Stop Marketing, Start Storytelling: The Inside story of how a small startup scored major PR points against Apple

May 22, 2017

 

On Monday, July 11th, 2011 I walked into our offices at 1500 Fashion Island Blvd and found the entire senior management team huddled around a conference room table. The air in the room was heavy, people sat around expressionless and glum. It felt like someone had just died. I looked around the table and asked: “What’s up guys, why the long faces?”

 

“Apple’s sent us a cease and desist letter”, our CEO, Ilja Laurs, responded. “We can’t use the term ‘App Store’ anymore.” He pushed the letter across the table to me. 

 

The PR and business implications were immediately obvious to me. At the time, GetJar was considered the leading independent app store on the planet. That positioning had been key to our success. Business had been challenging and the market was rapidly changing as iOS and Android, the two leading mobile OS platforms, increasingly dominated the market (we had been the leading platform for feature phone app distribution but also supported Android and what remained of the rapidly shrinking Blackberry ecosystem). We were now trying to position ourselves as the leading alternative to Android Market for Android app developers. Not being allowed to use the term App Store was going to make that job a whole lot harder.

 

“What do we do?", Ilja asked. I was CMO at GetJar at the time and PR, branding and positioning was my responsibility. Though the legal decision ultimately fell to Ilja we all knew marketing might make a big difference here. 

The decision that followed was probably one of the craziest, ballsiest moves of my career not just at GetJar but up to that point overall. 

 

“Give me some time to some research and I’ll get back to you but this is crap and there’s no way we’re going to let Apple get away with it.” I answered.

 

2 Hours later we were huddled around the same conference table. “Well?” Ilja asked. “What do we do?”. 

 

I smiled. “What the hell is so funny Mork?”, growled Bill Scott, our head of sales. 

“Guys”, I answered calmly but excitedly. 

 

“You have to trust me on this one but Apple just handed us a golden PR opportunity.” 

 

“How’s that?” Asked Chris Dury, GetJar’s COO.

 

“I did some research online. Apple doesn’t actually own the term App store. They’ve tried to trademark it and are doing the same to Amazon but they can’t really enforce it.”

 

“This is a classic David vs. Goliath story. Apple’s crossed the line. It’s one thing to pick fights with Amazon, Google and Microsoft but now they’re picking on a startup. I’m going to take them to the cleaners for this.”

 

“How?” Ilja insisted

 

“I’m going to send the cease and desist letter to the Wall Street Journal. We’re going to create a PR nightmare of epic proportions for them. The press is going to eat this up.”

 

And that’s exactly what we did. The rest is now ancient history but the WSJ ran the story and within an a few hours nearly every major tech site and most of the major newspapers had run the story the story as well. It spread across the oceans and caught fire in the UK and other markets. Some brave developers took to Twitter to show their support and the story even broke out on broadcast TV. MashableCNET and many others covered the news and the whole thing was a resounding PR win for us. David had won this round. We subsequently issued our own post on GetJar’s blog and flatly asserted we wouldn’t back down. We had been in the app distribution business since before 2005 and had as much right to use the term as Apple did. It would be the last major PR / marketing win for me at GetJar (I shortly thereafter, ironically, took a role at Google and eventually led the marketing that launched Google play; another story in and of itself.)

 

Why was this story so powerful? What made it so interesting?

 

One of the most powerful books on marketing (and social media) I’ve read over the past few years is Wharton professor Jonah Berger’s best seller “Contagious”. In it, Berger lays out 6 STEPPS for how we as marketers can make things go viral:

 

Social: People talk about things that make them seem in the know.

Triggers: Top of Mind, Tip of Tongue. We talk about what we think.

Emotion: People are moved by strong emotions. What emotions does the story convey?

Public: The more the story is in the public domain the more people will talk about it.

Practical: People inherently want to help others. They’re more likely to share if the story helps someone they know.

Stories: Everyone loves a great story. (United, VW, Donald Trump + Russia anyone?)

 

The Apple Cease and Desist letter touched on most of the STEPPS laid out above. It was social, it was emotional, it was public and it was quite simply: a great freakin story. It was the type of story that people intuitively got: a larger company throwing its weight around and bullying a smaller company. If you were in tech and if you were a developer how could you not read it? How could you not share it?

 

Today, it’s estimated that consumers are subject to over 5,000 ad impressions per day. In addition, 20-25% of all TV Americans watch is advertising. The point is simple: there’s never been so much news and with 24 hours in a day (8 of which is usually for sleeping) it’s harder than ever to cut through the noise. More importantly there’s plenty of evidence that Americans, particularly millennials, are increasingly being desensitized to advertising. Think about it: when was the last time you actually clicked on an ad online and bought something?

 

Now more than ever Berger’s STEPPS have become critical for companies trying to build an emotional connection with consumers. Sure, you can bludgeon consumers into submission with hundred of millions in ad spend but if you’re a smaller, more cash constrained organization you really have to develop a compelling story and make customers really “care” about why they should consider, let alone buy your product. Something that is simple, easy to understand, preferably interesting, that creates a powerful emotional reaction for the user (laughter, fear, shock, joy). 

 

Stories have been around since the dawn of man. They were around long before modern advertising existed but ironically have come full circle to become the most powerful form of advertising out there.  So whether you're graduating from the latest Y-Combinator batch or just raised your series B from the likes of Greylock Partners, Sequoia Capital or Andreessen Horowitz you owe it to yourself to really figure out a strong, compelling, and emotional story. The right story will set the very foundation for everything you do later whether it’s product development, PR or growth marketing. 

 

So as you think about your next marketing campaign or your next PR event think about your story. How can you leverage Berger’s STEPPS to make your story more powerful? How do you make it emotional and/or useful? Would people gain social currency from sharing it?

 

As I always say, every brand deserves a great story. What’s yours?

 

 

Mad mork

Chief Storyteller

 

 

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