Luxury versus Premium In Tech

Why aren’t iPhones being disrupted by low-end Androids?

Apple’s iPhones have retained their value (high selling price) and sales despite a large number of low-cost Android devices entering the market. The quality of these low-cost Android devices has also improved significantly, and as a result, many people have claimed that the performance difference between these and the iPhones no longer justify the premium prices. That is to say, low-cost Android phones are “good enough” in the terminology used in “The Innovators Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen.

If the low-cost Android phones are “good enough”, then Christensen’s theory suggests that the high-end iPhones could be disrupted. However, market performance of the iPhones suggest that this is not happening. New iPhones break sales records every year whilst the selling price has not come down appreciably. Interestingly, Samsung, which dominates high-end Android, has had a hard time selling its most recent flagship device this year compared to last year. If anything, what we are seeing is high-end Androids being disrupted by low-end ones, whereas the iPhone is somehow immune.

One big question is, why aren’t iPhones being disrupted by low-end Androids? Why isn’t Apple facing the same problems that Samsung is? Many people give many different explanations for this.

Differentiation alone is not the answer

A common theme is that Apple controls the whole experience while Samsung only controls the hardware. Hence Samsung has more difficulty differentiating itself from the cheap OEMs. While this is no doubt true, differentiation only matters if the unique features that you provide are useful. To illustrate this, imagine if iOS and Android were absolutely equal in utility. Then the differentiation that iOS provides would not provide a competitive advantage for Apple; it would only make them different. And being different alone will not increase your sales.

This becomes clearer if we go back to the mid 1990’s, when Apple was in dire straits. Even at that time, Apple had control of both software and hardware whereas DELL and Compaq did not. However, this did not help Apple at all. Because the classic Mac OS was no longer significantly better than the competition, differentiation was no longer positive; it was actually negative.

Although I do not dispute the importance of differentiation, it is only positive if you have a superior product. If you have an equal or worse product, then differentiation is actually toxic. Differentiation can be positive or it can be negative. Hence the key attribute that we should be looking at is not differentiation, but whether or not the product is significantly superior or not.

iPhones as a luxury

Another common explanation is that the Apple brand has now attained luxury status, and that this has made iPhones immune from feature and price comparisons. This means that iPhones can command high prices despite features being on parity with cheaper Android phones.

It also suggests that iPhones will be immune from low-end disruption as described in “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. Low-end disruption happens when technology improves the functionality of a product up to the point where it overshoots the needs of the majority of the public. Therefore, for low-end disruption to happen at all, the product must improve over time. Since luxury status is often not a function of technical progress, this makes luxury immune to “The Innovator’s Dilemma”.

I have huge issues with how the word “luxury” is used in these contexts. The way many people use “luxury” is to explain a how a high-priced product sells well despite the absence of any perceivable (at least to them) desirable functionality. They are not saying that the iPhone is luxury because it shares certain attributes with other luxury products; instead they are calling it a luxury because all other explanations have failed.

Regardless of whether the iPhone is truly a luxury or not, this is not how we should be using this word if we are serious about understanding the truth. Instead, we should strive to understand consumer behavior towards luxury products and see how the iPhone fits in.

Luxury vs. Premium

If you look up “luxury vs premium” on Google, you can see that this topic is quite often discussed.

James D. Roumeliotis sums up a long blog post with the following;

Luxury is not premium – and premium is not luxury. They are two dissimilar categories catering to different market segments.

A luxury brand is more about prestige and appearance – it’s about pedigree and social stratification. As objects of desire, they stand out as aspirational to all but a few souls. These crucial elements keep these products exclusive on purpose. Premium, on the other hand, stands for performance, value added, state-of-the-art, craftsmanship, and timeless design.

Mark Whiting conducted a market research study on luxury brands which is summarized in a blog post;

The criteria used to classify Luxury brands

Although putting a brand in the luxury or premium category is the result of a personal opinion, our Luxury Detectives agreed on seven criteria defining luxury brands.

