Apple is one of the genius businesses in history. And by Apple, I don't mean the personification of Steve Jobs. The company has deep talent and insight. It's not as if Jobs was a one-man shop, after all.

The hallmark of Apple's success has been the way the company's activities resonated with its customers. So it was shocking when Apple's U2 album promotion blew up.

Even though 33 million people "experienced" the music, according to Apple, all that means is that number listened to at least one part of one song either through a download or streaming. That's a big number, but still it shows how this was marketing that dove head-first into the ground.

According to Apple, there are 500 million iTunes customers. Even with having something absolutely free delivered to the virtual doorstep so that those people had to do nothing to get the music, the response was 6.7 percent. That might be good if you were asking people to buy something from a direct marketing campaign. In this case, it means Apple couldn't even give the album away.

Maybe people were angry about the arrogance of declaring a universal taste, or perhaps younger customers asked, "What is this U2, and why is it on my phone?"

But the full answer is simpler: Apple made the biggest marketing mistake anyone possibly can. They treated their customers as objects, not people.

Not that Apple knowingly abused people. Clearly no one at the company would have thought they were being callous. And yet, they were because management was sure It Knew Best. It chose the music, assuming that all people, no matter their age and taste, would welcome it (or even know who U2 was). Even as it likely thought it was doing everyone a big favor, Apple placed the album on all iTunes accounts without any way of removing it.

Whenever you think you know what's good for your customers, you're walking a fine line. Apple has shown how a company that could get things right so often could make a critical mistake and put assumptions before understanding. Grasping what people want, even when they don't realize it themselves, is a function of time. Consumers, their tastes and needs, and the markets change. You must stay in close enough touch to notice the differences and react accordingly.