Say it ain't so, Steve. America's best marketer blows it.

The iPhone is a short-term success. But some of the marketing gaffes made during its launch may have long-term consequences for Apple.

As the great Western philosopher Clint Eastwood said: "A man's got to know his limitations." We never thought that would apply to Steve Jobs. We expect mere mortals to make marketing mistakes. In some cases they seem almost inevitable. Ignorance, hubris, and marketing ineptitude are plentiful in business today, just as they have always been. So we're not surprised by marketing missteps:

  • The Edsel was a perfectly predictable marketing fiasco for a company – actually, at the time, an industry – with abysmally clueless marketing and communications. Ford wanted a product in the Edsel's niche. The fact that consumers didn't want one does not seem to have entered into their thinking.

  • Sony's Betamax blunder was predictable, too. At the time Sony was a company of engineers. They designed superior products and manufactured them with flawless quality. It didn't occur to them that the product was useless if it couldn't play the movies consumers wanted to see. And it couldn't. Because its tapes only ran for an hour. And while Sony was perfecting the product, JVC was signing up movie studios for its VHS format. So Sony was stuck without an inventory of titles. Unlike Ford, which did dorky advertising for decades after the Edsel disaster, Sony learned fast. They bought a movie studio so they'd never be caught without content again.

  • New Coke was less predictable. After all, the Coke CEO on whose watch the disaster occurred had told a bunch of creatives, "We don't put the taste into the can. You do." He understood that the "taste" of Coke was a consumer perception, not a tangible reality. He and his marketing director fixated so single-mindedly on blind taste test results that slightly favored Pepsi that they lost sight of the greater truth about brand perception. Consumers don't consume it blind. The logo adds the flavor. If they had changed the formula and never breathed even a hint of the change, they might have strengthened their market position slightly. They definitely would have avoided destroying hundreds of millions of dollars of shareholder equity.

    But all of those mistakes were made by mere, flawed, mortals. The iPhone miscues were made by Steve Jobs, who formerly seemed to have marketing superpowers. We thought he was the best marketer in America. How good is this guy? This good:

  • Steve took a product in a commodity category – personal computers – and made it so cool people pay twice as much for a Mac as for one of the undifferentiated PCs.

  • His iPod single-handedly changed the music landscape. He sold so many of the things everyone in America must have at least three. And as an afterthought he launched iTunes and preempted the business of selling content, too.

  • He got people to line up a day in advance to buy a mobile phone. A mobile phone, for heaven's sake! Cell service providers give the things away for free, and Jobs had people jostling for the privilege of paying $599 for an iPhone because it was cool.

It seemed as if Jobs could do no wrong. Until he did wrong four times in the space of a month.

Apple doesn't have customers, it has zealots. We've never seen their Net Promoter Score, but we'd bet it was somewhere in the vicinity of 100. And they jeopardized that lock on customer satisfaction and advocacy with four inexplicable marketing decisions that managed to offend Apple's most fervent acolytes.

1. Just a few weeks after the faithful camped out in front of Cell Phone City for the privilege of paying $499 for a 4 GB model or $599 for an 8 GB, Jobs dropped the prices $200. Early adopters expect to pay to be first with the latest cool toy. But being told they had been gouged $200 for a mere one-month head start on the technological hoi polloi sent some of them ballistic. So much so that Apple backtracked and offered a retroactive rebate to anyone who'd been gouged in the last week of the inflated price.

2. But wait! There's more. The $200 price cut on the 4 GB model was just while supplies lasted. Because Apple discontinued it. Imagine the Net Promoter Score of a bunch of former fervid advocates holding a $499 cell phone that's now worth just $299, but that Apple has decided is really not worth keeping in production. Instant obsolescence. The lucky ones who bought theirs a week and a day before the price cut had plunked down $499 for something the super salesman of Cupertino decided wasn't worth keeping on life support. A lot of money for a brief month on the leading edge.

3. Applications developers and programmers are the most fervent members of the Apple cult. Third party apps are as natural as...Apple pie. So imagine their delight when Apple sent out a download that disabled iPhones when third-party apps were loaded onto them. Now, instead of a $599 handful of leading-edge technology, early adopters who loaded third party apps had a $399 brick. And applications developers weren't feeling the love. Jobs backed off, and a patch was quickly dispatched to reactivate the inert iPhones, but a lot of damage had been done.

4. Apple's congregation is made up of lock-step individualists. Every single one of them is uniformly unique. The "think different" ads were an idealized personification of Apple users' self image. Imagine how pleased they were to discover that Apple's latest breakthrough was configured to work only on AT&T's system. No matter how much AT&T is paying Apple, it's not enough to compensate for the loss of coolness factor Apple sustains by being linked with a company which has one of the least-cool, most old-tech images anywhere. And by the negative feeling it engenders by restricting purchasers to one system.

A company built on loyalty and cool can't afford to dump on its most loyal customers and link up with the terminally uncool. Apple's tremendous reservoir of loyalty and coolness will get them through this crop of iPhone blunders without a lot of damage. But it's not the kind of stuff they can keep doing without consequences.

And, of course, they can't do it again without breaking our hearts into little pieces and stomping the shards flat. 'Cause we thought Steve Jobs was the best marketer in America.