Apple Appeal & My Voyage to The Store of Oz
Given that there are no proper Apple Stores in my South American country, I haven’t had the opportunity to experience what many say is one of the cleanest shopping experiences you can have. I’ve been coming back and forth to America for a couple of years now, and on this visit I finally had a reason to step into Apple territory to actually purchase an Apple product. I am an Android guy through and through, and I didn’t go there to purchase an iPhone, so don’t yell at me just yet.
What I experienced though, was a rather different customer experience – not one I liked, at all, but one that was different enough to spark some thoughts.
The first thing that me and my woman noticed while walking up to the store was the neat display of iPads, protected by colorful cases. Something caught our eyes – the fact that some of the flip covers were opening and closing by themselves, with no strings nor mechanisms involved. Small-talk regarding the conundrum ensued. We later learned that this particular eye-catchy trick was something almost every customer at that shop commented on.
My first impression of the store was a little overwhelming. It seemed to try too hard towards giving off an esoteric impression. The whole place seemed more like a cult headquarter than a proper shop to me, with huge colorful displays and slick renders. The whole arrangement of devices, posters and displays made the place feel like some sort of bizarre technology church, like something else that makes users think they are buying into something transcendent and exclusive – quite an ironic idea given Apple’s now-traditional market presence in the U.S.
I was personally creeped out by many of the obvious psychologically manipulative approaches at play in their purchase experience, but I can’t help but think that their strategy has some wicked brilliance to it. We all know that Apple users tend to be less savvy than those of rival platforms, particularly open ones like Android for mobile and Linux for desktops. Technology can be scary to the average consumer, at least the technical bit. A soccer mom or businessman might not have the interest, time or drive to understand the underlying mechanics of a device, not even the terminology. The word “processor” is scary enough for some, so talking about ROMs, kernels or hardware specifications we lust over is not an entirely ideal marketing approach.
Not in Kansas anymore
And that is something that I feel plays a core aspect in Apple’s design and marketing philosophy: when Steve Job’s famously said “it just works” he wasn’t simply referring to the fact that Apple products allow casual users to do their thing without a hassle, but also it also implied that there’s something reminiscent of magic to their line-ups. And not fantasy, wizardry magic like they’d want to have you believe, but rather cheap “wow factor” exploits that dazzle those who don’t want to think the trick thoroughly. In this sense, Apple doesn’t play a Gandalf wizard, but rather a Wizard of Oz – a magician that cleverly passes off his tricks as actual wonders.
The rest of their marketing is clearly aimed at a more holistic approach to products. While their mobile software is closed down, it functions enough to get most basic things done without hassle. Something as inherent to us as widgets is touted to be a revolution, even though it has existed before. Their little spins here and there and the different look in their implementations justifies, in their consumers’ eyes, the re-branding and appropriation of age-old features as a new Apple wonder. At every Apple keynote or developer conference, we see similar patterns of this behavior, to the point where it’s become a running gag in the enthusiast blogosphere… but only there, and the general consumer that Apple targets still gobbles it up without a clue.
The key to this game is interaction. The Apple Store was buzzing with conversation, be it between customers or between these and the employees. They have an obvious hiring bias towards those who would look “hip” or “in-the-now”, as well as capable of easy-going conversation. And that is what we, and everyone, there got. Obviously the Apple employee doesn’t really care about what I’m doing with my product, or any detail of my life. But those questions help reinforce a communal feeling (and again, cult-like to me) in the customers. The fact that most Apple keywords have hip names also reinforces the trendy, progressive philosophy that their consumers love. If you want a non-stressful time getting your gadget fixed, you would intuitively want to go to a “Genius Bar” rather than a “Technical Support Department”.
Keep it real
This contrast is also seen in the typical purchase experience of an Android phone. In my total time in the U.S., I’ve purchased 3 Android devices, at places like Best Buy or Carrier stores. The experience was what you would expect: going to a shop with hundreds of products at display overwhelming your perception, with trial handsets so used up that the screen is burned in, price tags peeling off, and employees that see you as a money bag. Once you engage in a purchase, waddling through the additional plans, warranties or whatever they try to shove down your throat can be a pain as well.
Which experience is better? If you ask me, I’d say the latter at least feels real. In essence, both businesses want the same things, and try to achieve it through similar means – one is just so heavily masked with buzzwords and pretty designs that you forget about it. What I once heard referred to as a “magical place” is simply a carnival show. The gimmicks such as hiding cash registers inside the tables, for example, are interesting for about two seconds, but the fact that it is something so different sticks with customers. When I asked the employee they assigned to me if the flip covers were moved by magnets, he responded by saying that everyone asked them how it happened. He claimed that he wasn’t supposed to tell me, but nevertheless stated that I was indeed correct. There goes Oz’s veil!
And it’s the little things that make customers want to go back. The shopping experience is a small bit of the Apple Appeal that makes them stick to these products. Something as simple as aligning an intentionally disarranged laptop gets users to touch the product, and feel a stronger bond to their purchase. They know that they won’t have much of a hassle with it as well. And 6 months from then, they might want a new product they don’t need. The convincing mission statements in their promotional websites might not tell you anything about what the product does, but they sure hit all the right notes for those who want a gorgeous gadget. The rest is trust.
There’s a lot more to this and I tried to limit this article to what I’ve seen first hand in that purchasing experience. The contrast is interesting, and with the degree of care put into the culture surrounding Apple products it is not hard to understand why their latest phones did so well. Would Android phones benefit from this approach? Given the fragmentation and diversity in handsets, it’d probably be difficult to achieve in a unified hub such as Best Buy or a Carrier store. But this doesn’t mean that other OEMs are saints. They all play the psychological game, and most big corporations do. But when it comes to building a culture around their products – which are mostly spectacular as far as hardware goes – and forming a strong, cohesive and alluring brand, Apple simply owns the game.
And I think that this bit is quite a strong forte in Apple’s repertoire of tricks. The engineering of consent that goes on within their HQ must be a fascinating but scary procedure. I applaud Apple for being good at it, even if I don’t approve, and even if it personally makes me uncomfortable to see that, in the end, their fierce capitalist approach is as disguised as it is insidious. Next time you see that Apple logo on a Macbook light up the cafe, you might not see it as a pretty aesthetic accent but rather another one of their ways of reinforcing their brand presence. Those things are everywhere, and not without a purpose. I should know, I have one behind this screen right now…