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Apple Inc. (AAPL), Corning Incorporated (GLW), AT&T Inc. (T): Can Tim Cook Beguile Consumers the Way Steve Jobs Did?

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Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) CEO Tim Cook found the reality distortion field generator that Steve Jobs left behind. He’s taking it for a spin this week with design guru Jony Ive by his side. But are they using it the right way?

I’m talking about the new TV ad spot for the iPhone 5C:

Why does this ad rub me the wrong way? Because it backtracks on the qualities that brought Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) this far. It’s a potentially dangerous step backwards that undermines Apple’s carefully constructed brand image. Tim, you’re doing it wrong.

Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)From the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5s, Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) always presented its handsets in premium materials. You don’t get a plastic shell, but a solid aluminum housing. You don’t get a scratch-prone plastic screen, but a strong Corning Incorporated (NYSE:GLW) Gorilla Glass slate. The glass is hardly unbreakable, but nevertheless a huge upgrade over flimsy plastics. These design choices underscore the iPhone’s high-end market positioning, and attempt to set the product line apart from supposedly lower-quality Android and Windows phones.

But all of that quality focus is forgotten in this ad. Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) titled it “Plastic Perfected,” which is a throwback to the age-old iPhone 3/3GS era. You know, when Apple hadn’t yet figured out how to make bulk orders of high-quality aluminum casings and had to settle for plastic.

If the plastic design was an attempt to reduce manufacturing costs, then Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) failed to pass those savings along to the consumer. Both AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE:VZ) — Apple’s largest retail partners in the U.S. market — offer iPhone 5c at the same contract-locked price that last year’s iPhone 5 commanded. Neither carrier slaps a discount on this model, even though the materials involved must be cheaper.

In fact, consumers who prefer to buy their iPhones unlocked and free of contract ties pay a $100 premium for the new, plastic model.

Let me just underscore that the iPhone 5c offers no new features that you can’t also get by installing the newest version of Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s iOS software on an old iPhone 5. If you’re looking for any hint of innovation, you’ll need to pony up another $100 for an iPhone 5s. You’re paying extra for the colorful new design, is all.

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