In the iPod’s world, black is the new white

October 6, 2006, 9:51 AM UTC
Fortune


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With those conspicuous white earbuds and that gleaming white case, the iPod is etched into our consciousness as an alabaster icon. Over the past year though, there’s been a quiet, seismic shift:

Black rules.

According to U.S. retail guru Steve Baker at NPD Group, Apple Computer’s trendsetting music player is seriously into that moody, urban look. Take the slim, flash-based nano, Apple’s most popular model. Last holiday season, when the color choices were white and black, black outsold white 4:3. In the larger, pricier video iPods, which also came in white and black, the two colors were just about even.

“Black has always been the bestseller,” Baker said.

It’s a black thing: you wouldn’t understand

But could it be that something deeper is afoot here? I couldn’t help noticing that when Apple updated the nano line last month in San Francisco, the cheapest model was silver, the colors were in the mid range, and the priciest model was black. The U2 iPod, Apple’s first attempt at courting the high end with a design, was black with red trim.

Steve Jobs and the crew at Apple seem to have created a design language where black means premium. Are people buying it?

To find out, Baker was nice enough to crunch another batch of retail data, this time on the MacBook laptops, which also come in white and black. His finding: In June, July and August, white MacBooks outsold black ones almost 2:1. But wait – the black ones were also more expensive, by about $200.

“Obviously, given their thought process, they believed that black deserved a premium. The surprising thing is that it sells that well, given that it’s $200 more.” Baker said he would have expected, given the price difference, that white would have outsold black by more like 4:1. “It’s a lot to pay in a business where we haven’t paid extra for color before. That says to me it’s really successful.”

One wonders, though, whether other electronics makers will be able to take advantage of this bit of color-based trendsetting Apple’s done. After all, there are plenty of other shiny, black electronics items out there these days. Just looking around my office, I can spot several: the new BlackBerry Pearl phone, the new Pavilion dv9096 HD DVD laptop from Hewlett-Packard, the Sansa music player from SanDisk. So what, if anything, can we glean from Apple’s bet on black?

Here’s my guess: Apple’s real coup isn’t simply offering products in black. Anyone can do that. It’s in offering black as one high-end option among other choices. So as Apple adds colors to the nano line, it gets to reinforce a marketing message across all of its products.

These days, someone who flashes a black iPod isn’t just saying, “I got a new iPod” – they’re saying, “I got the best new iPod.”

And yep, people are paying to make that statement.