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Summary:

On the heels of Apple’s iPhone 4 launch, I’ve noticed that I don’t hear folks refer to the device as a smartphone, or even a phone, but an iPhone. Such simple branding and product awareness goes a long way toward helping Apple sell products.

Apple has already sold an estimated 1-1.5 million units of the iPhone 4, but is it a smartphone? As far as commonly accepted definitions go, the device certainly qualifies: It runs a modern mobile operating system, supports installation of advanced applications and features a high-performance processor. But more often than not in conversation, I don’t hear folks refer to it as a smartphone, or even phone, but an iPhone.

This point was driven home when I attended a recent Career Day event at a local school to explain what I do: namely, report on the wireless industry and review mobile devices. To keep things simple, I started the conversation by asking: “How many of your parents use a smartphone?” Not a single student raised their hand, which caused me to break out into a sweat as I envisioned my entire presentation going down the tubes faster than you can say, “Wimbledon needs a tie-breaker process.” But then the light bulb went on and I asked: “How many of your parents have an iPhone?” Nearly two-thirds of the hands went up.

Such simple branding and product awareness goes a long way toward helping Apple sell products. Look at the iPad, 3 million units of which the company has sold in just 80 days. Instead of floundering around by trying to define the device as a keyboard-less smartbook or a tablet PC without native handwriting capabilities, Apple gave it a definitive name with specific, usable functions and in the process — as I noted when the name was first unveiled in January – cornered the nascent smartbook market before that market even got started.

While other platforms have similar recognition — “My dad has a BlackBerry,” one child proudly told me — Apple enjoys a branding advantage like no other. And it applies not just to the iPhone and iPad, but other Apple products as well. People have told me that they don’t use a desktop, for example, but instead use an iMac. “No, I don’t work on a laptop at home,” someone recently said to me. “I work on my MacBook.” I simply didn’t have the heart to explain what I thought was an obvious point: a MacBook by every definition is a laptop. And last month when we had some Wi-Fi issues at my house, I asked one of the kids to unplug our router. I got a blank look until I said, “The AirPort Extreme,” to which he replied, “Why didn’t you just say so?” Such brand recognition is akin to that of the Frisbee™– a registered trademark for Wham-O’s flying disc, but a name commonly associated to all such similar toys.

So for those of you with an iPhone 4 in your pocket, have you — or would you — ever call it anything else?

Related content on GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Marketing Handsets in the Superphone Era

By Kevin C. Tofel

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  1. I refer to it as an iPhone 4, as snobbish as it might sound.

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    1. But that’s really why you do it, isn’t it?

      Let’s be honest. If you didn’t regard it as a status symbol then you would use the far lest cumbersome word ‘phone’.

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      1. I have no problem admitting that I, at times, do tend to be a snob.
        What I originally meant to say was that when referring to the phone, I would say that I have the ‘iPhone 4′ rather than an ‘iPhone’. I don’t think that it’s because of the status symbol that might be associated with such a thing, as much as the geeky part of me that is excited for having one.

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      2. Final note – One of the first things I did wass change the signature from ‘Sent from my iPhone’ to ‘–My First name’.

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    2. When they start selling them at Walmart and Radio Shack and 2/3 of the classroom raises its hand that their parents own an iphone, I think it has officially lost its place as a status symbol.

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  2. Other than the i-products (iPod, iPhone, etc), I wouldn’t say that Apple’s brands are well known at all (aside from the people who actually own Macs and Apple peripherals).

    Ask the average person what an Apple TV is, and they’ll probably tell you that they didn’t know that Apple made TVs. Ask them what a Magic Mouse is, and I assure you they won’t know. If you ask the average person what Mac laptops are called, most probably won’t know they’re called MacBooks. If you ask someone if they have ever tried a Mac Mini, they’ll probably assume your talking about a dollar-menu sandwich at McDonald’s.

    People know the i-prefix, and they know it has something to do with iPods, but Apple’s brand recognition really doesn’t go deeper than that. There’s a reason that Apple went with the name “iPad” and not something classier like “Apple Slate”, or “Apple Tablet”.

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    1. Jonathan Campbell Saturday, June 26, 2010

      I think you’re right, that people don’t know AppleTV, Mac Pro, Magic Mouse, etc. But people know the most IMPORTANT thing – that Apple makes very cool things. If they know that, then if and when they hear of an Apple Magic Mouse, they’re likely assume that whatever it is, it MUST be as cool as the “i” devices they already know… because it’s Apple. How many other brands can say that?

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    2. If Apple does revamp it and let’s it run apps and face time then everyone will know what an appletv is, don’t you worry.

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    3. I’d say that most people would know about MacBooks, but that might just be me.

