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Can Tim Cook Beguile Consumers the Way Steve Jobs Did?

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) CEO Tim Cook found the reality distortion field generator that Steve Jobs left behind. He's taking it for a spin this week with design guru Jony Ive by his side. But are they using it the right way?

I'm talking about the new TV ad spot for the iPhone 5C:

Why does this ad rub me the wrong way? Because it backtracks on the qualities that brought Apple this far. It's a potentially dangerous step backwards that undermines Apple's carefully constructed brand image. Tim, you're doing it wrong.

From the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5s, Apple always presented its handsets in premium materials. You don't get a plastic shell, but a solid aluminum housing. You don't get a scratch-prone plastic screen, but a strong Corning Gorilla Glass slate. The glass is hardly unbreakable, but nevertheless a huge upgrade over flimsy plastics. These design choices underscore the iPhone's high-end market positioning, and attempt to set the product line apart from supposedly lower-quality Android and Windows phones.

But all of that quality focus is forgotten in this ad. Apple titled it "Plastic Perfected," which is a throwback to the age-old iPhone 3/3GS era. You know, when Apple hadn't yet figured out how to make bulk orders of high-quality aluminum casings and had to settle for plastic.

If the plastic design was an attempt to reduce manufacturing costs, then Apple failed to pass those savings along to the consumer. Both AT&T (NYSE: T  ) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) -- Apple's largest retail partners in the U.S. market -- offer iPhone 5c at the same contract-locked price that last year's iPhone 5 commanded. Neither carrier slaps a discount on this model, even though the materials involved must be cheaper.

In fact, consumers who prefer to buy their iPhones unlocked and free of contract ties pay a $100 premium for the new, plastic model.

Let me just underscore that the iPhone 5c offers no new features that you can't also get by installing the newest version of Apple's iOS software on an old iPhone 5. If you're looking for any hint of innovation, you'll need to pony up another $100 for an iPhone 5s. You're paying extra for the colorful new design, is all.

So this is the budget phone without a discount. The marketing message in this ad is pretty clear: Look, plastic is fun again! Please ignore everything we told you about premium materials since the iPhone 4!

Yeah, that's Steve Jobs' old reality distortion field again. I guess he didn't leave a manual behind, because this is a botched attempt to run it. The iPhone 5c still looks like a solution looking for a problem, missing both the lucrative high-end market and the high-volume budget end.

We all know what comes next in mobile mispricing debacles. Look for Verizon and AT&T to drop their contract prices on the iPhone 5c before the holiday season arrives, maybe even backed by Apple charging them a little bit less.

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Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 17, 2013, at 7:51 PM, cranksports wrote:

    Hey Anders - The screen on the 5c is Corning Gorilla Glass, not "scratch-prone plastic" as you stated. If you're going to bash a product you might want to research the actual specifications.

  • Report this Comment On September 17, 2013, at 8:08 PM, Jjkiam wrote:

    How do articles like this get printed? Why don't they wait til they can actually try the phone before they dismiss it as cheap plastic. I don't believe Apple would do that and perhaps the type of plastic case they used may actually feel very nice

  • Report this Comment On September 17, 2013, at 9:10 PM, mfooljdg wrote:

    There's a difference between a cotton T-shirt and an expensive cotton dress shirt...yet they are both are made of cotton. Plastics are long chain polymers but there are many types so lets judge this one by its actual merits...not just the chemical family it comes from.

  • Report this Comment On September 17, 2013, at 10:27 PM, adamwins76 wrote:

    This article is full of inaccuracies. I can't believe this was printed. Who vetted this? The new iPhone 5c is $100 less on contract than the iPhone 5 was ($200) and the unlocked price is a full $100 less than the iPhone 5 cost unlocked last year. A simple Google search verifies this. The writer of this article is trying -- very badly -- to bash Apple. You're wrong pal. Move on.

  • Report this Comment On September 17, 2013, at 10:56 PM, skippywonder wrote:

    Apple now has a colorful phone line that it can mass produce affordably and -- yes -- it can lower the price on it whenever it wants.

    Apple has huge amounts of data on what sells the best and to whom. Do you think they don't make their product decisions with this in mind? I suspect Apple knows exactly what it is doing here. It will take a while for some observers to figure out.

    But besides simply being a colorful and plastic phone, it is the youthful and sporty side of a product lineup that will soon include watches and maybe other wearables. If you are a 5c type of person, there will be similar playful colorful plastic watches for you. And if you are more of a 5s, there will be more expensive and stylish metal watches available.

    Samsung released some fugly plastic watch and thinks that it may appeal to anyone. Apple knows that wearable devices will need to be styled carefully. This 5c/5s split is the first hint of the design decisions that will be obvious when they announce the iWatch or whatever they end up calling it.

    Apple is thinking ahead. The author of this article is not using his.

  • Report this Comment On September 18, 2013, at 12:35 PM, ViewRoyal wrote:

    Anders, I've got some earth-shaking news for you... Tim Cook was not hired by Apple and eventually promoted to CEO so that he could "beguile" consumers.

    It's just not in his job description.

    Tim Cook is where he is today because he is an exceptional business manager, and he has revolutionized Apple's procurement and production, making Apple the largest company in the world during his tenure (but you probably think you are more "qualified" than him ;-)).

  • Report this Comment On September 18, 2013, at 8:43 PM, 512ke wrote:

    Oh yes, Tim can "beguile" them with the fastest smart phone ever, a new and superior OS, stylish products, 64 bit chips, a killer radio service, newbiometric technologies, and integrated design.

    Lol too funny.

    You gotta use common sense. The iPhone 5 was already killing in July. You make it more stylish, improve the camera and battery, and lower the price 100 bucks on contract, and open up a deal with China Mobile, and integrate the design of the phone with the design of the OS, and what is gonna happen? It's gonna sell like crazy.

    Tim Cook is just an excellent businessman. Too bad the media can't look at Apple in a businesslike way rather than an emotional irrational way, jumping on some rumor that the 5S sales were collapsing, instead of looking at the product, the demand, and the sales. Not just for 24 hours sales but the next quarter and beyond. Kaching time for Apple.

    I don't have to be an Analysts to see that! I'm buying personally. More APPL!

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