Is It Time For Apple To Streamline Its Product Branding Strategy With The iPhone?

COMMENTARY: 08.26.19- Apple over the years has made efforts to streamline its product branding, keeping its naming conventions somewhat structured across the board with some notable monikers as “mini” or “Pro” but once in awhile, especially with its strategy for the iPhone, it has strayed away from the established pattern (e.g. The 2018 lineup) and with the Cupertino, California-based company reportedly releasing, again, three smartphone models this year, maybe its time for the tech giant to rebrand its mobile handsets with previously used and more recognizable labeling.

The iPhone XS Max, left, and the XS, right, two of three smartphone models Apple released in 2018.(Photo: Courtesy of Apple)

Apple really did a, number (pun intended), with the branding for its iPhone lineup last year, introducing never before heard of monikers such as “R” and “Max” tacked on to the base name of its eleventh generation models of its smartphone. While it followed the established pattern of using a number followed by a number and a capital letter S — the “S” moniker first used in 2009 with the iPhone 3G S (of note that the capital letter G not being a moniker but rather, of course, a reflection of the second and third generation models featuring 3G connectivity versus the 2G of the original iPhone in 2007) —for its successor, albeit with a Roman numeral (e.g., the iPhone X in 2017 and the iPhone XS for 2018), it chose not to use the “Plus” moniker for its larger model, instead electing to go with the aforementioned “Max” because it was slightly bigger than anything previously released. As far as the iPhone XR goes, since it was a third and cheaper entry level model, Apple went with something different and — as logic would dictate — presumably chose to use the capital letter R with it coming before the S in the alphabet.

The use of the Roman numeral X in place of the number 10 further confused things, making people incorrectly call the iPhone models by literally saying the two capital letters in its names (e.g., “ecks ess” instead of “ten s” or “ecks arr” versus “ten r”). Granted, since the special tenth anniversary edition iPhone model was called the iPhone X — the “X” branding first used by Apple with Mac OS X, the tenth version of its desktop operating system which debuted in 2001 (which some people also incorrectly pronounce) — it logically made sense for Apple to keep the Roman numeral for its successors rather than to use the number itself.

Even more confusing, speaking of not following the established pattern, is why the iPhone 7 was not followed by a 7S model but straight on to the iPhone 8 and X. And with no 8S model either, it seemed like that Apple had dropped its “S” branding altogether so it was definitely a surprise when it brought it back with the iPhone XS and XS Max.

Maybe a better decision would have been for Apple to have kept the “X” branding unique and special to the tenth anniversary model of the iPhone, and, since it seemingly had dropped the “S” branding, moved forward and called last year’s lineup, instead of the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR, the iPhone 9, 9 Plus, and 9c, the “c” moniker of the latter model on that list hearkening back to a previously used branding (and only once that the lower case letter c has been used to name an iPhone) for the cheaper priced iPhone 5c which was sold alongside the flagship 5S model in 2013. Or, to use another previously used branding (also only used once to date for an iPhone, though the “SE” moniker was used in the past for the Macintosh SE in 1987, presumably standing for “special edition”), the iPhone SE 2 — as I opined here in this column last year — to take after the iPhone SE from 2016, literally a special edition as it was released months in advance of the flagship model that would come later that year (the iPhone 7), a cheaper and smaller model with a 4-inch screen from yesteryear that was well below the current trend of smartphone models sporting larger sized screens.

Using both the “c” or “SE” monikers (two other examples of when Apple has strayed away from its established branding for the iPhone) rather than an “R” would have been a better choice because it utilizes previously used naming conventions.

That begs the question of whether we will ever see an iPhone 9 since the iPhone 8 and X were followed by the XR,XS, and XS Max. And, with this year’s lineup potentially being called the iPhone 11 (or the Roman numeral XI instead of the number), it looks like we’ll never see any 9 models see the light of day, which will be very odd at that. Then again, who knows? Since there will be three models again, purportedly, this year, maybe we might see an iPhone 9 surface alongside an iPhone 11 and 11 Plus (that third model being dependent on Apple reverting back to previously used branding)?

CNET has already called the 2019 iPhone lineup — though in no way does it mean that the names are official or what Apple will be naming its offerings — the iPhone 11, 11 Max (or Pro), and 11R, matching the 2018 branding (with the exception of the “Pro” moniker).

If Apple were to indeed brand its high end smartphone model the iPhone 11 Pro — based on a recently published rumor reported earlier this month by the website MacRumors — and drop the “Max” moniker, while seemingly straying away again with that move (though this time, it would not be so confusing to iPhone users), it would be an effort to streamline its branding since “Pro” is already an established brand across its product lineup (e.g., iPad Pro, iMac Pro, Mac Pro, and MacBook Pro, the “Pro” moniker first used by the last two in that list back in 2006) despite being new for naming its iPhones.

An iPhone 11 and 11 Pro would make sense in the scheme of things but an 11R would not since this year is not an S model year so having an R model would not make sense and would be just, well, wrong. Revisiting the c or SE models again would fare as much better alternatives.

Or, perhaps, an iPhone mini? (What?).

