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Innovation: Does the iPhone Look So Great Because Everything Else is So Bad?

A week after D-Day for the hype machine, the media after-glow continues, with the usual combination of snarky contrarianism and fulsome sectarian praise from Apple worshippers. Flaws aside, and I find the keyboard a thumb struggle, there’s no question that the iPhone – like its iPredecessor, the iPod – is a seductively wrought, craftily engineered jewel of a product for a generation of Pod People. Whether it’s truly a culture-slamming revolution remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the product taps into the powerful need for our deepest consumer urges to be dazzled.

A week after D-Day for the hype machine, the media after-glow continues, with the usual combination of snarky contrarianism and fulsome sectarian praise from Apple worshippers.

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Flaws aside, and I find the keyboard a thumb struggle, there’s no question that the iPhone – like its iPredecessor, the iPod – is a seductively wrought, craftily engineered jewel of a product for a generation of Pod People. Whether it’s truly a culture-slamming revolution remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the product taps into the powerful need for our deepest consumer urges to be dazzled.

It also shines so brightly because so much of the consumer market is mired in what amounts to a dazzle-free zone. Consider the automotive industry. America is a car-culture; remember when the Auto Show once grabbed the national imagination? Today, it’s a non-event, with media coverage desultory at best. And why should it be big news, like MacWorld is? When was the last time a car made anyone’s spirits soar?

GM just had their worst June in nine years. And it’s not like the foreign automakers are bringing any turbo-charge of excitement to their showrooms, either. BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and Audio make perfectly fine vehicles, but there are only predictable, incremental improvements from model year to model year. The only semblance of consumer intensity – for hybrid vehicles – is fueled by politics, not engineering.

Wherever you look, there’s almost nothing to see. When was the last time a food company introduced something new that you actually wanted to try? The giant brands are eons behind their consumers and the trends. Kraft is a case in point. The company is struggling in all of its core businesses – which is why Nelson Peltz is hovering – and blaming private label inroads. But private label can only succeed when businesses are skidding to the commodity side of the ledger.

The online world, which has been the engine of innovation, is also suffering. A few weeks ago there was a telling piece in the New York Times that talked about a new “dot-calm” world where consumers are growing “weary” of the channel. Again, it’s a failure of imagination. How long has it been since Amazon lit up the market with their 1-Click technology?

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Why is so much of the consumer economy so boring? In large part, marketers talk about creating a culture of innovation, but then either isolate the truly original ideas, Guantanamo-style, or subject them to death-by-PowerPoint and death by research. It’s easy to look at the iPhone and then reverse-engineer the arguments that would have killed it off at damn near any other company:

•“Consumers will reject a keyboard they can’t feel.”
•“No one will spend that much for a phone.”
•“You can’t expect people to get a new number online.”
•“You can’t succeed working with just one carrier.”

The objections would have gone on and one – almost as long as the lines outside the Apple store last week. C’mon now, Steve Jobs is good, but he shouldn’t be lapping the rest of the American consumer economy.

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About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and Match.com, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies

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