Apple's marketing prowess is legendary. It tightly controls the experience and creates extreme need for something that consumers never knew they wanted. That's why, when something goes wrong with a new Apple product, the reaction can be fiercely negative.
Therein lies an opportunity for rivals as well as partners. When social media reports surfaced that the new iPhone 6 Plus could bend solely from being carried in someone's pocket — which is how most smartphones are transported — the reaction was immediate.
Apple rival Samsung Tweeted a subtle message indicating that its Galaxy Phone was "curved, not bent." It didn't attack Apple directly as much as rode the wave of consumer social interest. (Someone at Samsung marketing apparently studied Judo.)
But others — Samsung fans and comedians — went for the jugular. One fan crafted a nice-looking ad — designed to look like it came from Samsung (and maybe it should have) — that showed a bent iPhone bowing down before a Samsung phone with the words "Bend to those who are worthy."
Comedian Conan O’Brien joined in, with his team creating their own Samsung commercial. (Note: The link is not especially safe for work environments, as it's a bit on the raunchy side. You've been warned.) It has Samsung implying that the bending is a sign of sexual impotence.
Even KitKat maker Nestlé figured it could boost its sales by jumping on the bend bandwagon, tweeting about its candy: "We don't bend. We break."
What is noteworthy in what Samsung and the rest have done is that it delightfully avoids getting into the facts of the matter. None of these pieces says that Samsung's phones are any sturdier than their iPhone counterparts. The beauty of the Judo approach to social media attacks is that specific refutations are not needed. Sales can be steered to your products simply be milking the rival's headaches.
But the benefits aren't limited to rivals. Vendors who sell the iPhone cases now have a terrific new selling point. As an Otterbox sales rep told a reporter late last week, "Our hard case adds significant strength to the iPhone structure, making the bend issue go away for our users."
Interestingly enough, this was the second gift that Apple gave to case-makers. Extensive reports had suggested that the new phones would switch from Gorilla Glass to Sapphire, supposedly eliminating the need for cases as it made the glass so immune to breaking and scratches as to make cases no longer necessary. Apple opted to not use Sapphire, giving the case creators a huge sigh of relief. (It turns out, by the way, that Sapphire was no better at resisting breaks and scratches than Gorilla Glass, but merely reacted differently.)
The marketing lesson, though, is simple: Once an event starts to capture the imagination of the public, a clever twist can turn another company's misfortune into your advantage, even if your product has no relation to the original victim. When a candy company can get mileage out of a smartphone's tensile strength, somebody has been logging in extra creativity hours.