I. A Mogul is Born

We are living in what has been aptly named the Information Age. Characterized by the drastically increased accessibility of information, the Internet and even personal computers were born within its limits, and perhaps, even define them. It began in the early 1970s, and information began to make its way across countries and even continents in record time. This revolution of communication brought with it a thirst for innovation. This desire led to a boom in technological development; everyone seeing their opportunity to be part of a burgeoning age and hoping to discover the next thing that would grow to be synonymous with connectivity. Companies began cropping up all over the world to approach this endeavor. This was no different in the United States. Among other companies setting up shop in California was Apple Computer Inc.

Since its inception, Apple Inc., now referred to as ‘Apple,’ has appropriated it to create a brand identity recognized by millions around the globe. In sync with the Information Age’s and subsequently Web 2.0’s vision, Apple has always stressed individual thought. They emphasize taking the information provided to you and doing something extraordinary with it. Ever since their breakout Super Bowl XVIII commercial titled “1984,” it has been apparent that Apple was looking for their customers to engage in the Information Age, but to participate in the subsequent revolution that followed; to break the mold, to step outside of the comfort zone of conformity. This brand identity that Apple had created for itself as the rebel company, and its clear marketing to ‘thought leaders’ and intellectual revolutionaries also shines through in later marketing campaigns such as their “Think Different” campaign. However, in recent years, specifically after Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs passed away, the company has made some drastic changes to their business model.

In previous years, Apple was in the forefront. They produced one of the first smartphones, the iPhone, and it stood head and shoulders above the rest. The iPad was the only one of its kind for a while. They were innovating faster and more frequently than other companies could keep up with. Yet, this innovation has slowly begun to decrease, and more companies are gaining momentum, putting out new products at an alarming rate. These companies are not just gaining production momentum, but they’re also gaining a larger market share. Based upon smartphone market share numbers from September 2013, the Android operating system (whose share is dominated by Samsung) surpasses the Apple iOS operating system by leaps and bounds.

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Smartphone market share broken down by operating system, source: Forbes.com

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Smartphone market share broken down by brand, source: Slate.com

In order to compensate for this lack of market share, this year, Apple released the iPhone 5C. This phone in many ways is an attempt to expand the target market and customer base that Apple already has, therefore claiming more smartphone market share back from Android phones. However, is this the best move Apple could be making? With the release of the iPhone 5C, Apple risks diluting their previous brand identity, alienating their current customers, and diminishing the social status of their products by targeting consumers with less cultural capital and sacrificing their “elite exclusivity” factor (Lury 3).

II. Ephemerality or Practicality?

In previous years, Apple’s way of addressing consumers was extremely tactful. They focused in on who their target market was, and tailored their advertising strategies to reach those specific people. Looking back at previous, iconic Apple campaigns, it is clear to see who the intended consumer is. Campaigns such as ‘Think Different’ and even ‘Silhouettes’ both appealed to the innovative, creative, educated, professional adult. They combined both a call for forward-thinking and going against the grain as put forth by visionaries such as Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. and an appreciation for the playful artistry of color and movement.

Above all, they presented the viewer with abstract concepts. They focused on ideas rather than practical advertising. And this is, perhaps, why Apple has always been able to attract individuals with “high cultural capital,” or what he terms HCCs (Holt 6).

According to Holt, HCCs whose tastes “become a realm of self-expression” (Holt 8). They are this way, claims Holt, because many of these people have had the luxury of attending higher education, and therefore have been taught to appreciate and value abstract thought above practical thought (Holt 11). On the other hand, LCCs, individuals with low cultural capital, prize practicality above all else. This, Holt claims, may also stem from an economic aspect of both sets of consumers’ lives. HCCs, afforded a higher education and taught to value abstract thought, were able to have this opportunity to attend a university because they had the financial means to do so. This means that when they were growing up, they probably were able spend money on items which appealed to their tastes, as opposed to practical needs. LCCs, Holt asserts, may not have been so well off, and they would need to purchase for practicality, not taste, and would need to make sure that what they were buying would satisfy its practical need. This often times left taste out as irrelevant to a purchase. All of these aspects of birth, education, and financial means come together to explain this clear difference in HCCs and LCCs: “HCCs’ tastes express this distance from necessity…[and] express their aesthetic sensibilities,” while “LCC tastes are organized by a desire for pragmatic solutions to basic requirements” (Holt 8).

