As such, the question becomes—to what extent will brand cachet continue to be a material factor in how consumers make their smartphone purchasing decisions? By this I mean the extent to which a given smartphone brand enjoys a consumer premium not based solely and explicitly on the functionality, ease of use, design or price of the product, but rather on some more general and holistic aura that conveys prestige or distinction. The value of brand cachet is often translated into premium pricing power that transcends the objective factors of the device itself. The function of a trade mark is to create a badge of product identity for the consumer; the function of a cachet brand is to turn that product identity into a continuing and oversized commercial advantage. The greatest enemy of brand cachet is product commodification. When this happens, and the various product alternatives are differentiated only on the basis of price, the benefits conferred upon brand cachet disappear.
Against this background, is the smartphone market at the cusp of replicating the trajectory of the PC computer industry towards product commodification and away from brand cachet? Those with grey hair (if any hair at all) will recall that the early 1980s marked the high point of the PC brand. IBM leveraged its trade mark strength in the mainframe segment to turn a product assembled from off the shelf components to a brand that commanded a premium price. Even more dramatically, Apple offered the Mac alternative, promoting the brand almost from inception of the product on the basis of a unique brand image, here. But innovations in product fulfillment and distribution and price ultimately trumped the brand premium that most consumers were willing to pay for an IBM PC (the Mac never enjoyed a large market share). The upshot is that, except perhaps for die-hard Mac aficionados, the PC has become a commodity, with the leading trade marks in the PC world bereft of any cachet quality.
I think that it is fair to say that, for the moment, cachet brands in the smartphone world begin and end with the Apple iPhone (allowing for some debate over the Samsung Galaxy, here)— but no more. The profit margins enjoyed by Apple on its iPhone devices certainly reflect its status as a cachet brand. The threat to this commercially comfortable state of affairs was well-stated in the piece in The Economist, as follows:
In both rich countries and poor ones, cheaper smartphone brands are are making inroads. Demand for pricey phones, mainly in developed economies, is slowing but that for less expensive devices is booming. People buying their smartphone today, perhaps to replace a basic handset, care less about the brand and more about price than the richer, keener types of a few years ago.
As The Economist reminds us, other high-flying smartphone brands have proved to be “brittle”— recall the fate of Ericsson, HTC, Motorola and Nokia. Pricing and the process of commodification proved too much for these erstwhile mobile phone champions. When put to the brand cachet test, none of these brands endured. I can already hear the push-back—“Come on Kat, the smartphone is different from the PC. People relate to their smartphone in a personal way quite unlike the impersonal manner that they relate their PC. At the high end, even at the popular consumer level, there is a status and aspirational element that will continue to be met by cachet brand smartphone products.”
Perhaps, but consider the following anecdote. This Kat recently purchased a smartphone for Mrs Kat. Cachet brands are not her style generally, and so I eschewed them in favour of a smartphone brand that seeks to fit itself between the high and low price points for the product. Her reaction was “thank you, but all I really want is a bit of an upgrade for my 5-year old Nokia.” Commodification, here we come?