Apple's iPhone XR: Bad marketing or sneakily clever?

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A communication problem?

James Martin/CNET

It happened during Christmas dinner.

I took out my iPhone XR to check a text — surely someone was finally wishing me a Merry Christmas — and one of my wife’s relatives asked: “What’s that?”

“It’s an iPhone XR,” I replied, sinking, as many people do, to the Eks-R pronunciation.

“What’s that?” she replied.

I paused, a touch stumped for an explanation. Doesn’t everyone know about iPhones the minute they’re released — and often before?

“Well, it’s the newest iPhone,” I said.

“Never heard of it,” she replied. “Never seen one either.”

My thoughts drifted to how Apple has advertised these new, cheaper beasts. First, it did the usual phones-floating-in-mid-air sort of ad, with all sorts of product benefits featured in words.

Depth control. Liquid retina. Color-accurate LCD.

Did these things impress anyone? Did they even mean anything? And isn’t it a touch odd to see Apple splatter so many product benefits over an ad?

It used to be that Apple would simply present the phone, play a little modern music and the phones would enchant masses.

Then I seemed to remember another iPhone XR ad that had invaded a recent NFL game on my TV. This one touted the phone’s marvelous battery life. (And it is marvelous, for an iPhone.)

Could it be that Cupertino doesn’t have a clue how to sell a phone that, to many eyes — including my own — offers a far more satisfying value than, say, the XS?

It was fascinating that, on the morning of the XR’s launch, there were no lines outside the Apple store I visited. The staff were stunned.

Could it be that, by launching three new iPhones in quick succession, Apple has muddied the perception of all three?

This could be especially troubling at a time when people are keeping their phones longer and not being persuaded to trade up to the next supposed big thing.

And the XR/XS naming conundrum doesn’t offer a true differentiation either. It’s almost as if they’re minor variations on a theme, rather than each being a truly compelling proposition in its own right.

Of course, there are no numbers that reflect whether the XR is doing well or badly — and there may never be, as Apple is no longer releasing sales numbers for individual phones.

This week, however, research company Consumer Intelligence Research Partners emitted a survey suggesting that the XR enjoyed 32 percent of all US phone sales in its first month.

That’s 2 percent more than the X in a comparable period. Another optimistic suggestion from the survey was that 16 percent of buyers were Android switchers. This compares to a mere 11 percent for iPhone X.

Many might conclude that the XR’s lower price is what makes it more attractive to sensitive Android types.

I wonder, though, whether it’s all so simple.

I fear many people, Android or not, are still attached to their home buttons and headphone jacks. They see these as offering a simpler way of life. They look upon FaceID with a fair helping of skepticism. Indeed, when I demonstrated it to my wife’s relative, she replied: “Hmm, that’s nice, but I’m not sure I’d want to do that.”

“Why?”

“It’s a bit creepy.”

Many commentators wafted between startled and depressed when Apple created a very generous trade-in offer to potential upgraders from older phones.

Perhaps, though, the balance is shifting for Apple between selling hardware for as great a margin as possible to trying to find every way to get customers to upgrade, so that they disappear more deeply into the company’s service business.

Still, I fear Apple needs to be a lot clearer about its phones’ individual identities.

Otherwise more people will merely wonder “what’s that?” and move right along. If they even notice the phone at all.

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