Apple plays at God

As part of a revamp of its stores, Apple is forcing all companies that sell accessories in them to redesign their packaging to better match the company’s own minimalist standards, “inviting” them to work with its designers to explore the limits of a white box.

This prompted me to wonder: just how much negotiating power can a company assume it has when it comes to obliging others to adopt this or that image if they want to sell their goods in its stores? Isn’t packaging design one of the mythical four Ps of marketing, something that many companies consider a strategic part of their corporate identity? How many companies are prepared or willing to just change their boxes just because Apple says so?

The answer is simple: Apple’s shops are at the center of the company’s brand strategy, and are a key indicator of its health. The figures speak for themselves: in 2005, it had 116 stores throughout the world. By the end of 2014 that number had risen to 437, 41 per cent of them outside the United States, and with a clear tendency to continue growing linearly at a constant pace. The average earnings for each store is around $11.9 million, with turnover of $5.1 billion, with some 395 million people passing through them each year: that’s 18,000 people per store, per week.

Obviously, not everybody who goes into an Apple Store buys something: Ron Johnson, the former vice president of retail hired years ago by Steve Jobs, just one in every hundred people who go into an Apple Store buy something, but that isn’t the point: the shops are there just to sell things, but as an anchor for the community that develops around the brand. Johnson’s exit from the company in 2011, and above all, the arrival of Angela Ahrendts in spring 2014, making her the best-paid woman in the United States, highlights the importance of Apple Stores to the company’s strategy: it plans to open 25 new stores and remodel another five.

Nobody, it seems, can stand up to Apple: if it says you must package your goods in white boxes, or whichever color the company says. At the double. The company also likes to throw its weight around when it comes to distribution: it excludes products and brands on the basis of its strategy. Take Fitbit, a product once easy to find in Apple Stores, but that has been absent since October 2014, precisely the moment when the company decided to enter the wearable segment with its Apple Watch.

And this is not just about competition: the brand is also threatening to expel from its earthly paradise any company that uses non-official information sources to design Apple accessories. For example, if you learn something about the new iPhone that has been leaked and not specifically released by Apple itself, and develop a new line of, let’s say, phone cases, to have them ready in the stores for the very same day of the product launch, then you’re going to lose your place in the shelves of the Apple Stores.

Apple’s approach is pretty much “my shop, my rules”. This oughtn’t to surprise us in the distribution sector, but there is usually some room for negotiation, and such rules tend not to affect other company’s strategies, or their information sources, or the look of the boxes they sell their goods in. In the Apple Store, as in Genesis if you bite the forbidden fruit, God is going to get very angry.


(En español, aquí)

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