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    4. I’d disagree with you on the Mac side. In my nearly-Mac-free high school, I’m one of about five students who bring a MacBook or a MacBook Pro. Trust me, when my laptop is mentioned in conversation or discussed, they will invariably call it “your MacBook”, never “your laptop”. They know it’s a Mac, and almost go out of their way to specify it.

      I think Apple has fantastic brand recognition on the Mac front, especially with the Mac notebooks. At least with high school kids.

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    5. Hi,

      Sony had a similar thing both for the Walkman and the Original Playstation, where every other console was being called a, or “like a”, Playstation, but then what happened?

      You can only use your brand and UI advantages for so long, before others catch-up and improve, and your IP becomes commoditised, just look at the way Gemstar tried going with the TV Guide Grid, or Tivo, eventually, market dynamics mean those wonderful advantages you thought you had, stop mattering unless there’s real proprietary value to them.

      The most pertinent example though, and Steve Jobs knows about this, is failing to strike home the advantage Apple has built up by bringing so much change and creating such a lead, creating a tipping-point (- as with ebay/Facebook who didn’t stop once they reached a certain threshold of users/openness/revenue/innovation – ) rather than smugly thinking what you have is so good and ceding the market to all those almost-as-good but cheaper competitors, just as happened with Apple’s innovative products in the 1980’s.

      What Apple should do if they were smart is create their own CPU, write iOs (conditional on iTunes and individual account) just to that and sell a combined bundle to any OEM (subject to other terms/licences), whereby the iOS handset would always be at the top-end of any manufacturers range……

      Yours kindly,

      Shakir Razak

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    6. This is a bit inaccurate, though, as it suggests that the Apple versions’ awareness is somehow less than anyone else’s, when it’s really that you’re discussing niche products that most people couldn’t name any of.

      I’d venture that anyone aware of any set-top boxes would know the AppleTV as well as Roku or Boxee. Same with mice; are there many people who have heard of the Razer Diamondback but not the Magic Mouse? Nobody unaware of MacBooks probably has a clue about what any Dells or Acers are named.

      It’s not that Apple’s other brands aren’t known, it’s that nothing in those areas really is. Personal electronics really only distinguish themselves at a certain level, and computers (and peripherals) have never really been there.

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  3. Sidearm? Lightsaber? Wand? =)

    I find that if not by name, I just use “phone,” because the smartphone has become for me the default expectation when somebody mentions their phone – not a dumbphone, certainly not a landline or payphone.

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  4. Apple certainly knows how to brand its products, how to market its product and how to delivery a first class prodcut and user experience. They do things right the first time and deliverying innovative products.
    Another obesrvation, my 6 year old nephew saw my phone last week and said “is that your iphone, can I play games on it”
    So there you go, the power of Apple

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  5. I call it “my phone” which sounds the same as “my iPhone” if you say it fast enough.

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  6. What’s a smart phone? That was Palm Treo I had few years ago. iPhone is what it is now.

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  7. A “Smartphone” to me is something like a BlackBerry; it’s mainly used, in my opinion, for business applications like creating and viewing Word docs, Exel spreadsheets, etc.

    Newer devices like Android phones, the Palm Pre and the iPhone do so much more than just “mobile business apps. Perhaps a new designation is required like Omniphones or MMDs (Mobile Multimedia Devices). :)

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  8. [...] agree 100% with Kevin Tofel (writing for Giga). The Apple brand has exploded into consumer consciousness. People don’t have a smart phone, [...]

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  9. The competition is such that the manufacturer has to make the prospect customers believe that it is coming out with something new and innovative; not just another perspective of the same product.

    In case of gadgets this becomes more important as its not easy for all to understand the functionalities in just one go while watching the launch of the product. So definitely to be perceived as an entirely new product doing something new that no product has done so far, the manufacturer has to come out with a distinctive name that will create its image from the first day.

    Otherwise its gonna looked at another alternative satisfying the same need.

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  10. Kevin, had you asked your audience the question “How many of your parents have a cellphone” then I guarantee you nearly every hand would have gone up because that’s the most commonly used term.

    Smartphone is an artificial word that means nothing outside tech journals and market analysts. An iPhone is a descriptive term that is merely a subset of a bigger group.

    As for the iPad, that may redefine the common reference in the way the iPod did – it was the Walkman before that – but it remains to be seen if it becomes popular enough to do that.

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    1. I think there’s a pretty commonly accepted difference between a flip-phone and a smartphone. Devices like the Droid and the iPhone have so far superseded what used to be considered a smartphone, that it’s true that term has lost some of its weight. But I think there is a tangible difference between bog-standard cellphones and -other- multimedia devices (whatever you want to call them) that asking “how many of your parents have cellphones” wouldn’t have gotten the point across.

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    2. Wrong. In fact I’ve heard more than one person refer to their dumbphone recognizing they have a basic barebones phone.

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      1. So, David, if I ask you to give me your cellphone what would you give me?

        It is what it is.

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