What makes the iPhone so uniquely desirable?
The Apple brand
Hate it or love it, Apple is one of the most powerful brands in the world and while its current global success is largely thanks to its smartphones, the company was well-known and liked long before the first iPhone came out in 2007. Apple’s iPod was the mp3 player to have and started a music-on-the-go revolution. Meanwhile, Apple’s desktop computers could be found anywhere from kids’ bedrooms to university computer labs and its MacBooks were equally used during business meetings and college lectures.
While people use Apple products because of their qualities, a big reason why they chose Apple in the first place was because of the company’s marketing. Apple’s ads always show cool, trendy, laid-back people and emphasize on how easy everything is with their products. Who wouldn’t want that, right? Besides the ads, Apple uses other methods to boost its brand recognition. The company gives free products to TV and movie production companies to use during shoots, making them more represented on screen than they are in real life. Apple also offers discounts for educational purposes. Universities and their staff and students can use them, which gives Apple a sizeable chunk of that market as well.
Then there are the Apple stores. The company’s “temples”, as they are often referred to, follow the clean and minimalistic aesthetic of the brand and their design is so distinct Apple even has patents on some elements of the stores.
The combination of all these elements meant that the iPhone came into existence as part of an already successful family. This gave it a flying start, but the rest of the journey to success was on its own merits.
The Apple ecosystem
One of the iPhone’s best features is its seamless integration with the Apple ecosystem. While it’s often called a “walled garden”, because of how strictly Apple controls it, the tightly controlled ecosystem also allows for better software optimization and ease of use. Users that rely on Apple’s products for personal use enjoy a relatively hassle-free experience when it comes to cooperation between the devices.
With each Apple product users buy, they get more and more entrenched into the Apple ecosystem. Even if another manufacturer releases a better product, whether a smartphone or a smart watch, Apple users are less likely to switch, because they’ll lose the integration with their other products.
The iPhone as a device
While the original iPhone wasn’t the first device with a touch screen, it was the first that made using one intuitive and easy. Things that have become the norm in smartphones like fast scrolling down a page with one quick swipe and sliding to unlock, were first introduced by the iPhone. Apple made people want to use their phones even if it was just for the sake of using them and for many getting one was “the future is here” moment.
Of course, throughout the years, Apple has released iPhone models with their own strengths and weaknesses, but overall, they’ve been consistent with what they offer. First, that’s the luxury feel. When you hold it, you can tell it’s a premium product. It’s well built, using quality materials and has an elegant design.
The premium price
Of course, there’s a price for all of that. Apple’s devices have always been on the higher end of the price spectrum, and while today most of its competitors on the smartphone market have similarly priced devices, subconsciously, people still think “expensive” when they see the latest iPhone more so than any other flagship device. Apple isn’t shying away from that term either, in fact, it calls the lowest priced models “least expensive” just to avoid having the word “cheap” connected to the Apple brand. iPhones are sold with the highest profit margin and the company is more than happy to keep things that way. People often perceive products as being of superior quality based on the higher price. And in the States, where “keeping up with the Joneses” is a thing, having the latest iPhone means you’re the top dog when it comes to smartphones.
The “cool” factor
It’s hard to describe this element of the puzzle with one word, but this is one of the main contributors to the iPhone’s appeal. While Apple has put a lot of effort (and money) to create the conditions for this X-factor to flourish, the extent to which it manifested over the years is beyond the wildest dreams of any marketing guru.
We’re talking about the widespread iPhone use by celebrities, actors, musicians, athletes and all sorts of people in the public eye. They can be seen using iPhones in paparazzi photos, mention them during interviews and post from them on social media. We’ve all seen the glowing Apple logo on the back of a DJ’s laptop, or the iMac our favorite YouTuber is editing his videos on. It’s a sure bet that they also use an iPhone as their daily driver. Apple has become the go-to brand of not only the creative type, but also the sporty, the business oriented and so on. The common thing among all of those is that if we know about them, it means they are successful at something, and that gives the iPhone a “coolness” aura.
And while many people think that celebrities have larger influence than they should, mimicking what the powerful of the day are doing has been around since the first cave people put a piece of animal skin around their waist (speculation). And when someone famous is seen using an iPhone, that’s not just free advertising for Apple, it’s also a point of connection between the popular person and its fans.
While we also see celebrities drive Lamborghinis and carry around Louis Vuitton bags, those are things most people can’t afford. But a smartphone? Everyone has a smartphone anyway, so when it’s time to buy one, why not spend $20 a month more and have the same iPhone as your favorite star! Sure, it also has a top of the line hardware and great benchmark scores, but chances are most people wouldn’t even come close to using its full potential. There’s a reason people jokingly call the iPhone X “$1000 Facebook machine”.
The iPhone obsession
This leads to a weird phenomenon where people, for which the iPhone is obviously outside of their price range, will make sacrifices, just so they can have the latest device by Apple. Getting a piece of technology to make yourself look like you are better off might sound ridiculous to some, but the mind can be easily tricked, and people might really feel better having an iPhone to play around with while eating instant noodles. Lives are revolving so much around smartphones today that an expensive device can be an oasis you go to temporarily escape from your troubles. And what better way to scroll through celebrity Instagram vacation pictures than on the same phone they used to take said pictures?
Something even harder to explain are the lines in front of Apple stores. People sometimes spend multiple days camping on the street before the release of the latest iPhone, just to get one a few days earlier than if they’ve ordered it online. This is more similar to the release of a new Star Wars movie than to the launch of a device that happens every year.
This cult-like loyalty can’t be achieved purely by marketing. And it’s not something hardware specs can trigger either. Now Android phones can match or exceed the measurable qualities of iPhones, but the “cool” factor still weighs heavily in Apple’s favor. The combination of all the factors we talked about has made Apple more than just a tech company: it is now closer to a lifestyle company that sells technology products to support that lifestyle. The strong customer base it has created allows them not only to reap financial benefits, but also to get away with things other manufacturers would pay dearly for. People defend Apple, sometimes illogically, not because that’s the brand of their smartphone, but because that’s a tribe to which they belong. And an attack on their tribe is an attack on them.
Of course, on the Android side of things there are strong brand communities as well: besides Samsung, the Chinese brands Xiaomi and OnePlus have some of the most dedicated users. The difference is that for them, it’s more about what the device can do functionally, rather than what it represents in society.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when smartphones became such a factor in our lives, but thanks to their usefulness and relatively short lifespan, buying a phone has become one of the more important purchasing decisions people make. And the factors that go into account when making that decision can be so different, that people almost get into physical confrontations because of differences in smartphone preferences.
And while factors like “What would people think if I have this phone?” might seem silly and superficial to some, humans have proven time and time again that the image we’re going after has a big influence over our actions. Sometimes a slight shift in perspective can be enough to understand behavior that might seem illogical or perplexing. For some an iPhone might be an overpriced manifestation of capitalism, but for others it’s a piece of a world beyond their reach. And it’s important to remember that both states aren't mutually exclusive.