Goodbye iPod - you were a positioning masterclass.
iPod is dead. Apple finally pulled the plug, metaphorically and physically on the device that changed the music business forever.
The plaudits claim its success was down to incredible product design and distinctiveness (oh those white headphones!) but there's another reason that no one is talking about.

The incredible positioning. This is a masterclass every marketer needs to take.
The seismic change iPod brought about to the way we consume music, not to mention how over time iPod (together with iTunes) slapped the music industry around like Mike Tyson would a first-round junior opponent, has left many commentators and analysts waxing lyrically about its legacy.

But for the technical accuracy of the expert musings, they have all overlooked one very important thing. The one thing that made the iPod successful beyond the tangibility of the things you can see.

It's not the style design, it's not the Apple brand (as it stood then in 2001), it's not the ease of use nor the hard disk capacity (meagre by today's standards). It's the positioning.

In this article, I will discuss the key elements of positioning as they apply to the iPod. The power of market context, the often-overlooked frame of reference, finding a target audience that cares a lot and keeping positioning alive over time to deliver the value you deliver today.

Ready to press play? Let's make like Moby and go.
Market Context.

Context by definition is the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs. It's a critical component to the positioning of, well, anything really.

Celebrated classical violinist Joshua Bell performed in the D.C Metro as a busker and barely made $150 as most of the commuters just walked on by. Those who did stop did not recognise the person of significance before them.

Just three days before Bell appeared at the Metro station, he had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Each!

As human beings, we use context as a mental shortcut to quickly frame our understanding of something and importantly, if we should even care about it. Positioning guru, April Dunford cites this famous Justin Bell example from The Washington Post in 2007, to highlight the key learning around why context matters.

By changing Bell's context, 'listeners' understood him to be something other than what he really is. Therefore, context matters.
MP3s: The Outro Or The Encore For The Music Industry?

Before we get onto MP3s, let's rewind for a second into the transition from cassette tapes to Sony's Walkman. Did the music industry care that the demise of the cassette tape and therefore a core revenue source was now inevitable?

Not really. You see, Warner, EMI, Universal Music, et al, were cramming in sales from the whole world repurchasing their old analogue music collections on CD. It was the golden era of money printing. Why sweat over portable music when the cash cow keeps on giving?

Then in 2001, MP3s were cited as the next new scourge of the music industry. Napster, the most famous of early online music sharing platforms alongside the likes of LimeWire, were getting sued by disgruntled artists (most famously by Metallica) left right and centre.

To those in the music industry at that time, the internet just seemed like a dystopian wild west.

This all amounted to the perception that the music industry was slowly losing its grip on its highly cyclical and commercially successful money-making machine once and for all.

However, that wasn't to be as the iPod was one such way to tap into this new listening experience. CDs were replaced by MP3s, and thus the cycle continued.

Frame Of Reference.

The frame of reference is an often overlooked but critical part of the positioning process and here, there are two key frames:

1. Music as a digital portable proposition sucks.

2. We now have huge CD collections we just invested a lot of time and money in. We have shelves of music taking up a lot of real estate inside our own houses.

Let's break these down.

The Sony Walkman (tape cassette version) was brilliant. It was robust, portable, and affordable. But the audio quality was distinctly analogue.

The Sony Walkman (CD version) was a shambles (as were all portable CD players), with great audio quality hindered by poor battery life and the scourge of track skipping. In portable form, CD players were fragile. Trying to enjoy this experience was akin to a highwire act of walking very slowly ensuring nothing moved. Sigh.

In 2001 our music lived in physical formats. We have the legacy of tape and vinyl, but we just invested hundreds (or in my case, thousands!) in hard currency in rebuilding our music collections from the analogue to the digital era. The fact is, our music sits on shelves, cupboards, in boxes, draws or anywhere we have space.

Making music portable for the masses at that time involved a portable CD player that bankrupted you in battery costs and filled your backpack with CDs. Not to mention drove you to uncontrollable rage when any of the fragilities of the experience surface. As they often did.

A set of fresh AA batteries used to get me 2-3 CDs if I was lucky. Grr. I do not want to be this angry listening to my favourite music having to stop myself from turning my CD player into a frisbee. Sigh (again).

This is why the proposition of '1,000 songs in your pocket' resonated so well. The frame of reference was not just perfect but as we go back to the future in this article, I'll conclude it was genius.

Is the iPod an MP3 player? No. It's 1,000 songs in your pocket.
Positioning Is About The Intent.

Apple's original product positioning was clearly about making the digital music experience portable. This was the intent at the heart of its positioning.

What is it you want your target customer to believe? What, as a company, is your intention?

Yet, Apple went beyond this and played out a modus operandi that bends a norm in positioning.

As Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote in their seminal book 'Positioning; the battle for your mind', in order to position anything, you must be first.

However, Apple is rarely the first at anything! Look at the evidence:

  • Apple iPad – Windows tablets had already been on the market for a while
  • Apple iMac – All-in-one computers were not necessarily new
  • Apple Watch – Android smartwatches had been in the market for a year or so
  • Apple iCloud – Cloud-based services existed elsewhere for a long time (and still do)
  • Apple iPod – Digital MP3 players on the market for a year or two already
Apple was not first to market but most importantly, the company was first in the consciousness of its target audience and as Ries and Trout tell us, positioning is the battle for your mind.

And here, iPod was differentiated and distinctive in markets that had been tested by the competition but where the commercial opportunity remained largely untapped.

And being different and distinctive plays so strongly to the Apple brand. They are not the world's most valuable brand for nothing and from a product perspective, it really started in earnest with iPod.
Recorded music revenues.
Back To The Future.

Let's climb in the DeLorean, hit 88 mph and watch the flux capacitor generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity needed to come back to 2022! If you have no clue what I just referenced, you need to see the film!

I referenced the genius of this positioning and there are two elements to this Einstein moment:

1. The context

2. The frame of reference

In recent times, of course, the context has changed dramatically. We take portable digital music for granted, libraries of music are near-unlimited due to the ubiquitous nature of streaming services.

1,000 Songs In Your Pocket Vs 60 Million Songs On Your Wrist.

We reclaimed the real estate inside our homes years ago. Digital natives are now the default over analogue laggards and music can literally be accessed and played anywhere, on any device, at any time. The concept of physical media, dedicated music playing hardware (including the iPod) and the burdens of a poor user experience just seem so distant.

So, given that 68% of 16-24-year olds chose a smartphone when asked "If you only had one device to listen on...'' and 89% listen to music through on-demand streaming, it's therefore not surprising that dedicated music hardware has declined in the past 20 years. In fact, the diversity of how we engage with music has become a more complex but interesting ecosystem, brilliantly summarised on page 6 by this official IFPI report.

523 million paying subscribers of music streaming services clearly are a clear signpost that the writing was on the wall for our beloved iPod quite a while ago.

Music has gone from being 'somewhere' (on your shelves) to 'everywhere'. So, when the latest incarnation of this positioning was revealed, you had to applaud. Well, I did.
In your pocket? Or on your Wrist?.
Oops!..Apple Did It Again.. (and again).

Britney might have caught the world's attention just a year earlier but when it comes to nailing positioning and articulating value, not only are Apple top dog but they are consistent and this particular part of their repeatable market-winning formula has us all rushing to pray at the temple they call the Apple Store.

The iPod was successful not just because it was a great product but because it was so perfectly positioned.

It played to the power of market context. It was grounded in a frame of reference relevant to the original and new positioning and it put the value that Apple delivered at the time, at the centre of its positioning.

Stay safe. Look after one another.



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