In recent months, Apple has released advertisements for the 5C, and these mirror the latter definitions Holt puts forth.

With advertisements like this now becoming Apple’s main outreach to consumers, it is clear what they are now focusing on: practicality. While before they were highlighting the triumphs of visionaries and paying homage to art, they are now focusing on their product. Instead of the abstract idea linking the revolutionaries to the Apple products, and therefore, the Apple customer with revolutionary thought, the commercial now makes an explicit argument why the viewer should buy a 5C; no thought necessary. It portrays the 5C as a pragmatic solution to someone looking for a smartphone. It displays the features, and at the very end, shows all of the colors available, so the consumer can walk away with a consumption solution to their problem. This shift in video advertisements, the main vessel for addressing consumers, has been drastic, and has symbolized the shift in audience that the brand is trying to reach with the advent of the 5C. However, video advertisements are not the only way that Apple has shown a shift in recent years.

Another channel that Apple uses to address consumers, and example of increased practicality in the brand, is their website. Apple’s website hosts various different types of product information and ways to buy products. It also provides comparisons and ‘easy-to-understand’ guides to purchasing your first Apple product. It tries to help new and current customers buying another product answer the question, “But which one should I get?” This concept of ‘user-friendly’ that Apple has tried to embody from its inception is built right into the website. However, recently, “user-friendly” has evolved into something more. A largely trafficked part of the site is now help forums, and other community-building tools to keep Apple users, or potential Apple users, involved with other current/potential Apple customers. Although this doesn’t represent the LCCs’ desire for practicality in the same sense Holt meant it, it emphasizes the mainstreaming of Apple products’ uses. By hosting a forum where Apple technicians as well as Apple customers come together to discuss the use of a product, there is little room for re-appropriation of such products. Customers are informed how to use the iPhone by the same source, and so, Apple controls the main dialogue on how an iPhone should be used. This relates back to Holt’s concept of connoisseurship.

“Connoisseurship,” according to Holt, is a “reconfiguring” of a mass cultural object, such as an iPhone (Holt 15). This means that although there is a mainstream use for the object, a ‘connoisseur’ will “accentuate aspects of the consumption object that are ignored by other consumers” instead (Holt 15). Yet, if everyone is gaining product knowledge, and especially instructions how to use a product, from the same source, connoisseurship can become very limited. Connoisseurship, as defined by Holt is a feature that most HCCs will exhibit. Thus, if this pragmatic forum is discouraging connoisseurship, that is two aspects of the channel that appeal to LCCs and not necessarily HCCs. This leaves Apple’s addresses as an experience that, while in previous years would have resonated with individuals with HCC, now caters to a demographic that, in Holt’s view, would possess LCC.

In fact, the 5C is the embodiment of this effort to target this new demographic.

iPhone 5C, screenshot taken by author

iPhone 5C, screenshot taken by author

With the option to pick from a variety of neon colors, as well as cases that match, a younger, more ‘playful’ demographic is being addressed and encouraged to engage with Apple. This version is also ‘cheaper’ than previous models (including the 5S, a ‘higher end’ iPhone model released at the same time), enabling these younger consumers to be more likely and able to purchase the model. This shift in addressee undoubtedly means a shift in the people actually choosing to engage with Apple.

