Learning About Strategy by Watching the iPhone Case Market

Incipio Stashback

After returning from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, I’m firmly convinced of a couple of things. First, there are more cell phones that people (according to the International Telecommunication Union developed nations are now well over 100% subscription saturation with the world at over 85%).  And the second thing, there are more cell phone cases than there are phones. No international body will substantiate that claim but from giveaways to racks of cases, to boxes being hauled down the show’s crowded hallways, to the number of people with more than one case wandering those halls, outfitting tech was bigger than the tech itself for many at this year’s CES.

As many of those cases make it to me, I renew my commitment to keep iPhone Life readers informed about the latest arrivals. But based on the observation above, myself, and my fellow writers here at iPhone Life, will only cover a fraction of the cases in the market — hopefully always the coolest, most artful, most protective or most something. The big battle in the case market is about differentiation. I talk a lot about that in my strategy consulting work.  Companies, including case manufacturers, need to differentiate themselves in the market. That differentiation can comes from some unique value proposition, “the most factor.”  I’ve listed some, here are more:

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  • Quality
  • Nostalgia
  • Unique Materials
  • Unique niche (I heard cases for soccer moms more than once on the show floor)
  • Environmental friendliness
  • Extreme protection
  • Price
  • Customer service
  • Design
  • Packaging
  •  Partnerships

and many other attributes, alone or in combination.

Let me use my latest arrivals as an example.

Twelve South Book BookThe most precious of my new cases comes from Twelve South, the makers of BookBook, and indeed, it is the $59.99 BookBook for the iPhone 5. This case is genuine leather, with a bit of faux weathering that makes it appear to be an antique book. It is a beautiful case for book lovers and it also doubles as a wallet. Unfortunately, it doesn’t double-over very well, so it is better for Bluetooth headphone users or those who prefer the speaker, than for those who like to hold a phone to their ear. And that lack of a basic utility is an interesting point of differentiation. The designers, it seems, were willing to give on one item, in order to achieve functionality it another. And as they point out in their advertising, if you fully embrace the case and use it as a wallet, Find my Phone immediately becomes Find my Wallet. So with Twelve South you have quality, nostalgia, personal utility and good protection as defining attributes.

SlipstopperWith Slipstopper, we move from leather bound excess to stick-on minimalism. This $19.99 solution to iPhone 5 protection places a slim gel skin on the iPhone, barely noticeable from afar, but enough to keep the front and rear surfaces from being marred. And because the iPhone 5 is so slim and sleek itself, Slipstopper, as its name implies, focuses on keeping the iPhone from slipping out of your hand or off a surface. Keep the aesthetics of the phone, but enhance them with a protective, slipping minimizing overlay. Differentiation through near invisibility (including a cut out for the Apple logo), but also unique materials and an “anti-case” approach.

Now if you still think your iPhone is going to slip out of your hand, and more pointedly, slip right from your hand into water, you may want to consider LifeProof frē which offers a kind of iPhone in a bubble value proposition. Not dirt, nor water, nor frozen water (in the form of snow) and shock mild bounces and shocks will harm your iPhone in a frē. Their demonstration at CES involved using a phone in a wet lab.  All that, and they cut the speaker slits in such a way that even in its isolation, the iPhone produces better sound with the case than without it.  And because they so determinedly protect the phone, they also include a headset adapter so you can still sport headphones while protecting the phone completely. Oh, and all in a pretty slim case that still lets the Apple logo shine from the phone back plate. Extreme protection, design, quality, materials and customer service differentiate LifeProof.

At CES Qmadix divided their booth into multiple market segments, showing off items for business users, those for the causal user, and those for the hipster. Qmadix almost single-handedly illustrates the point that cases have moved from protection to fashion. They sell everything from the Qmadix Xtreme to the LoveBug.  I just received the $34.99 Cube, a sci-fi inspired design dual-layer protection case, with good overall protection combined with a very high-style look, and clear quality of materials. Some dual-layer cases feel like the interior case wants to slip out of the hard case. This is not the case with Qmadix cases. And like LifeProof and Slipstopper, the Qmadix cube keep the Apple logo visible. The other case from Qmadix (too bad they aren’t a valid Words with Friends play!) The Groove, also at $34.99 eliminates the multiple material surface issue by “fusing” the materials together into a protective case. The Groove offers protection but it is a good example, as are most of the Qmadix offerings, about design with protection. If you like the looks of the Groove, you will get it. You may get it to match an outfit, and get another case to match particular pair of shoes. Qmadix is about variety, creating more of a Macy’s of cases feel as you search their virtual aisles for something that appeals to your fashion sensibilities as much as to your iPhone protection needs.

IncipioAnd then there is Incipio, which provided their latest Stowaway and DualPro CF as part of their press kits, which themselves, were delivered in fashionable laptop sleeves. Incipio’s differentiation comes from style and quality. Their cases don’t have all the verve of Qmadix or the nostalgia of BookBook, but they offer reliable utility, which makes them a good partner for a company like Stanley, who is now delivering a collection of iconic black and yellow iPhone cases with Incipio (along with some that feature pink or grey accents). Partnerships are also a key differentiator. Where Incipio concentrates on delivering a quality case experience, complete with protective cover, squeegee and cleaning cloth, they let their wilder side out through partnerhips with the likes of Stanley, M&Ms, Travis Mathew, enjoi and others. The $34.99 Stowaway offers a completely different, modern take on the wallet/case from bookbook, and the DualPro CF protects in dual-layer fashion with a carbon fiber finish.

A Strategic Conclusion

It isn’t hard to get your iPhone protected. It probably isn’t hard to protect your iPhone and match your shoes. That’s where the case market is going, at least along one vector. It is also becoming a utility and an extreme protector of your device. Pretty much anything any market can look for, from childproof to life-proof, there is a case to meet your needs. And not only can you find a case (or two or three) that fit your life, you can also look at the market as a study in strategy and evolution. With 7 Billion people all wearing multiple hats: those of workers, fashionistas, fathers and mothers, lovers, sports fans, Whovians, Trekkers, cyclists, spelunkists and many others,  as they live through their days, iPhone cases, like beetles, will continue to differentiate to fill all the available niches.


Twelve South
BookBook for iPhone 5


SlipStopper for iPhone 5


LifeProof frē


Groove and Cube
Both $34.99


Stowaway and DualPro CF
Both $34.99

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Author Details

Daniel Rasmus's picture

Author Details

Daniel Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus is the Founder and Principal Analyst at Serious Insights. He is the author of Listening to the Future, Management by Design and Sketches of Spain and Other Poems. Rasmus teaches at Bellevue College where he teaches Social Media and Personal Branding.