SINGAPORE: Here we are again.
Just this week, Apple unveiled its line-up of new products for the coming year, with the announcement of three new iPhone models, the iPhone 11, a new Apple watch, a new iPad and updates on their streaming services and Apple Arcade.
Every Apple event draws a crowd of tech enthusiasts, Apple fans, doubters and even tech agnostics like me.
But at each event, I ask myself if Apple is still the aspirational brand it used to be, or if it has become one of the many tech gadget companies which come and go.
INSPIRING PEOPLE TO DREAM
People often ask me if an iPhone is a luxury item. Luxury is not easy to define. Luxury implies more than the price tag. It implies high quality and creativity but not only that.
Luxury is also embodied by research of the new and unknown, the chance to experience new lifestyles, to find new and not predictable or already seen solutions. Experimentations are a luxury.
That is why so many luxury brands these days partner cutting-edge artists, because of the combined signal it sends of creativity and commercialism.
By this definition, the first iPhone was certainly a luxury. It was a revolutionary product when it was first introduced. It inspired people to use their creative talents, to connect, to socialise in new ways.
It inspired people to dream. Owning an iPhone meant you aspired to that lifestyle.
A CHEAPER MODEL
Luxury is never openly stated. True luxury brands never use the word luxury to define themselves (after all, if you have to call yourself that it means you are not sure others share your view).
Rather, luxury is a title earned. Apple event was called “By innovation only”, a cute word play today
Most of the products Apple have introduced are certainly at the top of their category, in terms of the technology and appeal, which automatically makes them an expensive item.
But at the same time, the most sold iPhones are not the highest range. The iPhone Xs disappointed expectations and missed sales targets, while the iPhone Xr, at 20 per cent cheaper, the phone with the best value-for-money relationship, was the true winner last year.
Apple is expecting the same dynamic to happen with the iPhone 11, with the cheapest model, the iPhone 11 to outsell the top of the range iPhone Pro. In addition, the entry price point at US$700 is cheaper than last year iPhone Xr’s entry point, US$750.
NO LONGER LUXURY
Apple’s chosen nomenclature also signals that it is not aiming to be considered luxury any longer. The top of the range iPhone 11 is now called Pro, a very practical and utilitarian term which does not point to aspirational or luxury.
The pricing strategy and nomenclature both point to an awareness by Apple that smartphones have become a commodity, and that the aspirational positioning they held just few years back no longer holds.
It seems that Apple, instead of selling better products to the same people, is now planning to sell more products to more people.
Where Apple still excels is in its ability to connect all the products it manufactures in a cohesive ecosystem, something which works very well.
Technology nowadays has become an experience. And a well-connected ecosystem, which seamlessly works across software, device and payment is a true luxury.
Yet, even there it feels like Apple has become a follower, offering an array of services that other, often cooler start-ups and big rivals have offered earlier, polished with an Apple-y patina of design and uber-cool marketing.
Even with the main hardware upgrade and a better camera system that allows wider angles to be captured, the innovation in this iPhone is not that groundbreaking.
The new high-end Pro models include a triple-lens main camera, up from two lenses in last year’s models. All the iPhones include a so-called ultrawide angle lens, which makes it handy for shooting landscapes or large group gatherings.
It reminds me of many luxury goods brands jumping on the bandwagon of streetwear and sneakers just because the consumer clothing market is heading in that direction, without a clear point of view on how the new style integrates into their core DNA and brand values.
Don’t get me wrong. Apple products are still beautiful items which legions of fans will love to have. Apple still has some magic.
And Apple is finally rolling out its original Apple TV+ shows and movies in November, although this is only adding a new voice to an already crowded array of video-streaming options.
I cannot stop thinking that if Steve Jobs were alive today, he might be a bit disappointed by where the company and the brand are going.
It looks like the world is changing and Apple is catching up, not, as it should be, the other way round.
Amrita Banta is managing director of Agility Research and Strategy, a research and strategy consultancy focused on luxury and premium brands.