III. Quantity or Quality?

Naturally, when a target market shifts, as Apple’s has in recent times to account for the discrepancies in market share, the community surrounding the brand will change. A brand community, comprised of the customers of a brand, in many ways helps to define the brand, just as the brand chooses their customers by projecting a specific image. Historically, Apple has appealed to creative business professionals. These businessmen and businesswomen attached a meaning of sophistication, simplicity, and professionalism to the brand. The clean, sleek, minimalist design of previous models, and even the 5S, that attracted these customers also helped to shape the meaning attached to the products.

iPhone 5S, screenshot taken by author

iPhone 5S, screenshot taken by author

However, now, with the release of a colorful plastic phone at a lower price, a younger demographic is taking an interest in the iPhone, and they are attaching meanings of playfulness. These younger consumers appreciate the ability to customize, and are even compelled to purchase the 5C based upon this feature. Whether it is purchasing new cases for an existing, simple device, or buying a device like the 5C that is already designed to be different from the start, color and customization are a way to show one’s personality through consumption choices.

These younger customers the iPhone 5C attracts are also much more likely to engage in social media such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others that emerge every day. They have grown up in the emergence of social media, so many are extremely active as older generations are not.

Age breakdown of social media users, screenshot taken by author

Age breakdown of social media users, screenshot taken by author

These customers’ engagement with futuristic ways of interacting is seemingly aligning this new product and therefore, the Apple brand, with the new wave of forward-thinking technology associated with social media. Their new iPhones make their social interaction possible, branding it, and the company that creates them, as a company encouraging the social butterfly effect that teens experience.

Subsequently, these same consumers who engage with the iPhone 5C are plugged in to pop culture, either in their lives or through the social media they inhabit, and are more likely to relate its use to features of pop culture. The 5C customers are therefore more likely to be interested in and have knowledge of what’s current or trendy. They can identify what’s ‘now,’ which also brands Apple as a company in the know.

It is also Apple’s hope that getting younger consumers to purchase their products will foster loyalty, and that these consumers will become customers for life. If that is successful, a younger customer has more time to spend money on Apple products than a person of an earlier generation. Yet, does expanding this brand community and all of the potentially positive aspects that accompany it, such as sociability, worth the potential negative side effects? Celia Lury and Michael Storper both introduce concepts that make the argument that aiming for the highest quantity sold is not always the best strategy for a brand to take on.

Quality over quantity. When companies advertise with publications, many times they are either looking for a qualified audience, an audience that would be interested in buying their product, rather than just anyone who is on the site. This same principle, wanting to target specific consumers that not only would be interested in purchasing the product, but give the company’s desired meaning to a product. This includes the type of consumer who is using the product. Michael Storper discusses the term “positionality” in terms of economics, and which he then applies to consumption practices (Storper 110). According to Storper, “positionality” is the concept that “a portion of the satisfaction we get from certain kinds of goods or services depend[s] upon their position in a hierarchy of quality and status, and not on their absolute qualities” (Storper 110). This means that we not only buy products for what they can do, but we buy products based upon what they represent to us and the rest of society. Storper says this positional consumption is also based upon the meaning of an object in relation to the others in the market that are similar. This, of course, relates to the iPhone 5C’s positioning among other smartphones. Unfortunately, this comparison has not really been in favor of the 5C. Forbes, among others, have criticized the new phone for “walking the fine line between cheap and chic” (Forbes). It doesn’t demonstrate the same dedication to quality and sophistication that the previous iPhone models had. It, in order to become a more egalitarian phone at a less expensive price point, had to be altered in such a fashion that causes previous Apple customers to question what Apple was thinking. While with past models, the customer could see a clear vision of sleek sophistication, now it is clear that Apple is just trying to reach customer at any cost—even if that means abandoning its former image of an exclusive, yet high-end, brand.

In addition, it is not just the phone that has decreased in quality. As previously mentioned, Apple’s new approach to addressing their consumers tends to target, whether purposefully or not, LCC consumers. In the eyes of brands, the LCC consumer is a valuable source of income, but the HCC is preferred because of the cultural capital they possess. By possessing higher cultural capital, they have more clout within their respective communities, thus almost lending themselves to being cultural intermediaries (Canclini 37). A cultural intermediary is someone who translates trends and tastes for others within their communities. It could be a classmate, journalist, etc., they inform others on what to consume. HCC consumers, with more cultural capital, and thus understanding of consumption and tastes within a community, are more likely to be a cultural intermediary. Brands, of course, want to target HCC consumers, and thus, cultural intermediaries so that these consumers encourage others to go out and purchase the brand’s product as well. In this respect, the HCC consumer could be considered more valuable and more of a quality consumer than a LCC consumer.

