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Analysing Brand Experience at scale: Explaining The Success of iPhone SE in South Korea

The iPhone SE has just become the top-selling smartphone in South Korea, Samsung’s backyard. How did Apple pull this off?


With over 90 percent of the world’s search engine market in its bag, it’s well known that Google is the very definition of “behemoth.” What is less well known is that several years before Google Search began to resemble the one-stop-shop it is today, a South Korean firm called Naver had launched its own search engine, with features that Google (and Yahoo!) hadn’t incorporated yet, like comprehensive search and a section for user-generated content.


Naver is still a major player in the South Korean market and is just one example of how the country has always been an early adopter (as well as at the leading edge) of internet and phone technology.


The South Korean Landscape

Today, South Korea has the world’s fastest mobile internet, as well as a smartphone penetration rate of close to 94 percent. In the country’s smartphone market, Samsung is the hands-down leader, with a market share of 67 percent as of the second quarter of 2020, despite a slowdown in overall sales due to the pandemic.


Apple is the runner up with 19 percent, and, in a further fillip, its budget model, the iPhone SE2, was the best selling smartphone in the same quarter.


This is no mean feat, given that the South Korean market has traditionally been driven by top-end smartphones and dominated by homegrown brands like Samsung and LG; foreign brands have found it difficult to establish a toehold there. How did Apple pull this off?


Our research team decided to find out.


How we did it:

First, in order to examine consumer sentiment around the iPhone SE, we extracted data from 1,311 human instances (that is, unique data points about individuals who are engaging with or speaking about the category or brand we are studying) in the country, from Naver Cafes as well as blogs on Naver. We then analyzed these public data streams, to gain a better understanding of consumer attitudes towards the iPhone SE (as well as other mid-range smartphones).


Tracking Trends: We identified five key trend spaces the Apple iPhone SE played in


Our Culture AI analysis found that the iPhone SE is successfully riding five trend spaces in South Korea.

  • Simplification

  • Frugality

  • Familiarity

  • Being contemporary

  • Obligation

Let’s take a look at what these categories look like when expanded upon.


Simplification: Consumers like things uncomplicated


There is a growing segment of consumers that wants basic functionality and the essential elements of a smartphone, rather than the extravagance of a hyper-expensive, premium smartphone with cutting-edge features.


The iPhone SE slots in neatly here, with its classic, functional and simple design. It doesn’t skimp on features either, with a powerful processor and camera, and it’s also dust and water-resistant.


Frugality: The iPhone SE goes easy on the wallet


Many Koreans are tired of capitalism’s relentless focus on 24/7 consumption and are looking for ways to bring frugality back into their lives. The economic effect of the pandemic has also seen a need to rationalize spending, instead of chasing the latest trends.


Additionally, the second-hand phone market has declined, so it no longer makes sense to spend big money on a premium phone and offset the cost by selling your old phone; an affordable, long-lasting phone is the way to go.


Finally, a smartphone purchase in South Korea is a well-planned move, taking into account the best deals, and the Smart Commonsense Café on Naver is where members discuss the most cost-effective phones, along with the best time and place to buy them.


Familiarity: Consumers gravitate towards what they’re comfortable with


If it works, why change it? Unlike the features of newer iPhone models which come with Face IDs, no home button, and a whole slew of fancy features, the iPhone SE keeps things manageably advanced, without lurching too far into the future just yet.


The iPhone SE’s design is a throwback to that of the iPhone 5 and 6, which strikes a chord with older users wanting to switch back to something they’re familiar with. Its compactness is a plus, as opposed to the bigger-is-better philosophy of premium smartphones.


Contemporary Cool


Simultaneously, the iPhone SE appeals to image-conscious younger consumers, who are taken in by Apple’s aura of being a strong and rebellious brand.


A large segment of people interested in the iPhone SE are primarily in their 20s and 30s, and the phone’s affordable price point makes it a popular option in this age bracket. Much as older buyers appreciate the SE’s classic, compact design, the young crowd also finds it attractive in a ‘newtro’ (new plus retro) way, because it stands out and offers the latest features.


Obligation: The perfect Dutiful gift choice


South Korea has a long-standing tradition of respecting one’s elders and celebrating milestones by giving gifts — and the SE has become ideal for both.


For example, working adults are expected to provide for their parents and give them expensive gifts, resulting in the ‘filial piety phone’ and special parental phone plans from the country’s top service providers, which usually feature older models of premium phones or new mid-range phones from cheaper brands. The SE is the ideal phone in this category, because of its premium image coupled with its affordability.


In a country where 72 percent of children have a smartphone by age 12, it has also become popular as a gift from parents to children and teenagers, who are extremely keen to be seen as hip and stylish.


For couples in South Korea, relationship gifts are a given, and it is normal for them to celebrate milestones such as their 100th, 200th, 300th, 500th and 1000th day together. The iPhone SE again presents itself as ideal here.


Analyzing Apple’s iPhone SE Communication Strategy…


In contrast with ads for premium smartphones — which tend to belong and focus on celebrities, exclusivity and fame — commercials for the iPhone SE and other mid-range phones are shorter and highlight the communal aspects of smartphone ownership, showing individuals celebrating heartwarming and unique moments in their everyday lives.


With ‘affordable premium’ becoming a significant trend in the South Korean smartphone market, it appears that the iPhone SE will continue to be a very popular choice among consumers there, along with similarly priced and specced offerings from other brands.


Head over to https://www.quilt.ai to find out more about what we do. If you have any questions, reach out at [email protected]

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