Lessons in Stunt Marketing: the Apple—U2 Edition, September 2014

When Apple Learned that 500 Million People Don’t Appreciate Free Music (or U2) As Much as Individual Choice and Respect for Privacy:

People love U2, right? At least that’s what the marketers at Apple presumably thought when they planned the big reveal of iPhone 6 and Apple Watch, the newest tech wearable and first smartwatch, in Cupertino earlier this week. And maybe their September event announcement strategy went along the lines of … So if we gift the new album from our long-time collaborator and pre-millennium world-famous band to all of our iTunes customers—all 500 million plus—what could possibly go wrong?

A lot, apparently, even if you’re giving something away. A brief recap: At a September 9 Apple event, CEO Tim Cook introduced some new products and upgrades, ending the keynote with a live performance by guest and veteran rock band, U2, who, along with Cook, announced that every iTunes customer in the world would receive the band’s new album (ahead of its public release date next month) for free. Cue the applause from the rapturous crowd. Then this started happening:


So people were confused and upset about not only having a musical artist they either don’t like or had never even heard of, but even worse, had been forced—as in, not given the option to refuse or accept—to receive this Apple-U2 digital fruitbasket because it was showing up in customers’ iTunes libraries as purchased.

Given that many Apple customers have already publicly vowed to become Android customers after this well-intentioned marketing stunt by Apple, there are a few lessons to be learned.

For starters, understand your audience. This is Research 101 but was clearly ignored in this case. I’m guessing the loyalty (i.e., money-making partnership) to collaborator U2 had something to do with the decision to push out their music. Apple makes their dedication to U2—and not necessarily Apple fans—clearly evident in all of its marketing content. And while there are probably many iTunes customers who are both lovers of U2 and Apple, certainly not all 500 million plus users are. So researching and knowing your audience includes being able to anticipate a customer base reaction, and more importantly, weighing it against your own marketing and business goals.

Also, learn from your competitors. Since the public backlash against Apple (and U2) started, critics have made open comparisons to Samsung’s collaboration with Jay-Z when he dropped his last album, noting how the tech company gifted the artist’s new album to all Samsung customers but only if the customer chose to download it themselves. Though I’m sure Apple especially wanted to differentiate itself from its competitor, it failed to adopt a proven best practice.

Finally, be humble. For a company like Apple, this might be hard to even fathom. But it’s necessary despite fan loyalty, unquestionable success, and industry leadership. Don’t be presumptuous and impose your ideas—and self-serving methods—on customers. Assuming your customers will accept you even after proven success is just another way of taking them for granted, and who would like that?