What people like to buy

Why are Harry Potter and the iPhone so incredibly successful?


I had a wild insight a few days back that the success of these two apparently disparate pieces of pop-culture from the 2000’s has the same ‘root cause’. I’ve been trying to figure out what that cause is for the last several days, and the only thing I have uncovered is a headache. So I’m summarizing my thoughts so far in the hope that someone else will help join the dots.

First of all, both Harry Potter and the iPhone are high quality. But that alone is not sufficient to propel a consumer product into the ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ range. Why? First of all, there are tons of good books out there – books for children and adults – that don’t sell one-hundredth of what Harry Potter sells. And though many people argue that the iPhone is the best phone in the world (and I am not in this post going to argue with them), there are other products that are likewise the epitome of their own product classes. At the Design Museum Danmark, I saw (among other things) what I would consider the epitomes in furniture and lighting. But though more people need furniture than smartphones, there’s no iSofa that’s making its maker the richest company in the world.

So it seems to me that the ‘secret sauce’ that propels a good book into one that makes its author the twelfth richest woman in the UK is not inherent in the book itself, but somewhere outside.

In its heydey, I was a sucker for both Rowling and Apple, so introspection seemed to be a great place to start. Why did I go online and pre-order Half-blood Prince from Amazon two full weeks before it was even in the bookshelves?

There were a few reasons. The first was curiosity. With both Apple and Rowling, there is always tremendous secrecy about what they did, and that helped build up an incredible hype around their creations. This hype, note, isn’t ‘marketing hype’ in the strictest sense. It is a genuine, mob-driven curiosity, which spontaneously arises even if the creator does not spend a penny on advertising, and all that Apple (or Rowling’s publishers) have to do is to make sure the product is available. It sells itself thereafter.

That is the second aspect: ease of purchase, the simple sales channel. You don’t have to stir out of your house to order an iPhone or a Harry Potter book. So in the duration that the urge overpowers you – and that duration may be only a few minutes – you can go to Amazon, or Apple, or wherever, and purchase. Instant gratification.

The third aspect is the ability of both of them to harness mob behavior. I remember, when I was in the throes of Potter-mania, I would even read fan-fiction. And of course, a long, complicated essay forecasting what exactly would happen in the next book always made for great reading. It drew you in to a community, trying to get you to analyze the actions of a character the way you would analyze the relationships of a friend. Likewise the Apple mobs, who endlessly tried to predict what features Apple would add next to the iPod. But Snape killing Dumbledore – and Apple making the iPod into a cellphone – were both complete surprises to the ‘community’, and complete delights as well. The internet as a social phenomenon, which had its origins in the 2000’s, was probably critical in enabling these communities to gain critical mass.

The fourth is the ability to discover needs that you never knew you had. I think this is why there has not been a frenzy around furniture the way there has been a frenzy around the iPhone. A chair is a chair – you sit on it. Yes, if you sit comfortably, it will make your life infinitely better. But when early iPhone adopters found they actually enjoyed buying apps, this told them something about themsleves that they did not already know. And when you read Harry Potter, and it brought back memories of other books almost long-forgotten, it triggered something personal inside you.

The fifth is the ability to tie into something larger. For Harry Potter, it was ‘getting children to read’. For Apple, it was ‘good design triumphs’. Both ’causes’ were cool ones to espouse. We had people going around giving design commentary on all things seen and heard; just as we had everyone talking about how ‘children nowadays’ were only playing computer games and watching TV instead of reading. That said, the mass of people who bought Harry Potter were adults; and the buyers of the iPhone were, by and large, not design experts. It was just a tagline that made people feel good about themselves.

I also think the fact that both Harry Potter and the iPhone were part of a ‘series’ were very important. The HP hype did not really start till book 3 or maybe book 4. And the early iPods were just collectors’ items – it took till the iPhone for the mania to really assume mob proportions.

What else? Creating curiosity, delivering on scale, the emergence of a rabid fanbase, some kind of self-actualization, the ability to project a coolness, and time. But I still get the feeling I’m missing something big. What else?


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