There was a time when I worked at Pocket Gamer when Samsung sales stories almost wrote themselves.
From model to model, Samsung’s Galaxy S seemed to be selling more and more. The numbers went up with each new handset, and the time it took the Korean giant to hit milestone figures was pushed further down each year. I remember there was a genuine belief amongst mobile journalists when the Galaxy S4 came out that this was a trend that was set in stone: Samsung was the industry’s innovator, while Apple was perceived as being stuck in the past, tied to Steve Jobs’ legacy of small handsets that lacked the flexibility Android afforded.
And then Apple finally did something consumers had spent the last few years openly calling for. It launched a bigger iPhone. Two bigger iPhones, in fact.
Everyone knew, of course, that the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus would sell just as well as their predecessors, if not better, but many – including myself – criticised the new devices for being little more than “just a big iPhone.” (Incidentally, the last time commentators had used such a phrase to slate Apple was at the launch of the iPad. You’d think we’d have learned our lesson by now.)
The view was that Apple was now chasing the tail of its main competitor and that iPhone 6, while appealing to existing and loyal iPhone customers, would do little to tempt back those who had crossed over to the Galaxy S. We were wrong, and just why we were wrong is as interesting as it is worrying for the likes of Samsung – and, indeed, all of Apple’s assorted rivals.
What the overwhelming success of iPhone 6 has proved (or ‘reinforced’ might be a better way of putting it) is that Apple’s brand loyalty reaches heights that Samsung could only dream of. Samsung’s Galaxy S gained massive momentum arguably because Apple refused to push out a bigger handset. It wasn’t the only reason some early iOS adopters eventually switched to Samsung, of course, but it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t a major factor in the Galaxy S’s ascension.
In my view, however, perceived poor longterm sales for Samsung’s Galaxy S5 (which launched roughly five months before Apple’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus) is indicative of one trend: Many Galaxy S owners who had switched to Samsung from Apple during the previous couple of years spent the last few months of 2014 switching back to iPhone.
This is largely conjecture on my part, of course – admittedly I’m aware of friends who have made this switch in recent months, though anecdotal evidence is often the least reliable . Nevertheless, my gut is that Apple’s iPhone 6 cut off almost all of the momentum Samsung had amassed with Galaxy S during the previous four or so years simply by making the iPhone a little bigger. In short, whole leagues of Galaxy S consumers have simply been waiting for a reason, almost any reason, to switch back to iOS.
This may sound like a throwaway theory, but in my mind it’s fundamental to the tug of war Apple and Samsung have been engaged in for the last five years. If my premise holds water, it means that, even though Apple was one of the last major smartphone manufacturers to bring out a ‘big’ smartphone (and, as a recent iPhone 6 adopter myself, I can say with a degree of confidence that there’s very little that’s new about the Cupertino firm’s latest device) just the simplest of changes has been enough to bring million’s back into the Apple camp. Why? Because the Samsung and Galaxy S brands just do not have the pull, the consumer loyalty, that Apple and iPhone can boast.
It’s like starting a new relationship when you’re not yet over your ex: You might be seen out with your new partner, you might spend every waking hour with them, but in the back of your mind you’re still fixated with your past love, endlessly thinking about them as you rest your head on your pillow.
In much the same fashion, Apple consumers have had a brief flirtation with Galaxy S in recent years, and they may do again in the future, but all Apple need do is adopt any of the features its rivals put out in the next couple of years to draw them back into the fold.
If this is true, this is an especially worrying trait for all of those looking to take on iPhone. Samsung’s new curved-screen Galaxy S6 Edge will undoubtedly boost sales in the coming months, but unless Samsung is able to build a more appealing brand that commands a greater sense of loyalty from consumers, all such innovations will only ever be a stop gap. Apple can almost use the new features employed by its competitors as a test bed: If one proves to be particularly popular and attracts a few bleeding edge iPhone consumers across the divide, all Apple has to do is adopt it at a later date to draw them back in again.
It’s a trend that means it’s not innovation that is going to win the day in the smartphone wars, but brand identity – and that’s a battle where Apple easily has the mightiest arsenal.