It has been a tough week for Apple. The world's preeminent tech company, which could once do no wrong, finds itself on the defensive amidst a PR nightmare the likes of which it has arguably never experienced before. For that, it can largely blame Consumer Reports.
Although discussion about iPhone 4 reception problems have been ongoing, and class action lawsuits have already been filed against Apple, Consumer Reports' refusal to give the iPhone 4 "recommended" status, its claim that the problems are indeed caused by a hardware issue, and its argument that Apple needs to solve the problem for customers, have clearly forced Apple into a corner from which it must now try to extricate itself.
How is it that Consumer Reports took Apple's iPhone 4 problem and made it go from bad to really, really bad? One word: authority.
Consumer Reports is published by Consumers Union, a not-for-profit organization "...working for a fair, just and safe marketplace for all." Consumers Union has been around since 1936. The first print issue of Consumer Reports came off the printing press in that same year, and since that time, Consumer Reports has built up a reputation as a reliable, trustworthy and totally impartial source of product reviews.
The rapid evolution of technology has seen previously authoritative sources lose their consumer appeal, and in many cases, their credibility. Some consumers, for instance, have come to trust blogs over newspapers when it comes to political news. But despite the rise of online product reviews, social networks and blogs, Consumer Reports has managed to stay relevant. And at a time when newspapers are having a tough time figuring out how to get consumers to pay for their content, ConsumerReports.org reportedly has more than 2m paid subscribers.
The reason: technology may have changed, but what Consumer Reports offers -- professional product reviews that consumers can trust to be unbiased -- has inherent value. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the impact Consumer Reports has had on mainstream perception of Apple and the iPhone 4 highlights the fact that authoritative sources are often more, not less, powerful today. While there can be no doubt that user-generated content has forever changed the way consumers will exchange information about products and services, and 'vote' them up or down, the truth is that we still give a lot of weight to authority.
Thousands of people can complain about the iPhone 4 on Twitter, for instance, but all it takes is one report from Consumer Reports to introduce you-know-what to the fan. There's an important lesson for business executives here: you might still be able to thumb your nose at consumer voices, but you shouldn't underestimate the power of a single authoritative voice. Such voices do still exist, and in these times of significant media fragmentation, they may matter more than ever.