Apple’s iPhone charger take-back program is genius PR—and it may even boost the bottom line

August 7, 2013
August 7, 2013

It wasn’t too long ago that a scandal like the Chinese woman who was killed by a faulty, probably counterfeit iPhone charger would have been met with total silence by Apple, a notoriously close-lipped company whose crisis management playbook was usually to stonewall as long as possible, then abjectly apologize.

But Cupertino seems to be getting more savvy with its crisis management, especially when it comes to the crucial Chinese market. After the electrocution death of Ma Ailun last month, and a similar incident the following week that put her countryman Wu Jian in a coma, Apple has launched a buyback program for fake iPhone chargers that is borderline brilliant.

Through October 18, Apple is offering to take back any iPhone, iPod, or iPad chargers not made by Apple at its stores and authorized service providers, and in exchange will sell users an authentic Apple USB power adaptor for $10—half the usual price. Users will also have to bring in their Apple gadgets, each of which has a unique serial number, and will be limited to one discounted charger per device.

Why is this such a genius move?

In a single stroke, Apple has inoculated itself from blame if any further third-party chargers disastrously melt down—as the shoddy, cheaply manufactured fakes are prone to do. If it had chosen to do nothing, it would have eventually faced some uncomfortable questions, like: “How many more people have to die because Apple sells overpriced chargers?”

By offering to take back any and all third-party chargers, even those made by legitimate accessories companies like Belkin and Griffin, Apple is cementing its own super-premium-priced chargers as the gold standard. Even at 50% off, it may still be making a profit. Blogger Ken Shirriff, who has done extensive analysis of iPhone chargers both fake and real, has noted that the components in Apple’s high-quality chargers only cost about a dollar more to manufacture than Samsung’s charger, which retails for $6 to $10.

And let’s not forget that Apple’s take-back program will generate a surge of extra foot traffic to Apple Stores, where users trading in their chargers may well decide to buy a new iPhone case, an Apple TV, or what the heck, maybe a fully-loaded MacBook Pro. The company collected $57.60 in revenue per Apple Store visitor in the first quarter, according to Asymco analyst Horace Dediu.

As Sina Weibo user 糊涂洒家 wrote: “Apple is calculating. The program saves its reputation on one hand, it also generates profit.”

The new canny Apple crisis management strategy may be a reflection of the fact that Apple, while still hugely profitable, is struggling to find its way and can no longer afford to be the impervious, non-responsive tech titan it once was. But it’s nice to know that some things never change: Apple’s spokespeople in Hong Kong, and California did not respond to calls and e-mails for comment for this story.

Chen Yifei contributed reporting to this article. It has been updated to add the comment from Sina Weibo.

Read next: Amazon is working on displays that Apple and Samsung can’t match

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