November 12, 2014

Lessons learned from the infamous album debacle

by Nancy Appelquist, Director of Operations

It was a marketing collaboration of epic proportions when Apple and U2 teamed up for the biggest album release in music history. Apple customers are passionately loyal to the brand. U2 is one of the world’s biggest, best-selling bands of all-time. And, who doesn’t love free stuff? How could it go wrong?

Yet when the free album was pushed out and loaded into 500 million iTunes accounts all over the world, the reaction was not what they hoped. Plenty were happy—personally, I have an iPhone, and I just happen to like U2, so it wasn’t a problem for me—but so, so many more were downright mad. Outraged might be a better word. What went wrong?

Forcing it on users was the first problem. Half a billion people owned the album in just seconds, whether they wanted it or not. Offering a free download is one thing—that’s free music that I can choose to download, or not. Pushing it onto devices without even asking is an entirely different story. In a world where people demand to have a choice and want control and immediate access to virtually anything they want, they do not willingly accept things forced on them.

Here are a few reasons we believe Apple’s big marketing idea went awry:

  • It was invasive. The album release—labeled by some as an aggressive marketing assault—became an instant joke on Twitter, with annoyed recipients giving it labels like “malware” and “a virus called U2.” A person who’s already leery about sharing their information may wonder what Apple will try next. As an agribusiness consulting company, we understand this—data privacy is a huge topic in agriculture right now. Farmers continually want to know, “who has access to my information? What can they do with it?”
  • It took away the freedom of choice. Don’t take away their choice. We no longer live in a one-size-fits-all universe. We are a “customized for me” society. The end-user wants a say. They’ll tell you what they value most if you give them a chance to tell you. Don’t assume you already know. Fan or not, you gave it to me without my permission. How can Apple put content on my device without my knowledge or involvement?
  • It was a nuisance. 500 million users received the album to their iTunes account. And once it was there, it was nearly impossible to remove. One of Apple’s responses to the backlash was to offer album removal tool. But even that was confusing. It was so easy for them to give it to me, yet I now have to take complicated action to get rid of it. Bono, reportedly, even said "And for the people out there who have no interest in checking us out, look at it this way . . . ‘the blood, sweat and tears of some Irish guys are in your junk mail.’”
  • It was insensitive. People are already on edge about data privacy, so getting blindsided with 11 unwanted music tracks suddenly appearing on their phone can just send them on over the cliff when it comes to their level of paranoia. It was an unfortunate coincidence for Apple that this occurred within weeks of a major iCloud security breach where celebrity accounts were hacked. (You know the one.) But if they would have stopped to think, they might have realized this was the wrong move at the wrong time.

And that’s what it all boils down to: Apple didn’t stop and think. This was a bold marketing move, never-before-attempted by any other company. It required collaboration of many high-profile organizations and giants in the technology sector and music industry. Yet all these intelligent successful people sitting around the table clearly didn’t do their homework, and this epic marketing campaign was now an epic miscalculation. It made headlines, yes, but it really pushed the limits of privacy comfort zones and it went too far.

Their hasty decision probably won’t have lasting damage, as long as they avoid repeat invasions. Apple’s sheer size and access to their customers makes it easy for the company to blast out an apology and offer solutions quickly. Fast-forward six weeks from the announcement, and new iPhone sales are breaking records. The “Songs of Innocence” album was released on October 14 and in the first week sold 29,000 copies and landed on Billboard’s Top 10, both which surpassed projections.

Apple and U2, both beloved brands with huge cult followings, will emerge mostly unscathed. Smaller, lesser known companies without that kind of brand equity don’t have the same advantage, and a gaffe like this could be devastating. Brand loyalty can erode quickly. If you play fast and loose with your clients, they’re going to grow weary of that; and when the right mousetrap comes along, they’ll be more likely to switch to an equal or better product. Your customers won’t forget “the time you invaded their privacy.”

Smart companies stay close to their customers. This is where Entira helps ag and food companies every day—we hold up a mirror to our clients; we remove the rose-colored glasses. That unbiased, third-party perspective is incredibly valuable, especially when it comes from professionals who know your business and have deep-rooted experience in the industry. But there are times when even our own experience isn’t enough, and we know when the time is right to dig deeper and go directly to the customer. We pride ourselves on our in-depth research that gets to the heart of the matter by talking to our client’s customers and getting the unvarnished truth. 

Using experienced insight and market research to test your hypothesis about customer reactions to a marketing strategy or product launch is worth every penny. We help our clients avoid gaffes like Apple’s by offering services in strategy consulting, market research, and product launch support. We identify weaknesses in long-range plans. We talk directly to end-users, using in-depth research to get to the bottom of the issues. We know how to get the straight story, which is how we can give you the straight story.

If Apple had come to Entira, we would have advised them to test the idea with several different segments of their customers before getting carried away by a “really cool idea.” Instead of giving the album away, they could have extracted some value for the “freebie” by simply offering the download and asking a few demographic questions to receive it. That way only customers who wanted the download would have received it (avoiding the whole data privacy issue) and Apple would have collected valuable information about their customers likes and preferences.  

The biggest lesson learned is this—ask before taking a risk. While creativity and risk-taking may be aggressive strategies, make sure those risks are calculated. Do your research first. Test the hypothesis so you can better predict how customers will react to a product or marketing strategy before you go “all in” and find yourself in the aftermath of a marketing blunder. Feel free to contact me at if you’d like to discuss how to test a hypothesis before you inadvertently “pull an Apple.”