The psychology of Apple packaging
Steve jobs and Jony Ive prioritized packaging, which they said could be "theatre".
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Today, we’re talking about the psychology behind Apple’s packaging.
ALSO THIS WEEK: Links on Rolex, Amazon private label and the most expensive ham in the world.
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Apple packaging, explained
If you own Apple products, there’s a high likelihood that a corner of your closet is dedicated to Apple boxes.
Here are a few of mine:
Why do I collect them? Because they’re frickin’ beautiful and the resale value for Apple products is much higher on Craigslist with a box.
Or at least that’s what I tell myself. I don’t usually re-sell my Apple products. The boxes pile up and taunt me. I can’t shake them and I’m clearly not the only person with this affliction.
The affinity we have for Apple boxes is not random. It comes from a deep understanding of human psychology. As Walter Isaacson wrote in his Steve Jobs biography, beautiful packaging is one of Apple’s key marketing principles (bold mine):
‘The Apple Marketing Philosophy’…stressed three points:
The first was empathy, an intimate connection with the feelings of the customer: “We will truly understand their needs better than any other company.”
The second was focus: “In order to do a good job of those things that we decide to do, we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities.”
The third and equally important principle, awkwardly named, was impute. It emphasized that people form an opinion about a company or product based on the signals that it conveys. “People DO judge a book by its cover,” he wrote. “We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc.; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.”
Go all the way back to Apple’s launch of the Macintosh in 1984. Jobs’ team told him that it would be much more economical to ship the computer in a plain box. As we all know now, there’s zero chance he’d be OK with that.
Instead, Jobs “imputed” the desired qualities for Apple’s breakthrough PC in a full-color box.
Since then, Apple’s “impute” philosophy continues apace, especially for the company’s most famous product: the iPhone.
Look at this unboxing GIF. Look at it!!! Ridiculously satisfying.
Apple has sold 2B+ iPhones, which means that the “open the iPhone for first time” experience has happened 2B+ times.
It’s wild to think about. It’s also wild to read about how much effort Apple puts into the box-opening experience.
Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone in January 2007. During the presentation, he noted that Apple had filed or been granted 200+ patents for the device.
One of the patents: the iPhone case.
Jobs and Apple’s head designer (Jony Ive) long understood the value of packaging. As Ive recounts: "Steve and I spend a lot of time on the packaging. I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater."
As the last thing someone feels before seeing their phone, Apple put in 1000s of hours perfecting the package.
There's literally a "packaging room" where a design employee will spend months opening up 100s of prototypes — with different materials and shapes — to nail the experience (I need footage of the Apple designer making $250k who’s locked up in this room once-a-year opening boxes until the fingers bleed).
What is Apple looking for?
Lux-feeling boxes with the right friction and drag to create a brief pause when you lift the box (try opening the box quickly…you can’t because of the drag).
You know that “whoosh” sounds when you lift open an iPhone box? It’s from air pockets. Air pockets! Who thinks about making air pockets for electronic packaging? Jobs and Ives! That’s who.
And like the moment before a magician's reveal, they knew the power of anticipation and designed it into iPhone packaging.
There's a reason why unboxing videos on YouTube get billions of views a year.
The anticipation -- even when we know what's coming -- plays right into the curiosity gap: our psychological need to close the information deficit between what we know and what we *want* to know.
iPhone openings are also a multi-sensory experience:
You *see* the box
You *feel* the opening as you pull against friction
You *hear* the whoosh of air rushing out This adds to the theatre and creates a powerful memory recall effect like this:
Small details at every step make the "ritual" Ive spoke about:
Pulling the box's plastic off with a tab
The entire opening experience
Peeling back the screen protector
Inspecting cords/earbuds held in origami paper
All of this before touching the phone.
Even if you're not a fan of Apple, it's easy to see how a customer can use the heuristic: "Wow, if they're spending this much time on the packaging, the rest is probably pretty good too."
That my friends is the power of “impute”.
The detail in Apple's packaging is a great example of Jobs' "back of the fence" story, which is also from Isaacson’s bio:
“[Once Steve and his adopted father Paul Jobs] were building a fence. And Paul said ‘You got to make the back of the fence that nobody will see just as good looking as the front of the fence. Even though nobody will see it, you will know and that will show that you’re dedicated to making something perfect.”
