Can influencer marketing unplug the iPhone monopoly?
Graphic by Lindsay Hill
Brands like Motorola and Google Pixel are leaning into creator strategy to challenge iPhone's social impact.
When considering how Apple has maintained its elite status in the smartphone space, Chris Crawford compared the impact of the iPhone to that of a high school dress code—it may not be an enthusiastic choice, he said, but it can rely on a social infrastructure to keep its name afloat.
“Apple doesn’t necessarily even have the product anymore,” said Crawford, president of agency Elite Media, whose clients include American Express and Air Jordan. “What it has is a monopoly on school uniforms.”
Any Gen Z or millennial consumer who owns anything other than an iPhone is prepared for slander when peers receive their texts in green bubbles instead of blue bubbles, as these users believe the lack of iMessage integration is a communication barrier. Determined to dismantle this hierarchy, competitors like Google, Samsung and Motorola are courting creators in a bid war for social clout.
While the iPhone's impact doesn’t show real signs of waning, Apple’s smartphone stock hit a two month low at the start of this year and was beat out by Samsung in smartphone global market share in early 2023. Aiming for a long term impact, these brands must lead with a multi-layered approach that is both bold and pragmatic. Pushing iPhone to the sidelines must be coupled with the awareness that consumer behavior is deeper than a single feature—and it doesn’t doesn’t immediately change because a competitor came out with a better camera.
“Gen Z and millennials are craving the days when technology didn’t rule our lives and wasn’t our third space,” said trend analyst and content marketing manager Suraiya Sarwar, who holds clients across the telecom industry. “People are now looking for a balance between using modern technology and leading a simpler, more mindful lifestyle.”
Going back to the basics
The Mean Girls reboot, which racked in $28 million in the box office in its first three days, didn’t fall short of Elf Cosmetics and Motorola Razr product placements. Playing into older Gen Z and millennial nostalgia, these brands are not focused on rolling out more modern technology that targets Apple’s product offerings. Instead, they are committing to a bolder tactic by questioning whether all these advancements are truly in service of the consumer.
Samsung’s #JointheFlipside campaign, which has garnered 1.8 billion views on TikTok, focuses on aesthetics over connectivity. Motorola partnered with Pantone to create a peach fuzz line of its products, as its color of the year symbolizes “emotional nourishment and a return to simplicity,” according to a statement.
“IPhone does have die-hard fans, but it is really tough (for them) to come out with something new and innovative every single year,” said videographer and creator Colt Kirwan, who has amassed 100 thousand subscribers on YouTube. “Once consumers start realizing that the Apple product hasn’t really changed, I think they'll start questioning their brand loyalty.”
Pursuing brand-agnostic creator
When OnePlus first approached Kirwan, he had yet to monetize his YouTube presence with branded content. After feeling reluctant as an iPhone user, the creator decided to gift the device to his father who had recently broken his phone. Still landing on an authentic way to integrate the product into his life, Kirwan stressed his dad’s impact on his creative journey, and he felt this strategy would make the content feel more digestible and less like an ad.
To win over a younger generation, these brands are realizing that swiftly stealing the iPhone consumer base is not a practical or effective strategy. Hailey Sani, a fashion and lifestyle creator who has worked with Google Pixel, said the idea of creators exclusively using every product they promote is impractical.
“I think the whole idea of everyone having an iPhone is kind of fading, as all these tech companies are coming out and saying that they can do it better,” said Sani, who spoke to the wide range of her audience’s priorities when it comes to a smartphone. “I’m showcasing another option on the market, and being able to test out different products is the fun of being a creator.”
Sliding in as a side character
Competitors know that if they can’t dismantle Apple’s social fabric overnight, they can partner with creators to position their products as a complimentary device. While creators are not admitting that they also carry an iPhone in their pockets, many are presenting phones like Google Pixel, Motorola Razr and Samsung flip as accessories that can be bedazzled and used for downtime, or cameras with enhanced editing capabilities. #FixedOnPixel, which names including Julia Fox and Tinx have used to promote the product’s magic eraser and photo unblur features, has garnered over 190 million views on TikTok.
Crawford stressed that challenger brands don’t solely win by trying to release something different—they must also disrupt the culture that Apple has established that spans beyond shiny new objects. He pointed to pgLang, an “anti-smart phone” that Kendrick Lamar launched in 2023 with bare bones features and an ancient interface.
“Instead of competing at Apple’s school, (pgLang) is saying ‘No, private schools suck, and you have to check out this other school where we can introduce a new way of engaging with your device,’” he said. “Those are the pockets of cultural disruption that can break the lock that iPhone has.”