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Apple Store customers look at the new Apple iPhone 4Gs on October 14, 2011 in San Francisco.
Sasha Strauss of Innovation Protocol will be joining me at the first DeBord Report live at the Crawford Family Forum, this Wednesday, March 21, from 7 -8:30 p.m. (RSVPs are being accepted right now!) In preparation, I'm running a micro-series of posts about branding, Sasha's speciality, all this week.
In honor of Apple's announcement that it will pay a dividend to investors for the first time since 1995, and also buy back $10 billion in stock, the Apple Store and its role in the Apple brand is my subject. What was it that made the Apple Store different — and what is it that's enabled the retail outlets to generate such loyalty, go along with booming sales and foot-traffic for Apple?
Simple genius, that's what. The Genius Bar, in fact, the Apple Store's in-house tech-support resource. Hard to think of an Apple Store without the Genius Bar now. But that wasn't always the case, as David Aaker pointed out earlier this year at Harvard Businss Review blogs:
An instructive footnote: The Genius Bar would have been killed by many retailers during its early years when it was underused. But, as reported in an HBR interview with the brilliant creator of Apple stores, Ron Johnson (now the CEO of J. C. Penny), strategic instincts prevailed over data reporting on customer traffic. Johnson realized that the Genius Bar was a vehicle to reinforce and enhance customer relationship damaged by product issues and that Apple is in the customer relationship business as much as the computer business. [my emphasis] As a result he stuck with the concept and was rewarded when it got so much traction that reservations became necessary to handle the customer flow.
The Apple brand doesn't have a cult following because Apple fails to emphasize customer relations. Does Google care about customer relations? Not really. Facebook? It hard to tell at this stage – but it's done pretty badly with safeguarding user privacy. And although Apple is as a company quite secretive, when it comes to keeping customers devoted to the brand, it's fairly obsessive, if not particularly touchy-feely.
The real triumph of the Genius Bar is that it protects the Apple brand, by providing customers with the assurance that they can always just...head over to an Apple Store and get their problem fixed, which makes the problem seem much less onerous.
Compare this with the stress of dealing with tech-support from other companies — a disorienting undertaking that can involve all long phone sessions, shipping products to repair locations, and other brand-diminishing ordeals.
Outwardly, Apple is very engaged with the user experience. It's practically a religion for Cupertino. In only makes sense that the company would extend and perfect, as much as it can, this philosophy to what it does with tech support in its retail stores. In fact, you could say that what takes the Apple Store beyond a retail experience and transforms it into a total brand experience is the Genius Bar.