Apple's packaging in general has a clear understanding of human psychology and how people shop. The designs give all the relevant info in an eye-catching and quick-to-process manner:
Pictures are better than words
Image sizes are "as in real life"
Clean and minimalist so as not to overwhelm the eyes
According to Leander Kahney’s book Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products, the iPod was actually the first product that truly saw packaging elevated to the same importance as the product itself.
For the release of its portable audio player, Apple created two boxes: 1) one for manufactures to ship the iPod to stores: and 2) the final iPod packaging that a consumer would buy.
In a patent application for the iPod case, Apple writes "It may diminish from the aura of a well-designed product to present it to consumers in a standard cardboard box. A package that is more fitting of the high-tech design of the product is what consumers expect.”
And that philosophy is why you can’t throw away Apple’s boxes.
Additional Reading: Packaging News (Link), Cult of Mac (Link), The "Inside Apple" book has the best detail on iPhone packaging (Link), Unbox Therapy (Link)
One more thing: Back in the early 2000s, Microsoft employees made fun of their company’s own aesthetic by “designing” a Microsoft case for the iPod.
Links and Memes
The story of Rolex: Speaking of consumer psychology, here’s a great episode of Business Breakdowns about watchmaker Rolex. My favorite nugget is that Rolex got its name because the “ex” ending sounds the same in every language (contrast that with the other super lux watch brand “Audemars Piguet”, which most people call “AP”). I also loved this tidbit from show host Patrick O’Shaughnessy:
“…when marketing a luxury product, you want the ratio of the number of people aware of something to those that actually have it to be as wide as possible.”
I’m doing my part for the ratio (translation: I’m incredibly aware of Rolex but own zero).
Amazon private label: Amazon launched its first private product in 2009 (AmazonBasics battery). It’s very standard for retailers to launch in-house brands (Kirkland makes up 20-30% of Costco’s sales), but Amazon’s efforts have only reached 1% of sales and it is a massive antitrust PR headache (because of allegations that Amazon takes seller data and copies the products). My latest Bloomberg Opinion article is on why it makes sense for Amazon to scale back the entire private label business.
Anyways, this tweet is incredible:
Mark Cuban has lost money on Shark Tank: Per CNBC, the billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner has invested $20m across 85 startups on the reality show Shark Tank…and is down lifetime across all the deals. That’s a lot of Rolexes (and even more AmazonBasics basketballs).
Why is Iberian ham the world’s most expensive cured meat? Solid YouTube video from Insider. The secret: the pigs are raised in areas where they are free to roam and fed a diet of olives, nuts, berries and a special acorn native to Spain.
**PS. Last week, I wrote about the history of Michelin Guide (including my recent experience eating at a Michelin restaurant in Spain).
And here are some glorious memes:
Funniest tweet I’ve seen on news that the Euro and USD reached parity:
Finally, a little something for all the Apple haters:
Really enjoyed this article, and I too, have my small collection of Apple boxes that I still haven’t thrown away.
A small anecdote from my 30+ years in IT (and it touches one something Satya asks down below in the comments)
A bunch of years ago, I was doing some IT work for a large audio company (Starts with a “B”, rhymes with “hose” :)) and we had 20-30 machines delivered from Apple for us to roll out. If I recall correctly it was around the time of the first Intel Mac Pros.
A group of employees approached us and asked if they could unbox a few of the machines.
Well, we thought this was a little odd, but we figured no harm, as long as they kept the machines in the area that we were unboxing them in.
So, a little while later we wandered over to where they were opening the boxes… And taking notes…
So of course we asked them what they were doing.
They replied that they worked in the group of the corporation that designed packaging for their products. Obviously, they were taking notes on how Apple did things.
I suspect any major company does this. Apple is definitely phenomenally good at it.
Hey Trung, realized that you moved your newsletter to https://trungtphan.com. Might be a good idea to put up a PSA post of some kind so that new subscribers head there directly. Loved your post on how Marvel lost Spiderman!