Is there anything more envy-inducing, especially here in the deep of winter, than someone returning to work with a deep tan? It speaks of luxury and the means to take a vacations somewhere warm. But it wasn't always the case. Prior to the industrial revolution, it was pale skin that was a sign of privilege: If you avoided the sun, it meant you could also avoid the hard labor of working outside.

Tastes change. Here's a more modern example: When Apple released the AirPods, they were mocked as goofy looking and overpriced. And then, as seems to almost always happen with Apple products, they were a roaring success. They are now the second fastest selling Apple product ever.

It's more than sales at stores, though. There are AirPods memes now, mostly about the headphones being a conspicuous display — one reads that the second richest person in the world is Jeff Bezos, and the first, AirPods users. Like pale skin or a tan, Apple's increasingly popular headphones have evolved from an object of mockery into a cultural symbol of status.

For many, this is evidence that Apple's success is about a superficial or blind sort of consumerism. But in truth, Apple's capacity to become part of culture is actually a cultivated, core part of their success and AirPods are just the latest example.

As is often the case, the reason for Apple's most recent success is pretty simple on one level: AirPods are good. While they won't win any awards for sound quality, they pair with a phone almost instantly; they come with a charging case that makes them more practical than most of their competitors; and, of course, they help you avoid the frustration of wires.

But the AirPods also fit into a short history of Apple products that end up meaning something bigger than their function. iPods and their ubiquitous white headphones, made famous by Apple's silhouette ad campaign, became the symbol of how then-new tech was changing music. The iPhone became the marker of a new mobile world — it was the shorthand people used to talk about the smartphone revolution. Similar things might be said about the iPad, the Apple Watch, or even the MacBooks that fill every coffee shop.

That is not just happenstance. Apple has carefully focused on a clear branding program that also highlights the visual distinctiveness of its products. They are at once simple but also iconic, such that they become the default for their categories. When people think an iPhone or a MacBook are what those devices are supposed to look like, the market follows suit. Just look at any Android phone or Windows ultrabook and it's clear where the inspiration comes from.

It is about more than just looks. Apple's products have also become cultural signs of how digital tech is changing, infiltrating, and influencing our era. In a mix of both intent and chance, Apple has become the clearest tangible cultural symbol we have of the digital era. When people want to mark the ways the 21st century is different than the last, an iPhone or a iPad is one of the easiest examples to point to.

The AirPods are just the newest form of this trend. They too are conspicuous, but also end up making wired headphones seem old-fashioned. Much like the iPod and iPhone before it, they end up signifying not just that the owner of the product has the money to buy them, but also that they are hip to the changes taking place in the world. Want to be part of the present and the future? Buy an Apple product and show it off.

That is the reason why Apple is such an unprecedented success. It's not merely design or marketing or even features, but the fact that it has firmly lodged itself in the public consciousness as part of culture. When Steve Jobs said that he saw Apple as existing at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts that is what he meant: that tech is about reshaping culture, and that Apple wants to be at the forefront of how it's happening.

As for the AirPods, it's likely they will become only more ubiquitous. New versions are expected this year with the ability to use Siri and, potentially, some built-in health features. It's part of Apple's wearable strategy that sees tech extend from our pockets, to our wrists, to simply being a part of our day-to-day wear. But it's also about how Apple sees itself as part of life.

Those goofy looking white earbuds are now a signal to everyone else: Apple is the future, and if you want to be part of it, get on board.