Apple could charge a lot more – but should they?

Most of the things we own are OK, but a few special few are works of great craftsmanship, things of beauty. They give us pleasure in the same way that some houses, some architecture, is beautiful to look at. It’s something about being human that just looking at a building can be pleasurable yet we aren’t benefiting in any way from its function, we don’t own it, and may never even step inside it.

Beautifully crafted things usually cost more, which is understandable. In fact they often cost a great deal more – we have to pay a lot for small increases in quality, especially at the top end.

So luxury watches, handbags, wines (even business schools) cost an awful lot more even though functionally they may be rather similar to much cheaper alternatives. Luxury watches still cost tens of thousands of dollars more than throwaway watches that now are just as accurate at timekeeping.

Apple, under the guidance of chief designer Sir Jonathan Ives, makes beautifully crafted products. No tablet comes close to the build quality and sleek lines of the iPad Air, and the new Mac Pro looks like something developed using futuristic superior alien technology.

If these products came out from a company in the LVMH empire they would be priced many times higher. So why doesn’t Apple charge more? Even just a little bit more would do little to dampen demand and would add dramatically to profits. So why not?

Firstly, because Apple is in the technology business, where product features are very important and where it’s difficult to gain much of a technological advantage, certainly not one that lasts for any time. In handbags it’s taken for granted that they can all hold stuff, so design (both looks and build) matter enormously. In technology, basic functional factors like speed and screen size really matter, and Apple will never be far ahead of competitors.

Secondly, because Apple wants to build penetration and scale. They want lots of customers for their beautiful products who will then buy music, movies, books and apps from Apple – and of course future products. Getting an Apple product into someone’s pocket or bag gives Apple a medium through which to build mental availability for other Apple products. This is the same reason Amazon massively subsidies their Kindle price.

Thirdly, because Steve Jobs hated price premiums. He always wanted a lower price. Not a discount – he understood the need for profits to fund new product development and marketing, but as low a price as possible to still be profitable. He wanted his products to change the world, which meant getting them into as many hands as possible. Like Jonathan Ives he wanted people to see his art.

Anyone can have a price premium, it isn’t necessarily a sign of strength or good strategy.

So there are arguments in both directions, Apple should lower its prices and more aggressively chase share (closer to the Amazon Kindle strategy), or Apple should increase its prices and reap enormous profits. I guess from their perspective that means their prices are where they should be.

Out-take for marketers: a price premium might be nice for profits today but it holds back reach and scale, and that increases the riskiness of future profits.

PS A related interesting question is whether they should launch a cheap, minimal feature smartphone to bring kids and ‘light users’ into their fold? But they already sell the iPod touch and still have the iPhone 4S on the market so maybe this simply wouldn’t do much for them?

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