Apple’s Corporate Image Suffers Another Self-inflicted Wound

01/03/2018 12:38 am ET Updated Jan 06, 2018

In a rare show of humility, Apple has apologized for slowing down older iPhones and causing battery life to rapidly dwindle after a recent iOS software upgrade. This move has triggered considerable anger and even lawsuits. It is reminiscent of previous actions that cause many to wonder about Apple’s motives.

Antennagate

In 2010, when the iPhone 4 dropped signals, customers figured out that it happened when they held the phone a certain way. Steve Job’s solution was to tell them to hold the phone a different way. The problem is that customers were holding the phone the way they normally would. Rather than give the customers a case that could solve the problem, Apple tried to sell them the case. Complaints skyrocketed, Consumer Reports withdrew its support of the phone, and iPhone sales dropped taking the stock price with it. Apple ended up giving the case to complainers. The problem was so bad that it was dubbed Antennagate (using the Watergate suffix often applied to scandals).

Headphone jack elimination

In 2016, Apple removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. Despite causing an a small uproar, Apple’s head of marketing, Phil Schiller, called the move courageous. It’s more than amusing when companies congratulate themselves for taking self-serving actions that annoy their customers. While removing the headphone jack might be a good long-term strategy, it would be more elegant for the CMO (whom Tim Cook paid $60 million in restricted stock units over 5 years) to sell customers on the “benefits to them” of this move rather than tell them how courageous his company is.

Batterygate

Now Apple has done it again, after receiving numerous complaints about slowdowns of iPhones after a software upgrade, Apple has admitted and apologized for slowing down “older” iPhones. What’s more, rather than address customer suspicions that the slow down is an effort to compel upgrades, Apple is positioning the move as an effort to save battery life. The problem is that there is a frequent pattern of phones mysteriously slowing down with precipitous drops in battery life after software upgrades. Without giving customers prior notification, this too-frequent behavior causes customers to be suspicious of Apple’s motives. And yes, this scandal is now being called Batterygate. I, for one, wound up buying the most expensive iPhone X (with the most memory) because I did not want to chase good money after bad by buying a second replacement battery for an “older” iPhone. I figured that Apple would continue with this game, and I am too busy to play it. Should I feel duped? Maybe. In any case, I will remember, and I am not alone judging from the uproar and apology.

It’s about the brand

Perhaps Apple’s biggest asset post-Steve Jobs is its brand. To Apple fans, it translates to quality, good design, ease of use, seamless integration amongst other things. However, Apple seems to minimize the idea that all brands are based on trust. If Apple loses the trust of its customers – those portrayed as sheep standing in lines to buy Apple products by Samsung, it will lose everything. It’s surprising that Phil Schiller, Angela Ahrendts, Tim Cook and others that are paid handsomely seem to forget this every time a new problem emerges, some believe it shows a deliberate, condescending disregard for customers. Others think it shows that Apple is just inept in their crisis communications. Perhaps I am naïve or even a secret fan-boy, but I choose to believe the latter. Whatever the case, if Cook and Company are unable to improve the situation and dismiss their part in these mini crises, the Apple brand image is likely to erode further. Concerns about Apple’s seeming inability to innovate in the post Jobs era are being exacerbated by these corporate acts of self-congratulation that exude an attitude of “we know better than our customers do.”

Apple has a choice

Apple can continue to congratulate itself for its courage and its kindness for slowing down phones, without notice, to save battery life. If it wants to stay on a successful trajectory, it needs to get on a customer-focus track that embraces customer appreciation and customer buy-in. Apple should listen to all of its customers and not just the loyal Apple fan-boys and girls that accept, without question, everything it does. If customers attribute ulterior motives to Apple’s actions, Apple’s marketers need to listen to the signals and improve its communications to be more outside-in than inside-out. Customers are not mind readers. When they see and hear things that do not “smell” right, it is not their fault that they draw conclusions that might be the antithesis of Apple intentions. Apple has developed some great products. When things do not go right, it has to get ahead of the story rather than react in a way that causes the marketplace to think about ulterior motives.

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