Happy Birthday, iPhone: what have you taught us in 10 years?

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Happy Birthday, iPhone

Happy birthday, iPhone. Alex and Caroline share ten lessons the iPhone has taught marketers over the last decade.

With the iPhone celebrating its tenth birthday in launching iPhone X, we’ve been reflecting on the impact this tiny cuboid has had on the big wide world of marketing.

You might want to grab a cup of tea…

1) Life suddenly got complicated – but it made us up our game

Apple normalised the concept of ‘smart phones’ in 2007; our humble aspirations to call, text or play a game of snake were blown away by capabilities which seemed unnecessary at the time.

But what a difference a decade makes. With a virtual supercomputer in our pocket, we have become uber-demanding as consumers (pun intended); the smartphone is our irreplaceable hub for hailing cabs, banking, shopping, dating and travelling.

The oceans of information we then mass feed the modern marketer’s craving to keep up with associated evolving technology and capabilities. Where broadcast media and ‘matching luggage’ creative were once the default approach, we now find ourselves grappling with new and complex considerations. Co-created content, telemetry, multi-device targeting, instant feedback and analysis, geo-location, in-app advertising, wearable data, contextual personalisation…buzzword overload.

Powered by the iPhone's success, the smartphone has ultimately helped to make marketers more responsible for their actions. Since data now drives much of our decision-making, we have an empirical, holistic lens through which to guide planning - perhaps ‘subjective strategy’ has had its day.

2) Data is the product

What the iPhone exploited (and which fuelled the successes of so many companies over the subsequent decade) is the idea that data has phenomenal value in its own right.

Laundrapp’s ambition to make the smartphone 'a remote control for people’s laundry', complements Edward Reif’s description of his laundry company as a ‘platform business’, commoditising delivery intelligence in the process. Similarly, Transport For London (TFL) made commuter data a revenue stream in 2016.

Phones now account for 61% of our internet usage in the UK. And of this, 90% is via an app. So with 2.2m apps on its iStore, the iPhone has naturally become an indispensable data conduit for the modern business – and digital marketers.

Considering consumers are far more aware of the value of their personal data and imminent GDPR legislation, we now need to navigate the delicate 'value exchange'. Yuval Noah Harari says “In the 21st century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos.”

3) If you seek evangelists, stand for something

Simon Sinek’s famous ‘Golden Circle’ Ted Talk called out Apple’s ability to communicate differently from the rest of the market. In a nutshell, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.

“We’re just enthusiastic about what we do” - Steve Jobs

Of course, Apple – and its iPhone - made technology cool. Launching a phone to 3,000 people on a great stage, and declaring how lives would be changed, was akin to preaching. As the mission statement conveyed and Steve Jobs summed up: “We’re just enthusiastic about what we do”.

iPhone has shown us that backed up by a great product, a sense of purpose is infectious: we evolve from ‘marketing campaign’ territory to nurturing a genuine movement.

4) The joys of a walled garden

iPhone loyalists can be forgiving people; excusing limited battery life, bendiness, long delivery times (currently 5-6 weeks) and high prices (a cool £1,149 for the high capacity X). Brand and product are major contributors of course, but Apple’s unique ecosystem plays a significant role in customer retention.

As a result, the iPhone (and the iPod before it) is often considered a ‘segue product’: the morphine hit inevitably leading to bigger things – iPad, Apple Watch or MacBook Pro (not to mention the associated software and peripherals). Of course, the products are then symbiotic.

With its stubborn/ingenious approach to owning both product and software - and offering seamless communications between all its devices - Apple is often accused of 'locking in' its customers. But since the average consumer owns 3.64 connected devices, we’re talking big business if these connections are all Apple-powered.

Developing from its integration with the MacBook Calendar and iTunes, the iPhone was a potent guardian of attrition in a disloyal market. Apple knew, as every retention modelling will confirm, that beyond a magic number purchases, escape is futile.

5) Don’t follow the market

Whether or not he uttered his famous statement, Henry Ford often gets the credit, sighted as a go-to ‘disruptor’. Or in plain English, someone who disregards commonly-held views in their drive to innovate.