The best way for Apple to fix this conundrum of sorts would be for it to drop the numbers altogether with the model year differentiating each brand moving forward — akin to what car manufacturers do with their vehicles (e.g., car make, model, and year) — an idea (not the car part) suggested in an opinion piece last month by Mike Peterson of the website iDrop News.

“We’ve previously argued that Apple should ditch numbered monikers for its smartphone lineup and differentiate models by year. With new screen sizes and prices, an all-OLED lineup, and the fact that people commonly mispronounce Roman numerals, it’s definitely time for Apple to simplify its naming scheme,” wrote Peterson (referring specifically to the 2020 iPhone lineup).

As if using a numbering scheme wasn’t already a problem, continuing to use Roman numerals in place of numbers presents an even bigger problem, especially for next year with the iPhone 12 (though who’s to say that Apple wouldn’t go with an 11S?) as Peterson posited, giving the example of an iPhone XIIR model as his basis. Should Apple use that branding again this year with the iPhone 11 — assuming that is indeed the next number in line that the tech giant intends to use for its twelfth generation models of its smartphone — it might, once again, make people incorrectly pronounce its name (e.g. “ecks aye” for XI instead of “eleven”).

To solve all of this, Peterson’s ideal Apple smartphone lineup would look like the following (based on rumored iPhone screen sizes predicted for 2020 along with his own pricing schemes):

  • iPhone mini (5.4-inch at $749)
  • iPhone (6.1-inch at $999)
  • iPhone Pro (6.7-inch at $1099)

For all that we know, Apple may already have decided to forgo using any numbers for its iPhones this year. How so?

On Thursday of last week, Mark Gurman of Bloomberg reported — based on confidential sources whom he spoke with — that the tech giant will be replacing the iPhone XS and XS Max with two new Pro models. With no numbers associated with the smartphones’ “Pro” moniker, in this case (as we already know) 11 or XI, as the general majority of other media outlets have been referring to this year’s iPhone as, perhaps the two will be differentiated by its screen sizes akin to the Apple notebook computer line (e.g., MacBook Pro 13-inch and MacBook Pro 15-inch). There were no details from Gurman on what the iPhone XR replacement would be called but perhaps simply just the iPhone?

Having just two brands, an iPhone for consumers and an iPhone Pro for professional users, would be a concentrated effort by Apple to streamline the branding of its smartphone lineup.

When the late co-founder and former Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, returned to the company in 1997, the tech giant had a plethora of product brands and naming conventions for all of its computers, from desktops to notebooks, and it was a convoluted and huge mess of sorts! Jobs would clean up house and streamline the computer product line under his watch, famously (or the opposite) drawing a 2×2 grid on a whiteboard with a dry erase marker, , each of the boxes containing four brands designed for two groups of customers: the iMac and iBook for consumers and the PowerMac and PowerBook for professional users. It was plain and simple and straightforward — first the “Mac” and “Book” monikers for its desktop and notebook computers, respectively, and second the “i” and “Power” monikers for the consumer and professional user models, respectively — with the only exception the processor (e.g., G3 and G4), and, in the case of its notebook computers, screen sizes (e.g., 12-inch, 15-inch, and 17-inch), tacked onto it to differentiate the products.

Then, in 2006, when Apple made the switch from the PowerPC processor to the Intel chipset, things were kept streamlined but rebranded with Jobs wanting the “Mac” brand to be the base name of each computer product. The “Book” moniker was kept for the notebook computers and the “Power” moniker was dropped and replaced with “Pro” but while the “i” moniker was dropped for one product, it was kept (oddly enough) for the other. The consumer line became iMac and MacBook and the professional user line became Mac Pro and MacBook Pro (which elicits the question as to why the iMac did not become just plain Mac following the pattern, something I’ve always wondered and has puzzled me, to which I do not know the answer to, but I surmise that it was due to its iconic name and because it was Jobs’s baby… although fast forward to today where there is now, since 2017, an iMac Pro in its computer lineup as well).

In a similar fashion, the idea of having three standard brand names for its iPhone models moving forward — assuming Apple continues to release three models each year — would fall in line with the established pattern that the company has done with the rest of its other products in the past and present. The iPhone mini would be the smaller, cheaper, and entry level model just like the Mac mini, iPad mini, and iPod mini (the first Apple product to use the “mini” moniker in 2004), the iPhone would be the flagship model geared toward consumers like the iMac and MacBook (though currently that is now the MacBook Air… there’s another moniker for you!), and the iPhone Pro would be its high end model designed for professional users akin to the iMac Pro, Mac Pro, and MacBook Pro.

Forget the numbers or Roman numerals (or those stray letters for that matter, like the “c” and “R” monikers). Leave that to the versions of its various operating systems which definitely require numbering (speaking of the number 11, to digress somewhat, when will Apple ditch Mac OS X — it will have its fifteenth iteration this Fall with MacOS Catalina — and move on to MacOS 11?).

So, is it time for Apple to once again (As I always like to say) “Think Different” — to quote its own iconic advertising campaign from 1997 — with its branding strategy for the iPhone? I certainly think so and would personally love to see the iPhone models become more streamlined and match the other products the tech giant offers, whether it happens this year or next, it would be a great move for the Cupertino, California-based company and something it needs to make happen sooner or later.

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