Sunday, January 12, 2014

"Oh an idea? But it is so rare!"

That an idea is rare was Einstein's insightful reply when asked by Paul Valéry how he kept track of his brilliant reflections.

In a world where the noisy stream of 140-character mental spurts makes it sometimes nearly impossible to keep track of our own thoughts, it is humbling to be reminded of the true value of a transformational notion by one of the most prolific thinkers in history. Einstein's capacity to visualize very complex systems was coupled with an equally astounding ability to direct his mind like an arrow to the core of every problem he dealt with. While many of his colleagues spent their time seeking answers in experimental data, he pierced through the knowledge continuum of his own time as his ideas rippled through history.

Reading the news about Angela Ahrendts move from Burberry to Apple, I can't stop thinking about the importance of her own ideas, in particular when confronted with a task as momentous as leading the retail empire of one of the most exciting businesses of our time.

Ms. Ahrendts had a stellar run at the luxury fashion powerhouse. She successfully steered the brand into a realm connecting consumers, markets and society. She warped the digital-physical consumer universe and had an early perception that our time is one where the "experience of shopping" has more strategic significance than any product-store-website system. The true buying decision that matters today is when a consumer decides to spend his money in a product not because he needs it more than something else but because the act of owning that product is more than the sum of buying and using it.

And now Ms. Ahrendts finds herself in the best place to leverage her vision. Apple already offers a very integrated experience: the products are simultaneously tools for work and play, they seamlessly integrate with one another, they transcend generations, they include an independently generated market of content that continuously improves the product. Most interestingly, Apple products break the barrier between being used by their owners and being an extension of their desires, the fundamental motivation for all human action. 

The focus of my work being the physical place, I always look at how the design of a public space impacts what is happening there: retail design must contribute to increase sales, hotel design must contribute to human comfort, restaurant design must generate leisurely enjoyment, a cultural space must trigger curiosity .... Creating the conditions for a successful and perpetuating business is at the heart of design: the investment in creating a space must contribute to higher revenue, it must trigger repeat business and make it desirable and a competitive destination for consumers.

Steve Jobs' vision generated products that compete across all categories. Until the i-devices came along I would reasonably know how much of my budget would be spent on clothes or leisure versus technology - but it is fascinating how the i-products have the ability to displace spending from other categories. They compete with fashion, accessories, travel and leisure. Apple competes with Burberry and with Uniqlo. It competes with Montblanc. It competes with Louis Vuitton. It competes with Bang&Olufsen. It competes with Daniel Boulud. It competes with Starwood. It competes with MoMA.

So for all the skeptics about Ms. Ahrendts appointment and her lack of experience in technology, nothing but a very narrow view of what Apple is can explain their doubts. 

I am looking forward to seeing how the Cook/Ive/Ahrendts triumvirate will refine the Apple experience. I have no doubt the company will go through an exciting time and it's going to be about far more than just changes in retail strategy. Market analysts worried about flattening sales growth across the Apple retail system will be looking for innovative ideas to spur revenue acceleration. My thought however is that initially most of her impact will be subtle and subliminal. She will strengthen the backbone of the customer experience, she will galvanize the staff network and will leverage the connection that already exists between customer and product to stimulate further sales. Customers already know their Apple products. What they now want is for their Apple products to know them better. This will eventually lead to changes in the physical appearance of the stores but those will result from a strategy based on the invigoration of the core bond between customers and products.

If I had to speculate about what we will see?
  • I look forward to a time when Apple geniuses know my purchase history upon entering the store and have the ability to glean my app-buying trends to converge their service toward the kind of customer I am: whether I am a music lover eager to see the newer sound systems, or a graphics specialist interested in higher performance displays - pretty much the same way the waiters at the corner restaurant know my favorite dish. Amazon has a simple on-screen helpdesk - a mere digital iteration of a 1-800 number- but I envision Apple will create instead a tech/lifestyle concierge to help with shopping as well as making the product use as enjoyable as possible.
  • The experience of buying technology is still daunting for many, but if Steve Jobs was able to conceive a phone with only one button, then the convergence of consumer technology to a single device is very likely. There are still risks of disruption from some competitors: Samsung has big screens to get consumers attention, Sony has a large entertainment archive, Microsoft has software that a majority of consumers trusts and knows - and they all want to leverage these strengths in their retail offering. Apple has the unique ability to make tech-retail a leisure destination. The stores need to continue the effort to make customers feel like they are part of a community rather than going to a place that showcases, assists and sells.
  • Culture is also in the process of becoming a digital experience and museums know that to attract a younger generation they need to be connected and interactive. Apple has immense opportunities to explore that connection and create educational and inspirational moments in its stores in a similar way to how Burberry triggered an unexpected whimsical artistic vibe with Acoustic, displacing customer time spent on itunes, youtube and facebook.

Burberry's Acoustic web page featuring a curated selection of musicians

When reminded of Einstein's focus on the importance of a true idea, I see that Apple created a vortex that projects digital interaction into the future and Angela Ahrendts has the opportunity to frame it within a lifestyle ethos. I believe she is the inflection point that will turn Apple's customers into Apple's guests.

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