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The immen$e power of branding psychology: iPhone 4 vs HTC Evo

July 6, 2010

In case you’re not one of the 3.1 million people (at the time of this posting) who’ve seen the iPhone 4 versus HTC Evo YouTube parody, I’ve embedded the “safe for work” version (clean except for the “R” word) below:

While the video is hilarious, it also illustrates a serious point for businesses, celebrities, and, arguably, all of us about the power of branding psychology. Our animated phone store rep states, “You do realize that doesn’t mean anything – it’s a brand… they could put out a brick and call it an iPhone.” For the Apple brand to work this effectively, however, it does mean something, about Apple and our conditioned perceptions of Apple.

The video highlights how Apple fulfills a couple of key branding purposes – differentiation in the marketplace and an efficient sales cycle – and begs a central question:

How does one create a brand so powerful, consumers can be faced with overwhelming evidence that a different, better product (or service) choice may exist and, yet, be so
loyal they “don’t care”?

To answer this question, I believe we must examine what I consider the heart of branding: psychology 101 – in many ways, a combination of classical and operant conditioning.

Without getting into a 45 minute lecture, classical conditioning basically associates an initially neutral stimulus (e.g., a brand, a logo) with a more significant stimulus (e.g., beauty) that elicits a reflexive response (e.g., excitement, happiness). From its simple logo to its sheik product designs, packaging, and advertising, Apple seems to have, for example, tapped into some pleasure we experience with a sense of order and simplicity. (Remember, there is simple that is boring, and simple that is powerful!)

In operant conditioning, the probability of a response (e.g., a purchase) is increased by a reward (e.g., satisfaction, enhanced image, increased productivity, decreased frustration). Apple, for example, has also done a great job creating a sense of community and identity amongst its consumers. We cannot underestimate the power of two well-documented psychological concepts: our needs for group affiliation and in-group / out-group thinking.

Thus, classical conditioning creates the conditioned (even unconscious) perception of what Apple “means” (e.g., it’s the best phone, no matter what), and operant conditioning creates the near reflexive purchasing behavior (e.g., I must have an iPhone 4 today). In successful branding, the emotional aspects are often crucial because emotions frequently override intellect, as illustrated by the video.

If these same phone choices were offered to consumers 10 years ago, I’d guess most people would buy the HTC Evo. Why? Because 2000 predates most of the choices Apple made to shape its modern day brand, and intellect, pros and cons, would likely rule the decision making process.

In a 2001 Apple press release for the first iPod, Apple states at the bottom, “Apple is committed to bringing the best personal computing experience to students, educators, creative professionals…” There’s not one mention of the business consumer! Remember those days? We can, however, recognize in the press release the seeds that Apple used to gradually broaden its appeal and which it still maintains. Words and phrases like “legendary ease of use… revolutionary… faster and easier… wherever you go… invented a whole new category…”

Apple has clearly stayed true to those core brand features, 10 years running, while repositioning itself (in our minds) as mainstream – not just for creatives – through advertisements such as the Justin Long “I’m a Mac” videos, the switch to Intel processors, and numerous other “make-the-switch” innovations. While iPod sales struggled the first couple of years, the iPod and iPhone became “gateway drugs” for many of us to the Apple computer lineup.

So to say, “it’s just a brand,” is an understandable sentiment on the surface but far from a full understanding. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others are engaged in a multi-billion dollar war to get inside your wallet… via your head and your heart.

[Disclosure: I was one of the “I don’t care” people waiting in line to get the iPhone on its release date, LOL! Pics below]

iPhone 4 release at the Galleria in St. Louis

5 hour line at 7am for the iPhone 4 release

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