When Apple’s latest line of iPhones hit the market in China last week, consumers went into a state of frenzy. Finally, Apple thought, we have hit the jackpot! But what exactly did they do? The iPhone 5s and 5c have reported successful sales all across the globe, with Apple themselves proudly announcing a target sale of nine million iPhones in just three days. Despite criticism from analysts denouncing the smartphone market as being completely saturated, the iPhone’s latest features and upgrades prove to be working in the company’s favour, with one particular feature yielding far more in revenue than Apple could have anticipated.
Or did they?
Gold. Or more precisely: champagne gold; one of three colours consumers can choose from in the new iPhone 5s range. By itself the colour is hardly impressive, nor is it any different to the technology and hardware of the white and space grey models, but when tethered to Apple’s brand image of high-end, sophisticated products, the dazzling combination is lethal and highly attractive. Gold has long been tied to semiotic ideas of royalty, wealth and prestige. In China these connotations are only magnified in a land of recent economic prosperity, so much so that the entire idea is indicative of a larger cultural consciousness; gold, in a land where social status, power and general wellbeing manifests within the material objects of its inhabitants, is not just flashy, but transcendent.
The psychology is twofold: firstly, it works on an aesthetic level, allowing Apple to further differentiate its products by offering appealing diversity in the form of a larger colour palate. But even deeper are the ideas of individuality and the power of exercising one’s freedom of choice to personalize items. In The Art of Choosing, author Sheena Iyengar attributes this consumer psychology to an inherent desire to stand out from mainstream crowds, as if choosing what appears to be a less conventional choice automatically credits you as being unique and special. And since colour is both visually distinctive and personal, it renders that choice even more pertinent to the individual who is, more often than not, viewing their iPhone not only for its practical functionality, but also for its symbolic validation of wealth and privilege.
It is a clever exploitative move from Apple. Taking advantage of a cultural neurosis of ‘shownership’ – a term coined by Bits blogger Jenna Wortham – whereby choosing an unconventional, seemingly unpopular choice in colour reflects a new wave of technology and incites jealousy and desire in others, is smart and expected. And even though we can argue whether Apple was deliberately conscious of this design choice, it ultimately conveys something about Apple’s desire to break into the Chinese market. The higher sale figures are due in part to the new iPhones being released and exposed in more regions and countries. In 2013, the iPhone 5s and 5c was made available to China and Puerto Rico, two countries which both missed out on new Apple releases in previous years. China alone is said to be contributing greatly to the overall sales of Apple’s new iPhones, according to analysts.
Greater exposure in a market of China’s size coupled with the status symbolism of gold equates to consumer frenzy on the day of release. Just hours after opening, reports were coming in that the champagne gold iPhone 5s had sold out within hours, particularly in Hong Kong and mainland China. Gold rapidly overtook all other colours as the choice of style, with consumer demand being so high that it even crashed Apple’s online reservation page. Chinese forums were filled with the anguished pleas for more gold-toned iPhones, which Apple responded to by stating that more were currently underway as they pushed for faster restock.
Above all, Apple knows its hit a goldmine with the aesthetic appeal of its gold iPhone 5s. Perhaps this will inspire the technology giant to find alternative methods to appeal to a broader and wealthier Chinese market. And hopefully they do, because if you can successfully sell a gold iPhone at a mark up of HK$2000 (US$1000) on the official price, and have consumers willing to buy it at this inflated rate (which is the case in Hong Kong right now), then imagine the potential profit of ‘next time’.
Apple definitely wants a ‘next time’.