideas or fixes to social communities of fellow owners. You would get updates and improvements pushed to you at no charge, along with frequent notices to help you avoid performance problems or user pitfalls. Your cost of ownership would go down over time, as companies passed on to you the marketing savings of having to find new customers to replace you. The best deals would be for existing customers, not new ones.

You wouldn't buy a car or smartphone as much as buy into an ongoing relationship with manufacturers (and/or retailers) that would have a next-step transaction baked into your initial purchase. The same approach could work for cosmetics or any other CPG category. Relationships would deliver value that increased for both parties. Engagement would be based in that reality, not fantasy, and brands would be built therefrom.

The Apple deal is brilliant crisis PR, because it gets off-brand accessory owners to question their purchases (those alternatives are getting called "fake" and "knockoff" in news stories), reaffirms the authenticity and added-value of its brand, and the company still probably makes a nice margin on the additional sales.

But it's worth a lot more if we apply its lessons to ongoing customer engagement.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is the author of "A Thousand Words: Why We Must Fight The Tyranny of Brief, Vague & Incomplete," and the president of Baskin Associates, a marketing consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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