In last week's article, "The Branding of Apple: Apple's Intangible Asset," I looked at Apple's brand and what sort of reactions it evokes from consumers. In this final installment I move on to look at how the Apple brand is shaped by the consumer's interaction with the product, especially by the purchasing experience in retail stores.
Last week's article discussed how Apple's brand promise - the way it attempts to portray itself through commercials, its Web site, its products and packaging and so on - has resulted in a strong brand that can evoke a range of reactions from different consumers. Overall, Apple has managed to build a clear perception of what the company's brand represents. As I suggested in the first of these articles, "The Branding of Apple: Brands Embody Values," a brand is a mix of what the company would like us to think of their products and how we receive and interpret these messages. Perception, the way in which consumers, developers, and the media see the company, completes the brand picture.
The Retail Link -- Although Apple has done a good job creating its brand image, there was one major gap which threatened the delivery of this message to the consumer. Until 2001, Apple found that the final link for many people, the retail experience, fell well short of the brand promise. The crafting of beautiful equipment, the attention to detail that went into the design, and the simplicity and ease of use of the end product were usually overlooked when a consumer walked into a computer store and faced poorly displayed goods, not to mention untrained or even hostile sales assistants.
For Apple, asking a consumer to buy into the idea of thinking different is a challenge. I wonder what proportion of consumers toy with the idea of purchasing a Mac, only to change their mind at the last minute due to incorrect advice or perhaps just the fact that they are unwilling to take a leap into the unknown? Never underestimate the importance of the point of sale as a part of a brand's success! Coca-Cola and Pepsi constantly vie for shelf placement in stores to ensure that their brand has the best position, and it's absolutely standard for companies to pay stores for so-called "end cap" positions on the ends of shelves. Put bluntly, the merchandising of a product can have a huge effect on whether or not a consumer even considers it in their purchasing decision.
In its advertising, Apple challenges and inspires consumers and then offers integrated solutions through its products. "Think Different" was a call for a leap of faith to those who had not used Macs, and even now, "Switch" requires from users a change of allegiance and a change of mindset. Explaining your purchase of a Macintosh to a PC user is a more difficult obstacle to overcome than explaining buying a Dell or a Compaq.
For the most part, buying a Windows-based PC is seen as a functional transaction, made purely to fulfill the consumer's computing needs. In contrast, and despite the practical benefits of using Macs, purchasing a Mac makes a lifestyle statement. Buying a new iBook in a world of Sony, Dell, Toshiba, and the other PC laptop producers sets the consumer apart, and for many not versed in the ways of a Macintosh, that decision requires a leap of faith.
The Point of Point of Sale -- Purchasing, and the user experience in making this transaction, is paramount. If, having decided to buy a Mac, a consumer is faced with Mac-hostile sales assistants or a bewildering set of reasons why a Windows PC would be a better choice, an already difficult decision becomes even more difficult. How many potential users were made to feel stupid for asking about Macs at their local stores?
This is one of the most important reasons why Apple's retail strategy in the U.S. is correct. It helps convey a legitimacy on the decision made by consumers who have decided they want a Mac. The very presence of an Apple Store supports the choice of buying a Mac by making Apple, and all that is promised by the Apple brand, feel tangible and solid. That storefront tells the consumer, "You are not the only one," an important message, since being a Mac user can be lonely, especially if you are not working in a Macintosh-dominated area like education or graphic design.
For a long time the committed Macintosh user had been enthused by messages of thinking in different creative ways, challenging the status quo, and rebelling against a world of Windows. However, many of us also had a feeling of being pushed on stage and left out there to perform alone! Without a tangible retail presence the Apple brand, as distinct from the company, felt slightly fluid. For anyone outside of Cupertino, there were few examples of a firm presence to point to and say, "There's Apple." The Apple Stores link the brand to the consumer directly to avoid misinterpretation and distortion. Those stores make the promise of the Apple brand tangible.
The physical location and design of the Apple Stores also play a significant role in supporting Apple's brand. They're all located in high traffic shopping malls and districts, and even the people who just walk by them are exposed to Apple's design aesthetic. It may take time, but that exposure adds up. Plus, once you get inside, all the lines are clean, with light wood and lots of light illuminating the products. Shelves aren't overflowing, everything is well-organized, and, to borrow a term from graphic design, there's plenty of white space so the eye isn't overwhelmed. Plus, there's a theatre in every store for regular presentations about Apple's products. Just as with all the other ways Apple communicates with the public, the Apple Stores have become an essential piece of the brand puzzle.
In contrast, conventional computer stores such as CompUSA and Best Buy design their premises around their own brand identity, while still attempting to present a multitude of brand images. They're crammed with products, it's tricky to find what you want, and signs constantly assure you that the prices are as low as they're going to get. Apple products don't fit into these stores well, and they never will - the mismatch between Apple's brand promise and what these stores offer is simply too great. Apple's "store within a store" concept aimed at addressing this drawback by controlling a section of retail space. However, the new Apple Stores act as pure Apple space, in branding terms, uncontaminated by rival products which detract from the central message.
For proof of their efficacy, look no further than Apple's "100 Minutes of Jaguar" launch event. In under two hours, over 50,000 people visited the 35 Apple Stores. That's a lot of traffic, and had Apple continued to rely on other computer retailers, such events would been either impossible or poorly attended.
Brand versus Commodities -- Dell, IBM, Compaq, and Gateway (despite Gateway's recent ads attacking the iMac) don't command nearly such power in terms of distinct brand awareness. A Compaq style of behaviour and the emotions evoked by the Compaq brand are firmly linked to Microsoft. Compaq can't legitimately claim that they are innovative or alternative in the PC market because the user experience would not match these claims, and consumers would instinctively notice the mismatch. Because these companies have no control over the operating system and spend little on research and development (or even on design, amazingly enough at this point in history), they have little control over the reactions user experience elicits from consumers. They can't capture the consumers' imagination in the way that Apple can. All that's left to them is to focus on price, value, function, and service - the PC has become a commodity.
The power of the Apple brand, and in turn the perception of it, is that Apple can say they are different and deliver on that promise. In deciding on a computer, the consumer is asked to believe in the brand, to buy into a style or an attitude. Not everyone will want to do that, since many people prefer to fit in or stay well behind the cutting edge. However, Apple uniquely owns this territory in the computer market and it's an invaluable part of the Apple brand. Thanks to the Apple Stores, Apple can bridge that final gap between brand and consumer and no longer be reliant on third-party translation of the messages they are trying to deliver.
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[Simon Spence is head of research and information technology at Alexander Dunlop Ltd., a brand consultancy working with multinational corporations to define brand identity. He also provides Mac consultancy to small businesses and educational establishments in Ireland.]