Relating to this concept of an increased interest in quantity over quality of not only the phone but of the user as well, Lury in her introduction mentions the term “elite exclusivity” (Lury 3). This term, which Lury applies to a Platinum American Express card, can be understood as applying to brands whose brand community is an exclusive one based upon limiting factors. This includes, in the case of the Platinum American Express card, an extremely high monthly spend that is rewarded with this card that represents an elite status. Hermes is another brand who has built their brand around elite exclusivity. Their prices are so high that only a select few people in the world can afford them, but in addition, they limit the amount of products they sell each year. Some even claim that this is what keeps the brand’s “Birkin bag” from going out of style. This elite exclusivity is what keeps the product novel, and makes consumers jump at the chance to pay extravagant amounts of money for one. This arguably used to be true for the iPhone. When it first came out, AT&T had exclusive rights to sell the iPhone. When it was first rumored that the phone would be available on all carriers, AT&T scrambled to keep this from happening. Why? Because these exclusive rights limited quantities and allowed AT&T to charge high rates that people were more than willing to pay and attracted new customers whose sole incentive was to own the coveted iPhone. However, with the release of the iPhone 5C, the opposite of this concept of elite exclusivity has occurred. Instead of making their products less financially accessible, thus limiting and greatly refining their customer base, Apple has decided to attempt to own more of the market share by expanding accessibility to the iPhone 5C. This expansion dilutes their customer base with LCC individuals clamoring for a chance to emulate the HCC consumers. Arguably, soon enough, the iPhone will become so accessible to the public that it will lose its status that Storper has mentioned. It will lose this status and cease to be novel anymore. This novelty, this previous exclusivity, is what made Apple the iconic company whose brand community everyone wanted to be a part of. It seems as if this theory of elite exclusivity is correct, coupled with the attraction of LCC consumers and a decrease in positionality, could potentially be Apple’s downfall.

IV. Exitlude: Will Apple Survive?

Apple can easily be placed into the category of one of the most popular, prolific brands to hit the market. From the very beginning, its methods of addressing consumers and creating a brand community were unparalleled. They were innovative and inspiring, yet exclusive without being insulting. Apple was the brand that knew how to become relevant and stay relevant in the fast-paced market of today. However, post-Steve Jobs, the company’s business strategy has changed. Instead of understanding that to celebrate exclusivity, a brand must also accept a lesser market share, the brand has tried its hardest to gain more customers. The embodiment of this effort is the iPhone 5C, released September 2013. It comes in various colors, with various cases available, and is priced at a relatively lower price than the iPhone 5S, released at the same time. The 5C has opened Apple up to new markets that perhaps before it hadn’t targeted. Yet, was this this best move for Apple? It’s far too soon to tell whether or not this decision to produce the 5C will have any effect on Apple in the future. However, based upon the structure of consumer culture, they are risking their current customers, their brand image, and the perceived status of their products in consumers’ eyes. The iPhone 5C may just be Apple’s biggest mistake yet.

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Works Cited:

Canclini, Nestor Garcia. “Consumption is Good for Thinking.”  Consumers and Citizens.  University of Minnesota Press: Minnesota, 2001.  Print.

Holt, Douglas B. “Does Cultural Capital Structure American Consumption?”  The Journal of Consumer Research.  The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1998.  Print.

Storper, Michael.  “Lived Effects of the Contemporary Economy: Globalization, Inequality, and Consumer Society.”  Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism. Duke University Press: 2001.  Print.

Lury, Celia.  “Introduction: What is Consumer Culture?” and “Exchanging Things: The Economy and Culture.”  Consumer Culture.  Polity Press: London, 2011.  Print.

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