"People say 'go with the flow' but do you know what goes with the flow? Dead fish." – Roy Keene

Equally, Steve Jobs was a disruptive force - his influence is a north star for Apple’s R&D to this day. Where did the physical keys go on our phones? We reeled when our headphone jack (in use since 1878) was cruelly discarded to history. And how could they turn their nose up at Flash? More recently, our industry was thrown off-balance once again when Apple redrew its regulations for Cookies on Safari.

The iPhone defied accepted principles to agitate an industry. For marketers, such boldness can be invaluable, especially when we're operating in a relatively safe testing environment.

6) Be a malcontent

The iPhone didn’t start out life in such a familiar form. And for the last decade, it has been meticulously tweaked and reworked – the design process itself, 'based on fulfilling the evolving needs of the customer’, became part of its mystique.

Achieving perfection isn’t the ambition. George Fisher, a professor at Stanford Law School, puts it: “When you aim for perfection, you discover it’s a moving target”.

This is a pertinent message for marketers, especially in today’s complex, digital and transient ecosphere. In our continual drive for perfection, aeons-old ‘test and learn’ direct marketing principles have never been more apt. The big difference today is that technology has enabled us to test, learn, re-calibrate and redeploy media spend in an instant.

7) The normalisation of AI

AI is considered as the ‘next great platform’. Perceived as lagging behind Google & Amazon in October 2016, Apple made a statement of intent in hiring its first AI director Russ Salakhutdinov, and has been quietly ramping up its AI acquisitions (eight and counting) to conquer the insanely competitive landscape.

Considered radical at the time, AI data (think Siri) is not stored and processed on the iPhone, but in the Cloud – which then relays responses back to the device. This means more processing, more quickly. Then consider the recent launch of Apple’s neural engine (in combination with the new A11 chip), arguably making the iPhone 8 and X the most powerful phones on the planet. The associated processing power will provide richer, faster and a far more contextualised data to drive the AI engine (particularly useful in fuelling the organisation's AR expansion). Apple desperately needs to demonstrate the difference this will make.

There are many applications of AI for marketers – too many to list in this (slightly sprawling) blog post. But for starters, many of us are betting on Apple’s investment in facial recognition technology for the measurement (and monetisation of) consumers’ reactions to ads.

8) Price is perception

Remember when phones were ‘free’?

Apple defied accepted wisdom at the time (something of a trend, see number 5) by overtly charging for iPhones on top of the costs already absorbed in monthly contracts.

With evangelical followers, continual innovation and assisted by an often-fawning press, the company has steadily increased its prices with every launch. Associated margins are fiercely guarded - but reportedly hit 70% in 2014.

It’s the ‘Stella Artois approach', using high pricing as a proxy for quality and confirmation of choice: the iPhone’s price effectively feeds the brand narrative.

9) Let the product sell itself

Hyperbole is so overblown.

As the adage goes: “Don’t tell them you’re funny – tell them a joke”.

And, major brand campaigns aside, Apple’s product marketing messaging follows this philosophy, honing in on just one thing: the product.

Communications depict the iPhone doing what it does best; providing a superior experience. FaceTime calls, beautiful photography, submersion in water or powering a room with music…

This isn’t about the technology, but the difference it makes to our lives.

Why tell people how good a product is when we can show them?

10) User experience is everything

The zeitgeist buzzword for marketers is ‘customer experience’. A noble aspiration in principle, but how many brands realise this in practice?

Back in 2007, iPhone’s user interface (UI) was supposedly designed so that no instruction manual would be needed – a radical concept for tech at the time. As (too many) videos on social media will attest, a baby can operate an iPhone. Hell, even a monkey.

This is because user experience is embedded into the iPhone design from its core. A dogged approach to perfecting customer experience permeates everything Apple creates, from its retail stores to packaging, call centres and communications - to the products themselves.

If we manage to embed this modus operandi into our world – with people at the core of everything we do – we could all be much more effective marketers.

Alex Hill is associate head of search at Merkle.

Caroline Taylor is team leader of search at Merkle.