Blog | Hugh Kennedy 09.20.17

Why Your iPhone Costs More than Your Genome

As the next iPhone release threatens the known universe with its about-to-be must-have supercomputer features, I noticed with some interest that the price of an iPhoneX will cross the line into four figures. The same is true for the Samsung Note, which seems to follow the iPhone wherever it goes, particularly into court.

Defying the law of price gravity is something brands have mastered, Apple in particular. Yet at a grand, a Moore’s Law-like crossing of upward- and downward-trending industries, it occurred to me that even the $1,000 genome may be about to become a relic.

Two years ago, our client Illumina announced with much fanfare that it had cracked the $1,000 per genome barrier with its HiSeq X Ten next-generation sequencer. The $1,000 breakdown?

  • $800 for reagents
  • $135 for equipment depreciation over four years
  • $65 for overhead, such as staff, a figure sure to drop once AI is doing everything for us.

An exciting moment, even if Illumina is still announcing the $1,000 genome as a fresh piece of news two years later, while also speculating that a $100 genome is theoretically possible.

Technically speaking, you can get your exome – the record of all your expressed genes – sequenced for $1,000 today, so it’s a real thing.

Turning the clock back to the heady days of 1999 and 2000, I remember flying down to Rockville, Maryland, to meet with Craig Venter, a client that came to our agency through an evolving relationship with its parent, Applied Biosystems. Back then the total cost of sequencing the genome ended up being a bargain at $1,000,000,000, since shotgun sequencing allowed a ‘draft’ version of the genome to appear as early as 2002. (Side note: ten minutes with this man and you knew that the mystery of whose genome was being sequence first was no mystery: it was his.)

We created Celera’s first tagline, Speed Matters, and its first campaign, Discovery Can’t Wait, which was an assertive attempt to defray criticism that Venter and Celera were only sequencing the genome for their own gains. Just last week a CEO mentioned that tagline in one of our conference rooms and was pleasantly surprised to learn that PJA had created it.

So what do a $1,000 iPhone and a $1,000 genome have to do with each other? Three things come to mind, each a powerful reminder about the forces that shape our world – marketing and otherwise:

1. What sounds inconceivable today will seem routine tomorrow, so prepare yourself for profound change. Elon Musk is in space, not just on the roads, and may soon be on Mars. And he’s already got paying customers. I’ll be the first to admit that marketing is struggling to catch up and become more relevant. Marketing today, as a colleague pointed out to me, needs to “make customer wake-up calls.” For the most part, today’s marketing barely keeps people from falling asleep.

2. If you truly differentiate, price ceilings become price floors. We just conducted some fascinating research with our partner Aberdeen that targeted hundreds of BtoB buyers around the globe. And nearly 44% of them said they’d be willing to pay a premium for a product or service they believed would generate competitive advantage. All that commodity talk you hear sounds a bit hollow when you see people lining up again for another iPhone release. And people will, in their millions.

3. When your marketing is as innovative as your technology, the world will beat a path to your door. The iPhone proves it, Ancestry.com proves it, and Celera certainly proves it. Even with commodity pricing, even with a noisy marketplace, people still aspire to build great technology and achieve innovation breakthroughs. Marketing’s purpose more than ever is to take its most innovative thinking and strategies to shine a light there. And that never gets old.

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