What a difference a CEO makes. The change in Apple Inc.’s executive suite was evident this week when the company posted a fulsome apology from CEO Tim Cook on the Apple China web site. Apple, it seems, was not properly responding to complaints about its warranty and repair programs, prompting the Chinese government and state-run media to launch a fortnight of blistering criticism. In Cook’s mea culpa, which ran 12,000 Chinese characters (about 800 words), he apologized for appearing arrogant and outlined several changes the company will be making in China.
This is the second time in recent months that Cook has taken the higher road. Last September, he acknowledged the failure of Apple Maps, a cartographic catastrophe so inaccurate it stranded several iPhone users in an Australian desert wasteland with no food or water for more than 24 hours.
The softer approach is a departure from that of Apple co-founder and longtime leader Steve Jobs, who was called egotistical as often as brilliant. When customers complained in 2010 that holding the iPhone at a certain angle obliterated reception, Jobs snapped “Just avoid holding it that way” before eventually, begrudgingly, apologizing and giving away free cases.
Apple’s most recent apology seems to be smart. China is Apple’s second biggest market today and, as Cook told state-run Xinhua news agency in January, he believes it will become its first. All the more reason to keep customers extremely happy.
THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Apple. While the apology was the right move, it came two weeks into a negative PR blitz. It will be interesting to see if Apple sales in China have been affected.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Markets change, and so must marketing strategies. Part of Apple’s early allure was that its groundbreaking technologies and higher pricetags created an air of exclusivity; the attitude that occasionally exuded from leadership contributed to the appeal. Today, however, the competitive landscape is much more crowded, and Apple can’t afford to alienate buyers in such fertile ground as China. An apology today helps pave the way for a bigger footprint tomorrow.