May 16, 2024 - Business

Apple, Bumble apologize for marketing missteps

Illustration of a clenched fist holding the column of a billboard (as if it's a picket sign) which reads, "Your Ad Here".

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Marketing campaigns continue to make headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. Most recently, ads for Apple and Bumble spurred backlash leading to a mix of public apologies and removals.

Why it matters: Costly ad campaigns that don't land can quickly damage corporate reputation and highlight the disconnect between a brand and its key consumers.

  • And oftentimes it's the communications team that has to issue the apology and navigate the fallout.

Driving the news: Apple's recent iPad spot — which played off the popular and culturally relevant ASMR videos — showed creative tools like paint, cameras and musical instruments being crushed by a hydraulic press and prompted immediate online backlash.

  • As Axios' Scott Rosenberg points out, "Creative professionals and artists — one of Apple's key constituencies — already fear AI's impact on their jobs and our culture. The ad, many felt, made the company look both callous and brutal."
  • Apple later issued a rare apology for missing the mark.

Meanwhile, Bumble came under fire for its billboards that positioned celibacy as a bad alternative to online dating.

  • Bumble quickly apologized, removed the ad and promised the ad space to the National Domestic Violence Hotline and other organizations that "support women, marginalized communities and those impacted by abuse."

The billboards were part of a larger brand refresh campaign that sought to give women more choices to online dating — which many view as exhausting and overly time-consuming.

  • However, when on their own, the billboards didn't convey the full message which led to criticism and concern from Bumble users.

What they're saying: "The billboards were written and positioned in a way that suggested that [Bumble] was not listening and did not understand the nuanced conversations happening around celibacy right now," Sara Wilson, digital brand, content and community strategist, told Axios.

  • "In the case of both Apple and Bumble, there was not enough listening happening across their targeted audiences," Wilson added.

Of note, Bumble's apology did hit the right tone, according to crisis communications expert Molly McPherson.

  • "They owned it, explained it and promised to do something about it," McPherson said in a recent Instagram post.
  • Apple and Bumble spokespeople pointed to their public apologies when asked for comment.

The big picture: Following the Bud Light backlash, many brands are on guard for marketing campaigns and partnerships that might land them in hot water.

  • Yes, but: Any brand that wants to position itself as culturally relevant will have to insert itself into a cultural conversation, which is always risky, says Wilson.

The intrigue: These brand missteps are happening more regularly as the lines between communications and marketing become blurred, says Jennifer Stephens Acree, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based communications agency JSA+Partners.

  • "The problem really occurs when there's no one clear owner of the brand and when chief communications officers and chief marketing officers are out of sync," says Acree.

What to watch: 71% of CEOs view their company brand and their reputation as the same thing, per a recent BoatHouse report.

  • This perspective has created a turf war for marketing and communications professionals who operate in silos.
  • "You have a marketing team that's developing messaging that supposedly knows its customers, and then the comms team that's supposed to push out that messaging and then do damage control when it does not land well. That's a problem," says Wilson. "It's really important to those two worlds to be integrated from the start, but more often than not comms is brought in too late."

Go deeper: Apple's hydraulic-press iPad ad ticks off creators

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