Apple’s iPhone X is generating headlines as the biggest update to the company’s flagship product since its launch 10 years ago, but so is the eye-popping $999 starting price tag. Will the risk of sticker shock be a hurdle for Apple’s communications team?
Technology PR veterans doubt it. In fact, they say Apple could have easily priced the phone higher and still sold out the model in its first weekend. (Preorders for the iPhone X will begin on October 27 and deliveries start on November 3). The reason isn’t the device’s new gee-wiz features, like facial-recognition software, wireless charging, and an improved camera. Rather, they attribute it to the lofty status of the Apple brand in North America.
"The upgrade in features or function of the latest version of the iPhone is not what is going to determine its success," says Affect president Sandra Fathi. "The demand for Apple's products is just as much about the admiration and desire to associate oneself with the brand as its technology."
She adds that Apple could charge an even higher price for its smartphones and still command the same level of demand in the U.S. However, Fathi notes the company is more cautious outside of the U.S. where that price point is out of reach for the average citizen.
Sophie Scott, MD and senior partner for technology and strategy at FleishmanHillard Fishburn, agrees that the iPhone X’s cost – a more-than-$400 increment over an iPhone 7 – reflects the device’s position as the premium brand in the market.
"You can get cheaper phones, but then again, you can get cars cheaper than Porsche or Lamborghini," she says. "The question for Apple’s communications team is how to continually uphold that lustre in such a fast-moving, global mass market."
Adding lustre at the launch
With the product unveil of the iPhone X on Tuesday at Apple headquarters, the company added to that lustre in a few unique ways, starting with the "X" name, say experts.
"Apple’s been positioning this as the smartphone of the future and for the next two years, and so in naming the device, Apple jumped a number," says Henry Hwong, principal at Cunningham Collective, the firm founded by former Apple communications leader Andy Cunningham. "They are saying: ‘We’re delivering to you today not an iPhone 9, but an iPhone from two years from now.’"
Taken in that context, he says the $999 sticker doesn’t seem so outrageous.
Location also matters, specifically the venue where the tech giant demonstrated the product to media and other influencers: Apple’s futuristic, glass-topped Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California.
David Hargreaves, MD at Shift Communications, who ran the agency that did Apple’s PR in the U.K. on two separate occasions, says, "The revealing of the phone in the new auditorium further reinforced Apple’s design leadership, creating a halo for the iPhone X."
Apple also appeared to go back to some tried-and-true plays for its product rollouts, such as leaks to the media.
"These leaks, whether international or accidental, only build up the hype and interest. They feed into the buying frenzy regardless of the actual product properties. That is part of the Apple allure," says Fathi.
The product event didn’t go off without a hitch. Apple watchers on Twitter were quick to declare iPhone X’s Face ID authentication system a "fail," after Apple OS chief Craig Federighi couldn’t get it to work. After some embarrassing headlines, Apple went on the PR offensive to claim the miscue took place because the software worked too well, not because it couldn’t recognize the executive’s face.
However, experts say it wasn’t a deal-breaker that the demo went awry because most customers don’t care much about that feature. "If the glitch was for wireless charging, that would have been a much bigger problem," says Hargreaves.
Apple’s real iPhone comms challenge
Hwong and Hargreaves agree that the bigger question for Apple is how to position its new iPhone 8 and larger iPhone 8 Plus. Both were unveiled at the iPhone X launch, meaning Apple will be marketing all three devices at once.
"Apple finds itself with a very different marketing challenge on its hands," notes Hargreaves. "This is the first time it has launched a new generation of a phone that is not the ‘newest, must-have’ phone. The early adopter consumers who have typically bought the latest phone will not be buying the iPhone 8 or 8 Plus."
Apple’s target in their place? "The disaffected Android consumer," says Hargreaves, "The people that left iPhone for Android but are frustrated with the issues presented by the lack of deep software and hardware integration. The price point of the iPhone 8 makes it an attractive proposition."
Hwong agrees: "The question is really whether Apple can succeed with a multitiered strategy, because this is an interesting proliferation of SKUs."
However, he contends there will be enough of a market of those not ready to make the jump to the iPhone X.
"I think there is a sea of people who I call opportunists," Hwong says. "They want to upgrade just because it is time in their device’s lifecycle to replace it and will look to the iPhone 8."