‘Green Bubble Stigma’ Shows Apple’s Power to Create a Prestige Brand

It can be difficult to keep up with what’s “cool” in the world of technology. Half the time, once you get it, it’s already outdated. Or again, it’s an Apple Vision Pro situation, where opinions vary as to whether the device makes someone look cool or a clown. One thing that’s definitely not “cool”, it seems, is having a green text bubble.

On Apple iPhones, instead of displaying conversations in typical gray and blue, text messages from non-Apple phones are saved in gray and a sort of bright green. Personally, I don’t really understand the issue of the green bubble in text messages, but I know it’s a thing in American culture. A former coworker of mine has a whole rant about how dating apps would judge him for having an Android (well, that and living in New Jersey).

Anecdotes aside, this form of so-called cyberdiscrimination has even caught the attention of the federal government. In its antitrust lawsuit against Apple, alleging that the tech giant has unfairly cornered the smartphone market, the Justice Department explicitly denounces the green bubble problem. The filing states that people without Apple devices often feel “social stigma, exclusion, and blame for ‘breaking up’ chats where other participants own iPhones.” The department says this is intentional: It claims that Apple is taking all sorts of measures to maintain a monopoly on smartphones and keep developers and consumers in its thrall, including making the messaging experience when communicating with different and strange non-iPhone users.

The ultimate reason Apple causes friction with products it doesn’t make is clear: to make money. What motivates consumers, however, is worth thinking about. Sure, Apple has positioned the iPhone as the “cool” phone, but why do we care? What makes blue iMessage bubbles the preferable color? Why do so many consumers see their purchasing habits as a sign of something bigger?

“Consumers really care about using products and brands to express who they are to themselves and the world around them,” said Nailya Ordabayeva, associate professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business in Dartmouth. “Brands that have a really well-established image, Apple’s cool image, for example, that they’ve worked to establish over the years, consumers really see that as a legitimate signal of their own coolness towards them- themselves and towards others.”

Apple has spent over 15 years fostering a “crowd/non-crowd” scenario with the iPhone. The Cupertino, Calif., company has long presented itself as hyper-innovative and seductive, and the iPhone is the pinnacle of those efforts. Steve Jobs called the device a “revolutionary and magical” product when he introduced it in 2007, setting the tone for an aura that has persisted even as many other fashionable products have evolved. The iPhone follows Apple’s sleek, minimalist design philosophy and remains part of a production process over which the company has strict control. An Android device can look like anything and come from anyone: Samsung, Google, Motorola. There is only one iPhone, and there isn’t a really cheaper version either.

Consumers truly want to use products and brands to express who they are to themselves and the world around them.

Apple reinforces the design appeal of the iPhone by generating excitement every time a new product is released. Every announcement of a new iteration, no matter how small the changes, is treated as a sacred event. The image of people queuing in front of the Apple Store on the day of an iPhone launch is implanted in our collective imagination. Apple won’t let movie villains have iPhones, lest anyone get the wrong idea. And if you’ve ever watched “Ted Lasso” or anything else on Apple TV+, you may have noticed that iPhones and Apple products are everywhere.

By elevating the iPhone to the status of a prestige object, like a Louis Vuitton bag or a Mercedes car, Apple can play on consumers’ desire to “keep up with the Joneses”, to try to imitate those around them and not to be left behind. . People tend to conform; we want to feel like we belong. This is particularly relevant for adolescents and young adults. They don’t want to appear excluded or low status, like their family can’t afford a more expensive item.

“They’re at a stage where they’re trying to formulate their identity, and when you’re trying to formulate your identity, you’re also figuring out which social groups do you belong to, which one are you an insider and which one are you an outsider.” , said Joseph Nunes, professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business. “And we all know that as a teenager, being an insider, being an outsider, it matters even more.”

Customers queue to buy iPhone 15 series phones at an Apple Store in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province, 22 September 2023.

Apple has long used marketing tricks, such as endless lines outside its stores, to cultivate a prestigious image.

NurPhoto/Getty Images

This motivation does not end in adulthood; it just changes. Maybe a 30-something doesn’t care what phone she owns (although many still do), but she cares about the car she drives and where her kids go to school. And they probably still keep their iPhone, regardless of how they think it makes them look or not, because they’re used to it. They’re already too involved and the cost of switching seems too high, especially if all their other devices are Apple.

Humans are a hierarchical species. We look down to feel better about ourselves and look up to assess our position on the scale. People look for ways to signal their status in this context of social comparison, and having something supposedly attractive or special is one way to do that. This is a form of “conspicuous consumption,” a way of displaying your status and wealth.

“Consumers who seek approval from others or who are motivated by social dominance engage in conspicuous consumption to demonstrate their elitism to others,” Joshua Clarkson, a consumer psychologist and marketing professor at the University of Texas, told me. University of Cincinnati, in an email. “You could imagine both of these consumer groups being heavily invested in iMessage (i.e., not being the person with Android on the group chat) or as a way to fit in (if you’re looking for ‘approval of others), or as a means of excluding others (if motivated by social domination).”

Consumers who seek approval from others or who are motivated by social dominance engage in conspicuous consumption to demonstrate their elitism to others.

Some brands know how to play with these predispositions. Luxury and prestige companies claim that their products are of higher quality, which is often true. But functional attributes are reinforced by aspirational positioning: you can’t just create something better; you have to make people believe that it’s worth more. This positioning allows companies to price their perceived premium products accordingly. They advertise it to influencers and celebrities who match their image. They often inject a sense of scarcity and urgency into the mix. While iPhones are ubiquitous, the latest versions, which also come at a new price, are not.

Societal context is also important here, Nunes said: “We are in a period of society today where there is great inequality. And then it sort of reinforces this notion that there are the haves and the have-nots .”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting an iPhone. In a world where some people constantly seek prestige and status through their consumption, it would be strange if there wasn’t some desire to have the phone perceived as the best. And consumers clearly understand what Apple is offering: with a market capitalization of nearly $3 trillion, it is one of the most valuable companies in the world. But it’s important to remember that ultimately having something fancy doesn’t make us happier. Sometimes it even makes us more critical, hence the whole green bubble bias.

We view the things we own as an extension of ourselves, perhaps especially our phones – it’s where many people live a large part of their lives. iPhone bias probably isn’t going anywhere, even if we ignore it.

“Brands are much more than the functional products they offer, they are the symbol of what consumers want to see themselves and what they want to be,” Ordabayeva said. Apparently, many of us want to think of ourselves as iPhone users and all that goes with it. I moved from a Samsung to an iPhone in 2014. It seemed like the right thing to do, and that’s what Apple is banking on.

Emilie Stewart is a senior correspondent at Business Insider, writing about business and economics.


Back to top button