The iPhone 5's curious branding game

It looks like Apple's next iPhone will be called the iPhone 5, but what does the choice of name reveal about the company's strategy?

It looks like the next iPhone will be called the iPhone 5. What’s in a name? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Every hardware product that Apple has released has had a brand and a sub-brand. Macs for example use the Mac brand and a sub-brand as follows:

  • iMac
  • Mac Pro
  • Mac mini
  • MacBook

Thus each sub-brand imparts certain meaning to the buyer. iProminibookare all evocative. MacBook even has its own sub-brands:

  • MacBook Pro
  • MacBook Air

These Mac sub-sub-brands of Pro and Air are specifically designed to also distinguish and convey meaning.

iPods as well use the iPod brand followed by a sub-brand.

  • iPod Classic
  • iPod touch
  • iPod mini
  • iPod shuffle
  • iPod nano

Note how the mini  sub-brand was retired from the iPod line to be used exclusively in the Mac product line. That may not be specifically necessary or desirable but it is an interesting coincidence. (The Pro sub-brand is shared between different Mac lines)

However, when we look at the iPhone and the iPad, the nomenclature has been distinctly different. Both products have been using generational naming conventions. This implies no sub-branding as the iPhone and iPad are the only identifiers of brand and hence the only meaning being imparted to the buyer. You either get an iPhone or and old iPhone.

That changed with the iPad however. The third generation iPad became just iPad. This was deliberate (why would they want to confuse buyers?) I think there is some logic to this.

Note the parallel to the convention of the original iPod. When the iPod launched it was just the iPod. Subsequent versions were identified by a generation, but not a specific sub-brand. After the third generation iPod (still called iPod), the mini version was launched, creating the sub-brand convention that remains in use to this day. The iPod therefore was born generational but switched to sub-branding in adolescence.

The possibility exists, therefore, that there will be a sub-brand for the iPad. Perhaps “mini” is being reserved for a new iPad, to distinguish it from the regular iPad (no sub-brand) that is likely to remain in production. The logic is to make room for sub-brands when the core brand begins to cover a wider array of form factors, themselves proxies for separate use cases or jobs to be done.

So what about the iPhone?

The iPhone has remained, stubbornly, after five years, stuck with agenerational naming convention vis-à-vis the sub-brand convention used in every other mature product line from Apple. (Note that software from Apple adheres strictly to a generational naming convention because there is no “room” for a sub-brand under a software brand. There can be no “iWork Pro” or “Final Cut EZ”. [Update: there once was Final Cut Express])

Prior to today I entertained the possibility that the new iPhone will follow the iPad in dropping generational naming in favour of sub-branding thus implying that the brand would develop into a portfolio of sub-brands (like the iPad seems about to.)

Alas, that possibility now seems moot. The launch announcement seems to clearly point to “5″ being the name of the new iPhone. The brand remains iPhone and there will be no sub-branding.

This can only mean that Apple intends to preserve a single product strategy for the brand. There will be no “special” iPhone for different (e.g. low-end) markets. There will be no different form factor to accommodate different use cases. There will be no new jobs to be done for the iPhone.

What a bummer.

However, there may be something more curious happening. Note all the service brands being launched on the iOS platform. There’s Siri, (as yet unnamed) MapsGameCenter and PassBook. These are not Apps. These are services designed to be unique to iOS, perhaps even unique to the iPhone. The difference with the iPhone brand may not be that it spans a multitude of sub-brands in hardware but that it covers a multitude of new service brands. As brands imply meaning, the iPhone brand may imply that it’s a platform in and of itself.

Now that’s an interesting development.

Horace Dediu is founder and managing director of Asymco, a Helsinki-based app developer/industry analysis advisory firm. You can find his blog here.

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