Recently, a friend introduced me to a tier of luxury I didn't even know existed. The brand was Outlier, a clothing line initially aimed at urban commuters, but that has since become a favorite of style-conscious online consumers obsessed with detail and quality.
The clothes are, by ordinary standards, expensive: A pair of pants goes for $300, while a woolen hoodie vest fetches twice that. Still, Outlier is a far cry from fashion brands that peddle plain t-shirts for $1,000, and dresses and suits for exponentially more. Instead, the appeal of newer brands like Outlier is they represent purposeful high-end design. They're exceptionally well made for a reasonable price. Fittingly, their slogan is not about style or identity, but instead, simply: "Radical Quality."
It was this focus on quality that came to mind recently as the iPhone X launched. Since its inception, the iPhone has drawn criticism for being an object of desire for people obsessed with trends, rather than practicality. But recently, among the normal tech press chatter and expectedly laudatory reviews were also the usual technical breakdowns. One site called the new iPhone's screen the best display one can buy.
It's this kind of review that helps explain the enduring appeal of the iPhone. It is more than marketing hype or brand loyalty. The iPhone offers the most modern form of luxury: peace of mind for consumers who simply want the best.
The term "best" is hotly debated, and any use of it quickly devolves into an argument about personal preference. But in this case, best is not meant to connote some objective fact about a thing being ideal for all people. Rather, it refers to the way we as individuals need to feel as if we have made the right decision — that we have in fact bought the best thing. And Apple's appeal remains firmly in convincing its users that they have done just that.
This is the genius of Apple, perhaps even more so than their actual products. In the 21st century, wealthy consumers are bombarded by options. The phenomenon even has a name: the tyranny of choice. Overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of products, privileged people feel exhausted and even unhappy because it becomes impossible to feel secure in their choices.
Apple's clever marketing and design addresses this problem. The iPhone X doesn't just have the best screen. The chips that power Apple's devices are also far and away the fastest mobile chips available. Apple's fit and finish is also second to none. There is the coherence of Apple's ecosystem, too: Solutions for cloud storage, music streaming, email, and more are just a click away, and more seamless than what's available on Android or Windows.
In that sense, what Apple peddles is a doubled form of luxury: being able to say one has the best, as well as a sense of relief in not having to make a choice. Knowing the iPhone is the best means the choice is already made for the consumer. The iPhone is thus is like a low-rent version of luxury for the masses, an easy entry point into realizing the consumerist dream of owning luxury goods, despite the fact that one is not actually rich. Whether or not the iPhone is in some objective sense the best, the point is that Apple is unparalleled at making consumers believe that it is. In positioning itself as the less complicated option, from initial choice all the way through to being able to get service at a centralized location, Apple gives its consumers a taste of the luxury market without actually being materially out of reach for large swaths of people.
To be clear, comparatively speaking, Apple products are hardly cheap. But given the financing programs and subsidies common with mobile phones, the difference between an entry level phone and the $1,000 iPhone X is much less significant than it may be with many other consumer categories like cars or furniture. To get the best in those consumer categories, you would have to spend amounts far beyond the reach of most people. But if you want the smartphone with the best screen, or the best design, or the best performance, $1,000 seems within reach, whether you're a student or a billionaire.
That is why Apple remains so successful — not just marketing hype, or design excellence. It's that the company has co-opted the logic of the high-end, design-friendly market and then democratized it, making products aspirational by changing the frame of aspiration itself. In its most recent earnings announcement, Apple's guidance was for a holiday quarter with between $84 billion and $87 billion in revenue, buoyed by the sky-high price of the iPhone X. For good or bad, the luxury strategy certainly seems to be working.