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How Apple Uses Psychology to Sell the iPhone

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The iPhone changed everything.

It’s one of the most desirable and innovative products in the world.

Only creative, brilliant geniuses — like you — own an iPhone. 

At least, that’s what they want you to think.

Apple are masters of creating a brand that people want to be a part of — innovative, creative, a little bit rebellious. But also really expensive. Unsurprisingly, Apple uses some tricky psychological tactics to get you to shell out so much cash for an iPhone.

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1. Apple Marketing Strategies Appeal to Our Emotions

You might think there’s a logical reason why you’re an Apple fan. They’re easy to use, they’re beautiful, and they have the best apps. But that’s not why you bought an iPhone.

When it comes to decision making, our minds don’t really care too much about logic. Studies show that most of our decisions are made subconsciously, driven by factors we don’t register or even understand.

We use products like iPhones to signal other people who we are. Or at least who we want to them to think we are. Psychologists call this behavior “self-signaling” and it’s an incredibly powerful marketing lever. 

Having an iPhone can signal lots of things about who we “are” to the people around us, not all of them true.

2. Apple Believes in Simplicity

One of Apple’s core principles is simplicity. Its minimalist design and product-focused marketing are a sensory experience created to drive desire for the iPhone.

Iphone in person's hand

There aren’t any extra bumps or rivets. The iPhone is shiny, sleek, and perfectly proportioned. Even its packaging focuses on the feeling of slowly revealing your iPhone in a way that builds suspense and desire.

It’s down to a psychological principle called the Simplicity Theory. 

What is Simplicity Theory? 

This principle says that people love and prefer simplicity, and it’s uniquely attractive to our brains.

The Simplicity Index, created by consultancy Siegel+Gale, is a yearly ranking of brands with “simple” experiences. According to their research, simple experiences have a number of business benefits: 

  • Simplicity drives love: 64% of consumers are more likely to recommend a brand because of simple experience.
  • Simplicity drives growth: Since 2009, a stock portfolio made up of the simplest publicly-traded brands (as defined by Siegel+Gale) has outperformed the market by 686%.
  • Simplicity drives sales: 55% of consumers are willing to pay more for uncomplicated experiences.

Apple’s product-focused ads drill into your subconscious that iPhones are simple but luxurious and well-designed. See enough of them and the iPhone becomes really hard to resist.

3. Masters of Status

Apple has the reputation of being envelope pushers. Sometimes to its benefit, like with the iPhone, and sometimes not, like with the Newton (look that one up, kids).

Apple push innovation at every turn — announcing some new technological breakthrough mysteriously timed to whenever there’s a new model iPhone to sell. And you believe it because of the phone’s sleek design and innovative reputation.

You’re attracted to it because new things kick up a little bit of dopamine that gets us interested, and some fear that we might be only ones without this new sexy phone. That combination of innovation, style, and desire makes the iPhone a status symbol — and a powerful one because you have your phone on you nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  

iPhone’s combination of innovation, style, and desire makes it a status symbol

Trying to attain status is a powerful driver of human behavior. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga put it this way, 

“When you get up in the morning…you think about status. You think about where you are in relation to your peers.”

Whether it’s a yacht, a Tesla, or an iPhone, when a product represents a higher social status, people want it.

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4. We Want What We Can’t Have

Have you ever noticed that when the new iPhone launches, there’s a line around the Apple store of people waiting to get it right away?

Is it because Apple’s really bad at forecasting demand for the iPhone?

No, it’s because their pre-launch advertising is designed to not only drive demand but to make customers think that supplies are limited. But actually, there are almost never iPhone shortages just the illusion that you might not be able to get your hands on one right away.

Iphone store line

Source: Viewfinder - stock.adobe.com

Apple know that the psychological and economic principle of Scarcity is a powerful driver of desire, so they stoke the flames of doubt in their biggest fans, who stand in line for the new iPhone. And when other people see the die-hards standing in line they think: 
“Oh man, I better stand in line too. I don’t really want an iPhone but what if they run out?
I mean nobody ever stands in line for a Pixel phone.”

5. The Psychology of Price

We all know iPhones are expensive. But making their phones expensive is actually a genius business move by Apple, because when it comes to price we’re easily influenced.

The economic principle Irrational Value Assessment helps explain how and why we’re so easy to manipulate. It says people don’t value products objectively, instead we figure out how much something should cost based on context cues and how they make us feel. Price is one of the indicators that something might be high quality.

Price is one of the indicators that something might be high quality.

Making the iPhone expensive is a part of Apple’s strategy to drive demand because the high price makes people feel like it’s a status symbol. If everybody could afford it, it wouldn’t make the people that bought it feel as good about themselves.

Person holding iphone in store apple marketing strategy

Source: Adobe Stock

The Bottom Line

Apple are obviously skilled at building brands that aren’t just attractive to customers, but that convert that attraction to sales. In 2020, they became the world’s first $2T (yes, “t” as in trillion) company after nearly going under in 1997. And part of their success is down to its use of psychology and behavioral science — knowingly or not. 

If you want to apply psychology and behavioral science like Apple, start by asking yourself questions like these: 

  • Self-Signalling: What do we want our products to signal to customers? What should they be trying to achieve psychologically by buying our products?
  • Simplicity: How complicated are products and customer experience? Are we making it easy, or hard, for customers understand our brand and buy from us?
  • Status: Is our product a status symbol? Could it be (and is becoming a status symbol right for our brand)? How might our price and positioning in the market help us become a status symbol?
  • Scarcity: How might offering less of something, or offering it for a smaller amount of time drive desire for our product or brand?
  • Irrational Value Assessment: Do we think about the psychological side of pricing? How might we design the context of purchase decisions to help make the case for our product’s price?

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About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi 👋 I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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