Does Apple Have A “Female Problem”?

No other company could have raised the anticipation bar as high and managed the PR tsunami as deftly as Apple did in the months leading up to the unveiling of the new iPad tablet.

But contrary to the stratospheric expectations, the iPad didn’t self-levitate, dispense cash, or heal the sick. Apple-watchers had their criticisms. Many called it nothing more than a “giant iPod Touch.” Personally, I was a little glad to read mixed reviews, given charges by some that major media – who might have much to gain by the iPad’s success – are incapable of covering it objectively.

Still, there’s no fan base as evangelical as Apple’s. Some began posting “I want it!” minutes after the most live-blogged product unveiling in history got underway. (Personally, I don’t agree with many of the objections. My disappointment was that AT&T is the sole data service provider. Not good.)

But, the masters of technology, design, and marketing may have stumbled a bit with the branding of the iPad. The most unexpectedly entertaining part of the announcement was the response to the name. While my first thought when I heard it was the potential for confusion with “iPod”  (particularly for Bostonians), to many people it connoted a kind of high-tech feminine hygiene product.

As Twitter users and message-board commenters piled on in the minutes and hours after the announcement, the one-liners were, um, flowing. Within moments, “iTampon” was a Twitter trending topic. By day’s end, bloggers posted an oddly prescient 2007 skit from Mad TV in which two female office mates share a confidential chat about a feminine protection product called – yep, the iPad. Blogs like adrants began to post the best jokes about the iPad branding.

So, does the iPad naming show that Apple has a…”female problem”? Many women bloggers questioned the decision, and some claim it shows a dearth of estrogen in Cupertino, at least where the marketing and branding decisions are made. “Do any women work at Apple?” was the theme of most posts.

Maybe it’s that the technology industry – with its CES booth babes and Silicon Valley geekpreneurs – is still a male-dominated one, both in numbers and in character. The typical early adopter is a man, and the way tech products are sold at retail reminds some women of the automotive industry. The tech-toy race is a stereotypically male preoccupation, and, despite women’s appreciation for technology, our default mindset is more practical than status-conscious.

Personally, though I might have favored “iTab” for a name, I think the period humor is way overblown. After all, the iPad comforms to the Apple product  nomenclature. And the word “pad” is used in scores of ways, including “notepad,” “mouse pad,” and “touch pad.”

The naming critics will lighten up, and the iPad will succeed or fail on its own merits. But, the iPad example shows that being gender-blind isn’t always a good thing. And, I’m willing to bet that, for the next big product branding, there’ll be plenty of women in the room.

How Method Cleaned Up A PR Mess

How do you clean up a PR mess? That’s the question Method, the natural cleaning products company, asks after a video created to rally support for the Household Products Labeling Act, which would mandate disclosure of chemical ingredients in common cleansers, somehow went toxic. It went from being the toast of the ad world to…well, just toast.

In “Shiny Suds,” a young mom enters her freshly-cleaned bathroom shower, only to be met with toxic animated soap bubbles who explain they’re chemical residue left by her cleanser. In male, frat-boy voices, the bubbles leer and jeer at her as she showers, while she cringes in embarrassment. The bubbles hoot, heckle, and egg her on to “scrubsy dubsy, baby!” Finally, they begin to chant, “Loofah, loofah!”

The point – that you can’t know what toxins could be lurking in your home without proper labeling – is clear. It struck me as a bit over the top, but memorable and mildly funny, especially the loofah bit. “Shiny Suds” was an instant hit with the trade press and blogosphere. It was hailed as a creative, witty way to promote Method’s labeling agenda and praised by marketers at the Association of National Advertisers conference last month and went modestly viral on YouTube.

Yet, a couple of weeks later, Method found itself on the defensive. called the video “creepy” and said its message was that the woman “deserved to be sexually harassed” by the dirty bubbles. Commenters, mostly women, were also in a lather. Many said they had already contacted Method to express their disgust. The Method madness continued when the feminist blog linked “Shiny Suds” to “rape culture,” drawing over 100 comments.

Talk about toxic. No doubt wondering how they went from viral marketing geniuses to sex offenders in three short weeks, Method moved swiftly lest the public relations controversy sully its (fairly spotless) brand reputation. It issued an apology for those disturbed by the video and promptly pulled it from official websites like YouTube. So, within a month, “Shiny Suds” was…well, scrubbed.

I’m as turned off by sexism as any other female professional, but I didn’t see it in “Shiny Suds,” let alone sexual violence. The bubbles seemed harmless. But, some might have missed that the video was meant as a parody of the classic household soap commercial, like Mr. Clean or Wisk’s “ring around the collar.” At least, that’s how I saw it as a marketing PR person, and others seemed to agree.

But, then it hit me. Method’s error – if there was one – was in not anticipating the sensibilities of its core customers. It’s a little like the flap over Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op/ed about healthcare reform. Mackey’s ideas weren’t unreasonable, but he should have known that his views would clash with the progressive values of the typical Whole Foods customer.

The “Shiny Suds” agitation is also reminiscent of the Motrin ad that hit a nerve with the momosphere last year. But, the difference here is in how Method responded…quickly and respectfully. They actually handled each complaint individually, and the statement the company put out was well crafted and timely.

The bottom line is this. Good public relations can sometimes mean standing up to criticism from a vocal minority, particularly when it goes against corporate or brand values. But, in this case, the protesters weren’t Method haters.

They were concerned women with strong political and social values who take any objectification of females very seriously. In other words, they were Method customers, by and large. By cleaning up its act, Method prevented the bubble of controversy from becoming a full-blown crisis.

Dell Gets Cute, With Backlash

Times are tough for makers of technology products.  So tough, in fact, that Dell took a leap with the launch of “Della,” its new shopping site created especially for women.

A leap backward, that is.  The site, which was unveiled a few days ago to market its line of netbooks to female customers, created an instant backlash among many women in the media and the blogosphere. The site’s design (in soothing pastels, including pinks), its photos (like a bland version of “Sex in the City,” circa 2000), and most of all, its content, seem at least ten years out of date.  The most criticized section was “Tech Tips,” which, in girlfriend-confidential tones, read, “Once you get beyond how cute they are, you’ll find that netbooks can do a lot more than check your e-mail.” It goes on to mention such groundbreaking functions as finding recipes online, tracking calories, and watching fitness videos. (What, no mascara tips?)

The good news is that Dell seems to have learned from its marketing misstep. According to spokesman Bob Kaufman, “Many people do see their laptops and netbooks as a style statement, and we want to be part of those conversations.”  It didn’t count on the kinds of conversations that Della triggered, but to Dell’s credit, it responded to the mini-backlash within hours.  As of this writing it posted an apology of sorts on the site, edited out the offending content, and responded to some pretty harsh criticism on Facebook (“Did your marketing team used to work for the car dealer who talked to my boy friend when I was buying the car, or the one who hand-picked the special “girlie” models for me, when I wanted to buy a pickup?)

The Della brouhaha shows just how tricky it can be to market to a particular segment, and how tuned you have to be to avoid mistakes. But it makes me wonder if Dell conducted basic market research among women who use PCs – in other words, did they talk to any women?

For the record, I have a Dell netbook, and I love it….for its price, its size, its practicality, and its features.  And, it has a cool paisley-ish pattern that’s different and, well, cute.  Damn cute.