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Apple’s iPhone Packaging Evolution (And What They Did Right)

Written by Nermae De Asis    ●    Published on July 6, 2021

evolution of iphone packaging

Out of all the well-known companies in the globe, Apple may be the most influential.

The multinational tech giant’s market capitalization surpassed the $2 trillion mark in 2020. They are the first American company to break this record and during a pandemic recession no less. Apart from their high-quality products, the brand has expertly executed a seamless branding, marketing, and product development strategy throughout the years.

Apple’s success is largely attributed to the iPhone: the best-selling gadget ever created, and the most prominent. This product allowed them to push the boundaries not just with technology, but also with packaging. This article talks about the Apple iPhone’s evolution, and more importantly, how they leveraged product packaging as an essential extension to the customer’s purchase.

The first-generation iPhone: Changing the face of tech.

The 29th of June marks 14 years since Apple launched the first iPhone in the United States in 2007. When Founder Steve Jobs introduced it to the market, he knew the device was already ahead of its time, but little did he know it would revolutionize the way people communicate and interact today.

Why the packaging works: The iPhone was delivered in a simple black box packaging that displayed what the home screen and app icons looked like, and the contents included the standard charger, dock, and earphones—making the box quite bulky compared to the latest versions.

first-generation iphone box packaging
Image Source: Pinterest

The packaging itself was nothing ground-breaking, but it housed the device that set the stage for the modern smartphone. Its retail price was at $500 at that time, but nowadays, original, and unopened first-generation iPhones are auctioned online for up to $20,000. Apple set out to reinvent the mobile phone and succeeded in putting the world in our pockets.

iPhone 4: Product and packaging go hand-in-hand.

Since the first generation was launched, Apple made it its mission to refine the product and enhance its most popular features. The iPhone 4 was built sleeker, thinner, and faster. It contained most of the features we have been accustomed to on Apple devices: a front-facing camera, HD video recording, and retina display. The selfie was popularized specifically because of this phone.

Why the packaging works: Apple’s ideology and branding did not work with the traditional bulky mobile packaging of the past. Like the iPhone 4, they made the new box significantly smaller than the first-generation phones. They wanted to create a box that evoked premium quality and elicited an emotional response from the customer.

Since they launched the first version of the iPhone, it is evident that Apple spends countless hours developing their packaging just as much as the hardware itself. From the crisp white box’s smooth, matte finish to the free sticker inserts, from the perfectly-sized nooks that hold the accessories to the simple “Hello” that greets the user as soon as they turn on the phone—these small details are the reason why Apple has set the benchmark for the ultimate “unboxing experience”.

iphone 4 box packaging
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iPhone 6: A turning point in Apple history.

The iPhone 4’s success laid the groundwork for the next devices, with the iPhone 5 introducing a bigger screen to compete with other brands and a Touch ID fingerprint sensor instead of a passcode. But the biggest change was with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s launch. Aside from the usual processor improvements and a 12-megapixel camera that lets you take Live Photos, it was the first time Apple offered two size options for consumers.

Why the packaging works: The iPhone 6 was presented in a nondescript white box, with only an embossed silhouette of the device. It was designed to communicate Apple’s minimalist branding and the timelessness of its products. They also stopped adding the number to the box. They leveraged packaging as a “sneak peek” to ignite curiosity among their target market. However, the box received mixed reviews from Apple fans online.

iphone 6 box packaging
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iPhone 7: Improving with customer feedback.

Both the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus devices do not look very different from previous generations, but the key changes were internal. In 2016, they reengineered the models to be dust and water-resistant. They also made a controversial move by removing the headphone jack, then introducing wireless AirPods that same year. Since then, AirPods popularity and sales have surged, with tech industry analysts estimating around 110 million units sold from 2016 to 2019.

Why the packaging works: This time, Apple took consumers’ disappointment on the iPhone 6’s all-white packaging into consideration and only opted to only show the back of the iPhone. This design may have also been created to highlight the iPhone 7’s two cameras. A great example of taking customer’s needs into account while staying true to their branding.

iphone 7 box packaging
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iPhone X: The beginning of the next 10 years.

10 years after the first-generation unit was launched, Apple introduced the iPhone X and said they want this unit to represent the beginning of a new generation of iPhones. The major redesign changed the way users interact with the phone. The biggest changes they did were to completely remove the home button and fingerprint sensor and add Face ID unlocking.

Why the packaging works: After the iPhone 7, they turned the phone back around to emphasize the big changes to the front of the iPhone X. They also added a foil printing effect around the sides of the device to show it was made of durable surgical-grade stainless steel.

iphone X box packaging
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iPhone 12: A new unboxing experience.

Apple has made significant changes to the camera since the iPhone 6, adding ultra-wide cameras that include night mode for low-light conditions. Physically, the edges were updated to match the iPhone 4 design. The main difference is the device is no longer made of stainless steel but of “aerospace-grade aluminum” for better durability.

Why the packaging works: The box size is strikingly small—about half the volume of the original packaging. When you open it, the phone is facedown and only comes with a charging cable. No more charging bricks and headphones, and all product pamphlets were cut down to half the size to save space.

Apple’s idea was to cut down on charging brick production and in effect, reduce contributing to landfills, thus highlighting the company’s efforts to minimize its environmental impact. As well as consuming fewer resources for packaging per unit, this enables 70% more units to fit onto one shipping palette, thereby reducing emissions from transporting the phones.

Critics argue that this change is spurred more by its financial rather than environmental benefit, but at a time when consumers believe brands bear as much responsibility to protect nature, this move makes sense for Apple.

iphone 12 box packaging
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It’s a slow process, but the brand is cutting down their plastic use for packaging year after year, as seen in Statistica’s survey for Apple packaging materials. This is part of their goal to 'eliminate plastics, increase recycled content, and use less packaging overall'.

According to Apple's marketing department:

  • 93% of the packaging is fibre-based, due to the company’s efforts to use less plastic in packaging
  • 100% of the wood fibre comes from recycled and responsible sources
  • 72% recycled content in fibre packaging

Apple is by no means the perfect brand. The first-generation iPhone lacked most of the features that we are so accustomed to now. They have made questionable and controversial decisions with product and packaging releases.

Some may even argue that the iPhone does not offer the best features compared to other tech products in the market. But the core of Apple’s branding lies in its air of exclusivity, by marketing itself as an aspirational brand that is driven by emotion, not merely function or practicality.

Everything they create is not just simple and intuitive but sets the bar for innovation and aesthetic design. Apple continues to dominate as a tech giant and will continue to do so because of its ability to go beyond product development and include understanding their customers in the entire process—and leveraging that information to continuously evolve and improve its services.