Branding: So Is It Quality or Is It Just a Name?

iPhone 5 and headphones


Apple has become synonymous with simplicity of design and ease of use with their iPod and iPhone products. The way we experience music and related applications will never be the same after Steve Jobs helped make it possible to “fit your whole music library in your pocket.” While it’s hard to argue with the quality of Apple’s product, there is no question that the marketing and hype machine surrounding Apple’s product launches is nothing short of genius. The Apple fanboys and fangirls of the world will buy anything Apple, and even if competing companies build a worthy product, many won’t turn their heads. 

Digital Music News wrote a piece on the new iPhone 5 and how it is an evolution of the iPhone 4S but is not revolutionizing the way people use smartphones—most of that work is already done. Other than making the device much faster and lighter, there aren’t that many new bells and whistles unless you consider a new headphone name (EarPods) to be exciting. While the kind of headphones that comes with the iPhone is not a big selling point, the audiophiles of the world will see their audio experience very differently based on different types of headphones. 

With smartphone choice, other than noticeable differences in speed, app selection, and other core parts of the iPhone experience, the Apple branding has a strong psychological influence on one’s perception of the product. Whether it’s the marketing or the fact you expect quality when you buy an Apple product, there is still a subliminal desire to think highly of an Apple product regardless of all the factors at play. Then there is the case of headphones, where one would think that quality trumps branding (since we trust our ears to tell us what sounds goods, how can branding have an effect on what we perceive to be good sound quality?).

Enter Beats, the company that makes the headphones that command 51% of the premium headphone market that’s worth about a $1 billion in the U.S. alone (according to Digital Music News). In the professional audio community, Beats sometimes gets a bad rep for being overpriced—that is to say the quality is not so great, and you’re paying double a normal sticker price just for the association with Dr. Dre and the Beats name. It seems that Beats is not just a headphone choice but also a fashion choice, with the trendy headphones easily spotted in New York City subways and on college campuses across America. This might be one of those times that branding gets ahead of product, unlike with Apple products that seemed to impress a smaller core group of Apple fanatics early on before hitting the masses. The NPD says:

“Thirty-eight percent of premium headphone owners say their device is part of their personal style and one-in-four say it is important that their headphones are fashionable.”

For audio geeks such a statement seems egregious and that sound quality should be the first thing people think about when deciding how to listen to music, but our devices are more than how fast or how well they get us from Point A to Point B. Products that we wear every day are also a reflection of our personalities and how we want to be perceived by other people. That’s where branding just beat out product, even if the product itself is in fact of sound quality.