Owning Its Maps-App Flop Is a Brilliant Marketing Stroke by Apple

Acknowledging the Elephant in the Room Earns Credibility for Future Products

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Apple's apology for the shortcomings of its Maps app demonstrates once again why its branding goes so far beyond what most marketers are willing to consider. Every CMO should take note of the power of acknowledging reality.

When Apple delivered the new operating system for its mobile devices, it unceremoniously kicked Google's maps app off its screens and replaced it with Apple's own version. But the product wasn't ready for prime time, giving screwy directions and sometimes failing to find landmarks altogether. Media coverage focused on the firestorm of complaints it got on Twitter, as if it were a social-media phenomenon when it wasn't: It was a reality problem that Apple knew about within the first few hours of the product launch. What mattered isn't how people talked about it but what had prompted the talking.

A few days ago, the company acknowledged this reality with an open letter from Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, posted on its website, saying that the product wasn't up to snuff, the company was working to fix it and, in the meantime, customers should download and use competing products. Yup. Buy the competition.

The power of that gesture is huge. Its product's shortcomings were the proverbial elephant in the room, and by admitting its presence Apple earned itself immediate believability and authenticity. What it said fit with what we knew to be true, whereas ignoring it would have commensurately denigrated whatever its marketers claimed, and then dragged on its reputation when it got to making its next announcement.

Granted, now it has to actually fix the damn thing, but just think about the open invitation the company has just issued to the planet to come back and test it when they've worked out the kinks. That's more brilliant marketing.

It's not the first time Apple has gone down this path of truth. When Steve Jobs announced the iCloud service in the summer of 2011, he said this: "Now you may think, why should I believe them? They're the ones who brought me MobileMe. Let me just say it wasn't our finest hour, but we learned a lot."

Imagine if more brands similarly acknowledged reality before making promises. Elephants are stalking lots of industry verticals these days. Yet we get financial-services marketing without a hint of recognition that our economy almost collapsed and few of us trust them anymore. Energy-industry marketing talks about conversations and all the good done by oil companies, while avoiding even a nod to the fact that we all know that we trade environmental, social and geopolitical bad things for all the good things energy brings. Cosmetics promise to reverse the effects of aging when we all know, at least deep down, that doing so is scientifically impossible. Fast food isn't good for anyone, not even Olympians. The list goes on.

We marketers are optimists who believe that tomorrow is another day, and use that as the call-to-action to come up with new ways to promote our brands. But Apple's example should encourage us to face up to the fact that our customers have memories and, for those who might have slight amnesia, online search is only a click away. Our branding exists within a context of experience and opinion, so our promises for tomorrow are inexorably connected to and qualified by our performance in the past. That goes for good experiences as well as bad ones. I don't understand why more brands don't reference past successes more overtly when they make future claims.

Anybody who wants to understand why Apple's brand is so powerful needs to get off all those "reality distortion field" insults of its marketing under Jobs (the references to his amazing charisma were neither accurate or useful), and examine its repeated willingness to acknowledge reality, both then and now. Special note to its tech competitors: Call it what you want, but try copying its truth strategy instead of mimicking Apple's ad or design creative.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing-decisions consultancy, and co-author of the recently published "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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