How Apple Became A Luxury Brand Without Us Realizing It
Photo: Kaytoo /

How Apple Became A Luxury Brand Without Us Realizing It

Apple products have come a long way from their beginnings in Steve Jobs's garage. The company has taken a turn away from functionality and toward extravagance, leading many consumers to wonder whether Apple is now a luxury brand. The answer, overwhelmingly, seems to be yes.

"I have always thought of Apple as a luxury brand," Greg Furman of the Luxury Marketing Council shared in an interview with CNBC. "They have the hearts and minds of today’s most affluent consumers." How was a company whose merchandise is purchased by the masses able to transform itself into an elite fashion brand? Apple has accomplished this through subtle mass marketing, slowly evolving product lines, and carefully planned price increases.

Apple's luxury brand maneuvering might have reached its apex when it released the Apple Watch in 2015, with price tags for some watch bands soaring into the thousands. Although American consumers seem to be undeterred by these changes, Apple's attachments to style and image are not doing well in some international markets. The future of the Apple "experience" remains to be determined.

  • Even Back In The '80s And '90s, Apple Realized Its Biggest Selling Point Was Image, Not Tech

    "People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," former marketing executive John Sculley told The Guardian. "It was the marketing company of the decade."

    Sculley, a former Pepsi executive, was hired by Apple in the late '80s to transform the company's advertising output. His efforts brought in huge profits for Apple, making it the biggest computer company in the world.

    Since then, Apple has relied on its brand, not its products, to retain customers. This view has been confirmed by industry experts, such as Emotional Branding author Marc Gobe, who told Wired magazine:

    Without the brand, Apple would be dead. Absolutely. Completely. The brand is all they've got. The power of their branding is all that keeps them alive. It's got nothing to do with products.

    Gobe is referring to Apple's near financial collapse in the mid '90s, which was saved by rebranding. Now, consumers have strong emotional attachments to Apple. As Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, also shared with Wired, "People are drawn to... brands" like Apple "because they are selling their own ideas back to them."

  • When Apple Stores Opened In 2001,They Were Designed To Look Like Luxury Boutiques

    When Apple first decided to create retail stores, CEO Steve Jobs hired professionals from companies like the Gap and Target to put together mock spaces that were studied and built upon. 

    From the beginning, the goal of Apple executives was to create stores that are sleek, open, and simple, rejecting the look of tech retail chains like Best Buy or Staples. According to this approach, establishing exclusive and boutique-like shopping experiences enhances customer service.

    While the stores, which opened in 2001, have been a resounding success - there are now over 506 around the world - some people don't like the look and feel of Apple's carefully constructed retail spaces. Both employees and customers have complained about how difficult it is to finalize a purchase, indicating that the stores' real purpose is to promote the brand, not the products.

  • All MacBooks In Apple Stores Are Angled At 76 Degrees To Entice People To Touch Them

    One detail to emerge from studies of Apple stores is that employees are instructed to position MacBook laptops at a specific angle every morning before opening. They must use a level app on their phones to make sure the angle is a perfect 76 degrees (which at one point the company changed from 70 degrees).

    This positioning choice is a testament to the company's meticulous attention to detail, especially as it relates to customer interactions with its brand. By angling its laptops at 76 degrees, Apple encourages customers to interact with the screens because they are not at a straight 90 degrees, and need adjusting. This multisensory approach to retail enhances the emotional connection someone feels to what they're handling, providing them with a feeling of ownership over the product.

    By inspiring this type of behavior, customers are enticed to spend more time in Apple stores, immersed in the brand.

  • A Burberry Executive Redesigned Apple Stores To Resemble High-End Jewelry Stores For The Apple Watch Era

    Former Burberry executive Angela Ahrendts was hired as the head of Apple's retail operations in May 2014, just in time to prepare for the unveiling of the company's highly anticipated Apple Watch.

    Ahrendts's first order of business was turning Apple stores into "town squares," moving them further away from retail spaces and closer to meeting places where people would be steeped in the company's brand. The famous Genius Bar was done away with, replaced with floating tech experts carrying iPads. Ahrendts also insisted upon more open space in the stores, heightening the boutique aesthetic.

    The goal of these changes, according to Ahrendts, was to streamline Apple's services, but it also worked to strengthen the company's luxury image. Apple Watch displays made the stores feel like high-end jewelry shops, and employees were encouraged to tell customers things like, "I think the smaller one suits your wrist."

    Apples stores were now places where a Hermes-designed Apple Watch priced at thousands of dollars was no longer out of place.

  • 'An iPhone Is Saying To A Potential Mate, "I Have Good Genes. You Should Mate With Me."'
    Photo: Unknown / Max Pixel / Public Domain

    'An iPhone Is Saying To A Potential Mate, "I Have Good Genes. You Should Mate With Me."'

    Through effective brand marketing, Apple taps into the instincts of its consumers by making itself seem essential to survival, regardless of what it's selling. This is the theory espoused by New York University professor Scott Galloway in his book The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Thanks to Apple's ability to control people's feelings through the look of its products, those with Apple goods seem more evolved, and, thus, appealing.

    As Galloway told one interviewer about Apple's marketing approach:

    You’re either appealing to the brain, the heart, or the genitals, and as you move down the torso, the margins get better, because the decision-making becomes more irrational.

    He expanded upon this, saying, "An iPhone is saying to... a potential mate, 'I have good genes. You should mate with me.'" This is the sort of romantic appeal that is generally associated with luxury brands, not technology companies.

  • Apple’s Design Of Rounded Edges And Circles Has An Evolutionary Appeal - Pointed Edges Signal Danger
    Photo: Unknown / Max Pixel / Public Domain

    Apple’s Design Of Rounded Edges And Circles Has An Evolutionary Appeal - Pointed Edges Signal Danger

    Deeply embedded in Apple's design philosophy for its devices are rounded, not pointed, edges. The iOS operating system also features curved app icons and smooth transitions.

    One blogger on the website Pando summarized the effect of these choices on the brain:

    A neuromarketer would tell you that the brain loves curves but detests sharp edges, which sets off an avoidance response in our subconscious. In the way our ancestors stood clear of sticks or jagged stones fashioned into weapons, we avoid sharp objects, viewing them as potential threats.

    Perceptions of Apple products have been deliberately shaped to boost a user's sense of participating in a lifestyle that is cutting-edge and opulent. Scott Galloway believes one of the hallmarks of a luxury brand is "reverence for artisanship and craft," which Apple achieves in leaps and bounds.