The New York Times has an interesting piece this morning about how Angela Ahrendts, Apple's Senior Vice-President of Retail, is seeking to install a "touch of chic" in Apple's retail stores. Why is it interesting? Because it could help to kill Apple's hard-won relationship with its consumer fans for the sake of exclusivity branding.
Now right off the bat I'm going to say that it's hard to say which way this could end up going. It's very much a social and retail experiment, and Apple is one of the the most careful brand managers on the planet. So I'm not saying that Apple's immediately jumping off a cliff with these moves.
However, Apple has always had a very distinct design going back to Steve Jobs' obsessive attention to every detail in the retail environment, which has helped set them apart from other technology stores and engendered a sense of 'otherness' and 'exclusivity' among many of its frequent customers.
In some ways Apple has already managed to carve out an identity of being something of a premium and exclusive product company (in some ways similar to the space that Sony occupied for so many years in the 1980s and early 1990s), but it has done so while equally messaging that it's products are for everyone and that it has some sort of 'universality' to those who buy and use its products. Apple stores were never supposed to make anyone feel like they didn't belong. Rather, they were supposed to make people feel that they were the gateway of entry to a new and better world for every prospective customer that walked in the door. Everyone belonged, regardless of age, appearance, socio-economic status, ethno-cultural background or sexuality. It projected a techno-utopia made real for all comers.
With recent moves to move Apple's associations into the realm of the ultra-luxury brands (primarily around the marketing of the Apple Watch), Apple's playing a dangerous game. Sure, it's fun at first to talk about who's really going to buy a $10K-$22K Apple Watch (knowing full well that there will be a limited number of customers who will do so, primarily in America, Europe, the Middle East and particularly Asia). Then Apple announced its partnership with French ultra-luxury design house Hermes to produce a number of Apple Watch band variants based on iconic Hermes watches, again at premium/ultra-luxury price points. This again was greeted with some derision and amusement by the Apple customer base writ large, but Apple knows that it will sell some of these products and their existence is about association to aspirational ultra-luxury brands as much as moving a lot of Apple Watches. The thing about this partnership is that the majority of these Hermes-partnership products are going to be sold via Hermes stores, not Apple stores. Apple stores will certainly display them and allow people to "ooh" and "ahh" over them, but that's pretty much going to be it.
The problem is that moving to add a "touch of chic" to the Apple store design could very well work against Apple in the long run. While Apple is seeking to solidify itself as a premium brand, it's bread and butter business is the universal access to its product base. People want their products because, yes, they're great. They largely do what they're supposed to, and largely do it in ways that are pretty intuitive for the average user. But people also want and pay more for Apple products because for many it engenders a feeling of belonging to a tribe that says as much to other people about you as it provides to you. You "get it". You're part of a worldwide tribe of "creative and inspiring people". You're immune to criticism because this device shows you're on the "right side" of any controversial issue.
That fan base, and more importantly that casual buyer base who opts for an Apple product over another cheaper one, are not ultra-luxury customers. Sure, some may like to play the aspirational game and be wowed by high-end products. But many originally bought Apple products specifically because of its apparent 'universality'. How many of these customers will feel comfortable in a retain environment that increasingly is styled more upscale and has more products that are absolutely unaffordable for all but the most well-off customers (e.g. headphones that increasingly are more than a week or a month's salary, speakers that could represent one or two month's rent).
Apple thrives on its customer base's good will. It allows them to get away with putting out first generation products that don't quite live up to the enormous hype the company loves to generate for product launches, with customer service that can sometimes be atrocious, and with taking an almost messianic tone in its public product launches. The customers put up with and forgive this because Apple is part of our tribe, the tribal elders who will lead us into the light. If there's a sense among the customer base that the tribal elders are turning on them, or worse discounting them for the sake of attracting a smaller group of customers who are "better" than the customers who came before them, Apple's customer base could switch as fast as we saw Sony's do in the 1990s.
Apple needs to tread carefully with these moves. Steve Jobs was right to treat Apple's retail space as sacrosanct. He knew that this was where the company primarily engaged with its customer base, not the flashy product launches or the silky smooth advertising campaigns. Playing with the retail space to make it more "chic" instinctively feels like Apple's setting out to walk a dangerous tight rope with the belief that an even more profitable customer base lies at the other end.
The question remains will Apple's current traditional and casual customers follow them out on the rope, or start shaking it vigorously in frustration?