  • Uniqueness: Irreplaceable objects, produced in small quantities, handcrafted. Can only be made in a specific place or country. Exclusive distribution: strategy of rarity, waiting lists, few stores. For one of our Luxury Detectives based in Los Angeles, Villebrequin perfectly captured the spirit of Southern France.
  • Timelessness: Products that will last that will never go out of fashion and will be passed on to the next generation.
    Excellence: They will be made by skilled artisans and the finest fabrics and fabrication will be used. Culture of connoisseurship. The best customer service will apply.
  • Iconic Communication: A very sophisticated and codified visual universe built on dreams, desires and fantasies .
    Sensual Aesthetic: Refined aesthetic that conveys sensuality, indulgence with a hint of extravaganza and it appeals to the 5 senses.
  • Brand Soul: Builds its identity around a creator, the history of the house, and has its roots in history.
  • Innovation: Brands that dare to push boundaries and surprise. They stay faithful to their roots, but modernize and adapt style to present time to express coolness

And finally, Seth Godin says the following;

Luxury goods are needlessly expensive. By needlessly, I mean that the price is not related to performance. The price is related to scarcity, brand and storytelling. Luxury goods are organized waste. They say, “I can afford to spend money without regard for intrinsic value.”

That doesn’t mean they are senseless expenditures. Sending a signal is valuable if that signal is important to you.

Premium goods, on the other hand, are expensive variants of commodity goods. Pay more, get more. Figure skates made from kangaroo hide, for example, are premium. The spectators don’t know what they’re made out of, but some skaters believe they get better performance. They’re happy to pay more because they believe they get more.

The iPhone attributes which are related to premium are;

  1. State-of-the-art performance: Despite having lower specs on paper, iPhones have had much smoother animations and scrolling than even the top Android devices. Benchmarks, particularly on web browsing performance have also consistently shown iPhones to be faster than Android.
  2. Craftsmanship and timeless designs: It has been widely recognized that the craftsmanship and design of iPhones are superior to Androids.

The iPhone attributes which are related to luxury are;

  1. Brand Soul: The history of the Apple brand and the association with innovation and the life of Steve Jobs is very strong and unique.
  2. Innovation: The history of the Apple brand has been around innovation. Many people perceive Apple to be the most innovative smartphone manufacturer.

On the other hand, some attributes that are important for luxury products, but are lacking on the iPhone;

  1. Uniqueness: Even in unsubsidized countries, iPhones have a least double digit sales share. This easily disqualifies iPhones from being unique in developed countries.
  2. Needlessly expensiveness: Although iPhones are more expensive then their Android counterparts, the price is not too different from Android flagships. You cannot say iPhones are needlessly expensive.
  3. Iconic communication: Commercials for iPhones always feature ordinary looking people doing ordinary things. They do not use iconic figures going to an extravagant location in a luxury car. Apple is not sending a luxury marketing message.

We can see that although Apple does have luxury brand appeal, their product, marketing and pricing strategies are very strongly non-luxury. Instead they are squarely aimed at the premium market.

It would be very wrong to classify iPhones as luxury.

Consequences

Premium means being a high-quality product with superior performance and design/craftsmanship. Advances in technology will allow new market entrants to easily attain a premium position in the performance aspect. Also, since manufacturing of Apple products is outsourced to China, design and craftsmanship are not too difficult to copy either (as proven by Xiaomi). Hence being a mainly premium supplier means that you will feel the forces of low-end disruption, and you are in no way immune.

Premium suppliers have to make sure that their products are always state-of-the-art with the best designs and craftsmanship. In the tech world where innovation (driven by Moore’s law) is so fast that any technology risks being overridden by “The Innovator’s Dilemma” in a matter of years (witness the flat-panel TV story), this is extremely difficult. What happens is that you may be state-of-the-art, but your technical expertise overshoots customer needs and becomes irrelevant very rapidly.

It is not constructive and even misleading to categorize iPhone as luxury. As with Samsung, Apple is subject to the forces of low-end disruption and has to ensure that the iPhone is premium by making sure that it is significantly better than cheaper Androids in both performance and design/craftsmanship.

Apple has been better at making their products premium. Samsung has failed. It’s that simple.