Aug 23, 2013

    Mixed reaction to gold iPhone

    IF APPLE hopes to woo more Chinese by adding a glitzy coating - some call it champagne, some gold - to its next iPhone, it may be in for a surprise.

    While gold is hugely popular as a safe haven and a status symbol, shoppers at an Apple store in Beijing were not all convinced it should be coupled with that pinnacle of mobile gadgetry.

    Ms Ni Suyang, a 49-year-old worker at a Beijing state-owned enterprise, said that colour mattered less to her than the glass surface and silver-metallic finish.

    "Gold colour looks high-end but is a little tacky," she said.

    Gold and mobile phones are no strangers. Britain's Gold & Co makes gold-plated iPhones, iPads and BlackBerrys, which it also sells in India and China.

    In Shenzhen, many small local brands make gold-plated feature phones and smartphones. The less well-heeled can adorn their devices with jewel-studded and gold phone covers.

    Apple's decision to add a champagne or gold iPhone to its range - confirmed by supply-chain sources in Taiwan - would be a departure from its black-and-white norm.

    Commercially, it makes sense, said Mr Jerry Zou, senior vice-president and partner at FleishmanHillard, a public-relations firm in Beijing. New colours would add novelty and variety, both of which are key to winning over fickle Chinese consumers, he said. A champagne colour "would convey an image suggesting high-end luxury but a bit more restrained and subtle".

    But browsers at Apple's Xidan store were not so sure - even on which gender would like it.

    "Gold is for guys, I think," said Ms Meng Xiang, a 22-year-old retail buyer working in Guangzhou, who said she preferred pink and white.

    Mr Cui Baocheng, a 48-year-old bank manager, disagreed. "I prefer black to gold," he said. "Men usually like black. Champagne might be very ugly."

    Indeed, there is a danger that by trying to broaden its appeal, Apple may end up undermining what makes the iPhone so desirable in the first place.

    Younger Chinese see gold as old-fashioned and tacky, and are increasingly opting for platinum - dubbed "white gold" in Chinese - for weddings and gifts.

    "An iPhone with more colours means that Apple is adapting to consumers' tastes, especially a gold colour that Chinese people like," said Ms Xu Fang, a 28-year-old real-estate agent. "But I think this might undermine the value and uniqueness of the brand."

    Apple's sales in Greater China, its second-biggest market, slumped 43 per cent in April-June from the previous quarter. Its market share has almost halved since last year to below 5 per cent, according to industry researcher Canalys.

    The bigger problem, said Shanghai-based product designer Brandon Edwards, is that while gold added "cultural relevance on top of Apple's inherent brand value" and may attract premium users from other brands, "Apple's main issue in China and emerging markets is centred on acquiring new customers, and this doesn't hit those people at all".

    Indeed, consumers in India, where Apple's market share is just over 2 per cent, were just as sceptical.

    Mumbai phone retailer Manish Khatri said he did get customers asking for gold-coloured phones occasionally, but the biggest deterrent to buying an iPhone for most of them was cost.

    For others, gold is something to buy, not to slap on a mobile device. Said Mr Vikas Jindal, a 35-year-old Delhi businessman and a regular buyer of gold: "I'll look stupid if I carry a gold-coloured phone. A phone should be simple and sober."