Apple Hits Sour Note With Direct Marketing Ploy

When CEO Tim Cook capped off the marathon Apple keynote on Tuesday by bringing out Bono and U2 for a live number, it already felt over the top. Like an ice cream Sunday after a 12-course meal. But the main surprise wasn’t U2’s appearance itself, but the giveaway of the band’s latest album — “Songs of Innocence” — to half a billion iTunes users.

Depending on a user’s setting, the album would automatically download to their Apple device, or simply show up in the list of albums purchased through iTunes. Either way, it has become clear over the last couple of days that the direct marketing blitz hasn’t gone down well with many customers, leaving them confused, angered or annoyed.



“Great! A new U2 album in my iTunes. Now I am just waiting for a McDonald’s cheeseburger in my mailbox,” griped a Twitter user with the handle Mkleebe, one of many who have taken to the microblogging service to express their irritation at the unwelcome Apple gift. Another characterized the move as a “massive privacy breach.”

While some younger users might have been puzzled about getting an album from a band called “U2,” others seemed intent on showing off their disdain for a rock band that reached massive mainstream success long ago. “I was proud of the fact that I never bought a U2 album. Now I have one forced on me by Apple. Thanks for that. I hate U2,” tweeted Jon Willliams on Thursday.

Given Apple’s vaunted reputation as a savvy marketer, the backlash to the free U2 album looks like a rare misstep, and out of character with a usually more subtle approach to promotion. What’s more, the company didn’t really need to throw in the U2 freebie as a sweetener considering pent-up demand for the new, larger iPhone models.

The Apple Store online crashed early Friday from the traffic volume when pre-orders went on sale, and lines are sure to wrap around the company’s physical retail locations when the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus hit store shelves a week from now. Cook himself called it “the mother of all upgrades.” So why did Apple think it needed to add in the “Songs of Innocence” giveaway?

Had Apple simply announced the album was free for users to proactively download from iTunes, it would have avoided the backlash that unfolded. And in an online essay Tuesday, Bono himself seemed to acknowledge that some people might not be crazy about having the 11 new U2 songs pushed to their iTunes accounts.

“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," he wrote.

The episode, in any case, should be instructive for marketers. Even for one of the most popular rock bands of all time — and one of the most successful consumer electronics companies — bypassing the opt-in approach for online campaigns or promotions can produce the reverse reaction, even for free trials. And if your brand isn’t as durable as Apple or U2, it could have more damaging effects.

7 comments about "Apple Hits Sour Note With Direct Marketing Ploy".
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  1. Sue Macdonald from MacDonald Media, September 12, 2014 at 1:23 p.m.

    Getting a FREE album is no different than navigating to a TV channel that airs a program you don't like. Turn the channel. Free album? Quit complaining, and just delete it if you don't like it.

  2. Ed Berry from CBS Interactive, September 12, 2014 at 1:29 p.m.

    Great example of the brat behavior to expect from this type of consumer with their "how dare you" attitude when being presented with a gift. I'm glad this person never bought a U2 album. He doesn't deserve the great experience of hearing such GOOD music as that of U2. Good luck with listening to your Katy Perry albums instead.

  3. Laura Bajkowski from BAJKOWSKI & PARTNERS LLC, September 12, 2014 at 1:49 p.m.

    I echo Sue and Ed's sentiments!

  4. Jonathan McEwan from MediaPost, September 12, 2014 at 2:43 p.m.

    It wasn't pushed to anyone. It merely was added to everyone's "purchased" folder in the "cloud." If someone has their device set to auto download new purchases, it would have suddenly appeared in their music collection. I had to go and find it. Not a bad album. More curious to see how this affects billboard's rankings next week. Does this qualify as 500,000,000 purchases/downloads? Makes me think U2 may have approached Apple with this, since they benefit from the publicity and possibly the artificially high ranking, no?

  5. --- --- from ---, September 12, 2014 at 4:54 p.m.

    Siting a small selection of Tweets as evidence of overall public sentiment has become the new low-standard for journalism.

  6. Cliff Medney from Flightpath, September 12, 2014 at 5:15 p.m.

    Remember when running to Virgin or Tower Records for a promotional release (extra songs, discount, etc) was cool and exciting- established bands, indies. How this could have any "down-er" side clearly shows my age:) BTW, long live and keep going U2!!

  7. Krista Niess from MKT, September 16, 2014 at 12:22 a.m.

    I don't believe that apple is hitting a sour note at all by this direct marketing ploy. Apple has such a large enough following that they don't even need to do things like giving away a new album to receive interest from their consumers. I agree with one of the comments above, if one person doesn’t like the album going into their purchases then they can simply just delete those contents. There is always something to complain about in today society, if Apple chooses to give everyone a free album they can do so because this is their product and their choices to make as a company. In the case of this marketing strategy, choosing to have promotions to encourage your buyer to buy a product is the company’s choice and a decision the company needs to make, whether it has good or bad consequences. I think that we need not to focus on Apple’s intentions of releasing this free album for promotion of the iPhone 6 but rather U2’s goal in giving away one of their album for free to basically anyone with an iTunes account. This may spark interest in U2 and encourage people, who aren’t familiar with this band to buy their other albums, but Apple doesn’t need this promotion to sell any of their products especially the iPhone 6, their products and brand stand on their own and don’t need much help in promotion to spark interest.

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