Article: Selling Apple to Middle America

by on February 1, 2011

After living in the rural Midwest for some time, I really have a skewed view of Apple. As a self-proclaimed Mac-pundit, and more specifically, Apple as a whole, I find there to be a major discrepancy regarding Apple as a company, and how Apple is perceived by people who may have to drive hours to get to an Apple Store.

We are currently in the worst recession the United States has faced in years, but this trend has been going on before—the perception that because Apple does not sell a computer for $500, or more specifically a laptop for $500, it must only cater to the rich and people spend the premium for the image. While this may be partially true, I would argue Apple’s goal is to produce products that are not only well-engineered, but a good value and reliable. I’ve heard countless horror stories of the cheap PC laptop failing after only a few years of use, while I still have an iBook G3, the cheapest Mac laptop at a time when the cheapest PC laptop was selling for around $800, that runs fine 9 years later. Was that $400 premium worth it? You bet.

The whole mantra of “buy American” seems to almost exist here, even though Apple is an American company. The argument for years has been that cars from Japanese car companies cost more, and for many in the rust belt, anything with a Toyota, Honda, or Nissan badge may be seen as treason. Reliability be damned!

So, Apple is an American company, right? Yes, but just as 30 Rock‘s Jack Donaghy is always searching for the “real America” when it comes to demographics, anything from the coasts is scary to many in the heartland. Call it what it is, but Apple is seen as something used by celebrities and those who want a “pretty computer”—blame the constant product placement on TV? A few years back, the sexuality of one of our writers was questioned by a stranger because he had a PowerBook in tow—apparently that’s nothing new.


In many regards, the iPod took some time to find a huge audience. It was originally an expensive Apple product that only worked with Macs, but over time, dropped in price and offered Windows compatibility. Mix in the fact that iPods were sold just about everywhere, and the best-engineered and cost-effective product took the market by storm. Sure, some people only bought one over a competing product because, “It’s an iPod.”:

The iPod is also a luxury good, albeit a luxury that nearly everyone can afford. I think it is a fluke that Apple dominates the portable music player market. I think the iPod is the Coach purse of the Apple lineup: It’s a luxury good, but one that nearly anyone can afford and is easy to justify. And with those ubiquitous white earbuds, you can show off your good taste even when the player is in your pocket.

With my limited knowledge of women’s fashion, a close friend (Thanks, Katie!) pointed out that the iPod may fit more along the lines of a Vera Bradley purse, due to its combination of similar price to its contemporaries, fashionable looks, and popularity. It doesn’t necessarily scream “I’m fancy and expensive”, but it does have its fans.

The iPhone followed a similar track, but I think still has that luxury item status, especially since for those who are budget-conscious, an iPhone means a $15-$30 data plan. That being said, in the age when many younger people embracing more expensive add-ons for cellular voice plans, such as messaging and data, the iPhone has caught on with many that are not in the typical “smartphone crowd,” although on the outside, it is still viewed as an expensive toy by those who tend to gravitate towards the freebie phone with a contract.

The iPad and Walmart

If you ask most people, Walmart has a reputation of catering to the demographic that also enjoys cheap beer, Larry the Cable Guy, and NASCAR (if you enjoy any of these, we’re not judging). By selling the iPod there, Apple opened it up to a whole new audience. The iPhone, to a lesser extent, also received this treatment, although it is hard to compete on price when it’s next to free-with-contract Nokias and LGs.

The iPad is a different story. I haven’t the specific sales numbers so far, but from what I have seen, the iPad is not a huge seller at your typical rural Walmart. I think part of that is because it is rather expensive as far as products at Walmart go, and yet is not a “full-blown” computer. Despite excellent sales numbers overall, the iPad is still a new technology, and I’d assume that technology early-adopters typically do not buy their gadgets from Walmart.

What To Do?

The argument is being made that Android will be the platform for the budget-conscious, especially looking at the dichotomy of the iPod and iPad:

The iPad is clearly a luxury good. Early adopters proudly show off their iPad. It’s very expensive and has little competition. There is a big question as to how the market for tablets will develop. It may go the way of MP3 players, an expensive but pleasant toy where everyone buys the nice one from Apple. Or it may look more like the modern PC world, where anyone can get a decent table from Acer/Dell/HP/etc for $200. A lot depends on how broad the demand is for tablets.

Eventually more tablets will come on the market, but the pricing will probably stay relatively similar to what it is now. The biggest difference is getting the masses to realize the point of tablets—portable, 75-80% capable, computer substitutes. This is going to be a hard-sell, especially to those who refuse to embrace the small, fuel-efficient cars being sold by a lot of manufacturers.

When it comes down to it, maybe Apple shouldn’t care about covering every price-range. Just because Apple doesn’t sell a super-cheap computer that may feel cheap and not last very long, or that there isn’t a free-with-contract iPhone, doesn’t mean that Apple is doomed. I think this is what people have to realize and if the affluent, educated demographic tends to gravure towards the products more, so be it. There’s a reason why Apple Stores are only in larger cities, and strategically-placed. Look at the quarterly earnings reports, and there is growth. Visit a college campus and you’ll see a lot more MacBooks floating around compared to PCs from just a few years ago. It seems Apple has figured out what it needs now and can adapt when it needs to down the road.

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