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Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe and this is MNB Radio, available on iTunes and brought to you this week by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design.

I’m going to do something right now that I’ve never done before here on MNB.

I’m going to speak ill of Apple.

I’m going to do this because the company’s current travails - if you can actually call them travails when the problems concern the most successful product launch in the company’s history - remind me very much of what happened to Toyota, BP, Johnson & Johnson and other companies that once occupied positions of respect and thought-leadership in their industries, only to squander them because they took their eyes off the ball.

It can happen to any company. Indeed, at some point in time, it seems to happen to most. But to be honest, I expected more of Apple. My confidence is a little shaken. Not permanently, but I am, shall we say, worried.

The problems concern Apple’s two most recent product introductions, each of which have sold millions in fairly short order. The iPad and the new version of the iPhone. In the case of the former, there are continuing reports that while the 3G version is good, the wi-fi version, not so much.

The bigger problem is the iPhone, which apparently has a design flaw that causes reception to drop if you hold it a certain way...and let’s face it, when you have AT&T service, the last thing you need are complications. First Apple denied the problem, and then Steve Jobs essentially told a customer vie email, “get over it, it’s only a phone.” Then the company said that the loss of bars wasn’t the real problem...that the bars had never really been correct anyway because of a software glitch. Best I can tell, at this point, Apple remains in a state of denial about the seriousness of the part, i guess, because they’ve sold millions of the damn things.

The problem is that Apple doesn’t seem to be taking the complaints seriously ... even when Consumer Reports says that the reception problems are serious enough that it cannot recommend the new iPhone. It doesn’t look to me like the complaints are coming from Apple haters, but rather largely from people who love this company and want to love its products.

Even people like me - who have not yet bought the iPad or the new iPhone - are now sitting on the sidelines and thinking, “Maybe I’ll wait until the next version,” or until I’ve been assured that the products live up to the promise. Even people like me, who are deeply committed Apple users.

Apple has other issues, such as whether it is seeking to exert too much control over its platforms, or even whether it has engaged in behavior that is questionable under antitrust laws. But it seems to me that the core problem is whether the folks at Apple, justifiably proud for having created so many new and exceptional products, ignited so many people’s imaginations, and prompted so many sales of both hardware and software, began to get a little arrogant, began to think that the company’s needs were the most important thing.

That seems to be what happened at Toyota, where quality slipped to the point where the company’s central value proposition was questionable. That’s what happened at BP, where the bottom line took precedence over safety and environmental concerns. That’s what happened at Johnson & Johnson, which once wrote the book on how to handle a recall and now seems totally tone deaf.

And now, it may be happening at Apple.

I hope not. I hope that in Apple’s Cupertino, California, headquarters, there is someone running down the halls, yelling something like, “Stop! Don’t you people know what you’re doing? You are behaving in a way that threatens to bring down a truly exceptional company with a unique vision! Stop making excuses, and start listening! There is nothing less than our credibility - and how we are seen by millions of loyal customers - at stake.”

Credibility and loyalty are hard earned and easily lost.

It is like the lesson of the movie 50 First Dates, in which Adam Sandler’s character falls in love with Drew Barrymore...only to discover that because of an accident, she has lost the ability to create long-term memories. And so he has to find a way to romance a woman who never remembers him the morning after.

That’s what we all have to do with our brands. Not just romance the customer, but act as if they have absolutely no loyalty to us on day two. We have to earn that loyalty, every day.

It isn’t too late for Apple. I’m still rooting for them, still an enormous fan, still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt - just like millions of other people. But don’t take me for granted. Don’t think your needs are more important than mine. And don’t make the same mistake as the other companies I’ve mentioned - because I can’t imagine any circumstances under which I will ever buy a Toyota, I drive past BP gas stations just on principle, and there are a lot of other pain relievers I can take that are not made by Johnson & Johnson.

To quote one of my favorite movie characters, Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone in The Untouchables, “Here endeth the lesson.”

For MNB Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.
KC's View:
After I recorded this commentary, Apple announced a Friday press conference to discuss the iPhone. A recall is rumored. We’ll see.

One thing seems sure. Half-measures would be a mistake.