brand experience brief: apple union square

Apple has removed the word “store” from the names of its retail locations.  This suggests Apple may be thinking about itself less as a product company and more as an experience brand.  This video analyzes the significance of this change and gives you a look at the retail customer experience at the new Apple Union Square in San Francisco.

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All eyes are on Apple this week because it is expected to introduce the iPhone 7 and the Apple Watch 2 at its annual event.  But from a brand standpoint, Apple introduced a bigger change a couple of weeks ago.  It announced it has removed the word “store” from the names of its retail locations.  So for example, Apple’s new flagship store in downtown San Francisco is called simply “Apple Union Square.”  This video analyzes the significance of this change and gives you a look at the brand experience at the new store.

Now you might think I’m making a big deal out of nothing by drawing attention to a mere word change, but it really does seem to signify an important shift in the way Apple thinks about its stores and itself.  Back when the company introduced its new store design, Angela Ahrendts, head of its retail business, explained she wanted the space to feel like a Town Square.  And indeed it does.

The entire glass front of the store is actually two-story high doors that can be opened, removing the separation between store floor and sidewalk.   The products are displayed without signage on big tables or in glass-topped tables themselves, with lots of room between the products and the tables so the place seems as conducive to browsing and people watching as it is to trying out the products and actually buying them.  Some product displays like this one for the Apple Watch are designed like what you’d see at a fashion boutique or a luxury store.  Even accessories are displayed beautifully.

Upstairs the Genius Bar has been replaced by a Genius Grove, a lounge of sorts lined with trees, comfy seating, and workstations — and lots of friendly employees in tasteful blue t-shirts happy to answer questions, provide consultation, and just gape at the store, er, I mean place.  The upstairs also features a 6K video wall and viewing area with funky, movable seating which the company refers to as The Forum.  Apple hosts activities, events, and classes in the location.  And there is a park-like outdoor space where acoustic artists perform and people sip coffee.

Throughout the location, there are lots of huge digital screens and tasteful displays, glass stairways that would satisfy Steve Jobs’ obsession with beautiful, patent-able stair designs, and noticeably absent are cash registers and counters.  Perhaps the ultimate sign that this place is not just a store is that there are bathrooms that people are welcome to use — and of course, they’re beautifully designed as well.

At the opening of the store, Ahrendts said, “We think of [the retail stores] as really our largest product.”  And now by dropping the word “store” from the name of its locations, the company seems to be suggesting that that product is actually an experience.  The store isn’t where you go to buy Apple products, it’s where you experience Apple.  This combined with Apple’s foray into streaming music and its continued evolution of Apple TV and apps, it’s as if Apple is transforming itself.  It’s no longer a product company, or even a technology company, but an experience company.  Its stores — and the Apple brand itself — have become conduits for gathering, connection, and entertainment.

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