Marketing failure: iPhone in India

Guest post by Shailendra Jain, associate professor of marketing, UW Foster School of Business

iphoneApple has been called “the most admired company in the world.” There are some good reasons for this. Apple is very innovative, very cool, very personality-oriented.

But while Apple’s iPhone has achieved landmark success in the United States and redefined the smart phone category, it has so far struggled in two of the world’s largest markets. The iPhone has yet to create much interest in India and is, at best, a fledgling brand in China.

It has not met the success in these markets that Apple expected for a variety of reasons.

First is a technology issue. In India, the market I’m most familiar with, the iPhone has compatibility issues. That’s an amazing thing to ignore. Your product has to be aligned with the context in which you are marketing it. Apple, reportedly, is in talks with carriers in China and India to overcome this compatibility issue and is believed to be launching an iPhone with CDMA technology, which is compatible with Chinese and Indian telecom standards. It will be interesting to see whether this enables Apple to capture a larger chunk of these two enormous markets.

Second is a pricing issue. At its introduction, an iPhone cost about the same price in India as it did in the U.S. (about $700). But the way consumers process price information is interesting. In India, many potential customers reasoned that for the price of three iPhones they could buy a Nano car. And they were not sure if this was a good trade off. For these consumers, Apple may have gotten the price wrong. They may have ignored the how people in these countries process price information.

A third reason is that people in India are used to an unlocked phone. Apple does not want people to buy unlocked versions of its phone. But the moment there is a gray market where people can buy another compatible version of the iPhone, Apple will be challenged.

A fourth reason—and this is personal speculation—is a misalignment of “softer” brand attributes. What Apple as a brand means in the U.S. is very different from what Apple means in Asian countries. It was born in the U.S. and has produced a long line of successful “i” gadgets—iMac, iPod, iPad—whose branding is rooted in individuality. This is clever branding, and has been a good fit for an influential segment of the American and Western population: rebels, early adopters, would-be innovators who want cutting-edge technology and are relatively less sensitive to price. In Asian countries this is not such a strong fit, in terms of perceived personality. Asian cultures tend to be more collectivistic, and the theory is that millions of consumers in these cultures may find “i” less appealing than “we.”

For the iPhone, a whole set of factors converge to the same outcome. And I think this is typical of marketing failures. Rarely is it the fault of one or two factors. Usually it’s a complex confluence of multiple factors—product design, pricing, revenue model, distribution, promotion, branding, competition. Underestimating your weaknesses or overestimating your strengths. More often than not, multiple factors feed into most marketing failures.

See 15 Cautionary Tales: Failed Marketing Campaigns for more information.