Meet Your Customers Where They Are

Question: What do the opening of the new Apple stores, the rumored merger of BBDO and Organic (see the May 14 entry), and the future of online marketing have in common?

Answer: It’s all about the experience.

Let’s start with the new Apple stores.

Last week, Apple opened two new retail stores: one in Tysons Corner Center in McLean, VA, and the other in the Glendale Galleria in Glendale, CA. (Take a tour.) Opened with all the fanfare and dash that mark everything touched by Steve Jobs, the stores immediately attracted loads of press for Apple, which holds 5 percent of the market.

From what I can gather, reactions were fairly mixed. The Mac faithful were (of course) thrilled. The reaction of the tech press varied from interested neutrality to disbelief that Apple would go retail when Gateway is shutting down some of its Gateway Country stores. Overall, regardless of the final word from the pundits, it seemed to be a PR success, if nothing else.

But why did Apple do it? Why now, when PC sales are slumping and other retailers are tightening their belts?

The answer can be found at any other computer retailer.

Now, to be honest, I’ve been a Mac user for more than 10 years, so I am a little biased. But for those of you PC users out there who’ve never experienced what I’ve had to go through, let me walk you through a typical interaction with a salesperson in a big electronics retail outlet.

Me: “Where’s the Mac software?”

Salesperson: “Haw haw haw haw haw! Mac software? Hey, Cleatus! This guy wants Mac software! Ha!”

Me: “Uh, do you even sell Macs?”

Salesperson: “Ha!” (rolls eyes) “Yeah, I think so. Phpphhht! I think they’re over there (pointing to a moldering display). Sure you don’t wanna buy a new SreamingBloodyCarnage-Xtreme Voodoo Card? Or a real computer, like this Pentium 4? Ain’t nothing better for playing BloodyChunks 4!”

Me: “No thanks… (looking over at the toppling Mac display) um… I’m gonna leave now.”

And I like Macs! You can only imagine the experience of so many other people coming in to their favorite electronics shop, hopped-up from the latest cool iMac commercial, only to be not so deftly steered away from the “toys” and over to some serious Pentium-driven silicon.

Granted, CompUSA and some other retailers have done a good job of selling Macs, but Apple’s been trapped in channels that don’t even want to sell its products. So it’s breaking out, creating the coolest customer experience possible and getting people who previously wouldn’t have any contact with Macs in to see what it’s like to use one… in person.

Why aren’t a Web site and a great advertising campaign enough? Because people plunking down thousands of dollars for computers actually have to touch and feel and see what it’s like — they have to experience the product. Ads aren’t enough. Web sites aren’t enough. You’ve gotta get the prospect, bring him or her in, and create something so cool that he or she not only becomes a customer but also tells his or her friends (thereby creating new customers).

Today, consumers have literally thousands (if not millions) of opportunities to interact with commercial speech. On the Web, on TV, in print, on the radio — heck, even stickers on fruit in the grocery store carry commercial messages these days. Trying to break through this media clutter is becoming increasingly difficult, even more so as people distrust advertising and what they hear in the media or online. Yet, at the same time, many of us in the marketing world continue to think that one-dimensional attempts to reach customers via a single medium — online, in print, on television, via email — somehow will be enough to persuade them to buy and become customers for life.

But people don’t become customers for life just because they’ve purchased once… as dot-bombs such as Pets.com, Living.com, Furniture.com, and MotherNature.com have taught us. People become customers only because they have had a compelling experience with a brand that extends all the way through from initial exposure (via advertising) through purchase (in the retail environment or e-commerce engine) and finally through fulfillment and support (on-time delivery and excellent customer support).

For the past five to six years, online marketing has been seen as somehow separate from traditional communication, and customer support hasn’t even usually been part of the mix. Traditional ad agencies were looked down on (with good reason, in many cases) by clients who thought that their online efforts could be handled only by hot e-solutions shops. Companies like Organic, Razorfish, and Sapient got tons of business from companies that felt communication online was something totally different from what they needed to do offline.

The trouble was, it wasn’t. Sure, there were technical requirements that needed to be addressed. But the same thing is true in any sort of “production” environment (e.g., TV, print) — it doesn’t mean that the communication of the brand should be any different.

Now the circle is starting to come around again, and traditional agencies are starting to fold interactive (e.g., Organic and BBDO) back into their mix. Why? Because we’ve finally started to understand that there’s not a sharp dividing line between online and offline. Instead, there’s a continuum that covers online, offline, retail, customer service… anywhere that companies meet. Separating marketing efforts by medium is crazy. You need to be where your customers are (and where you can cut through the clutter). You need to be the brand.

In the end, brand isn’t about logos, slogans, or “e-solutions.” Brand is about the experience that your customers or prospects have with your company. Sometimes that can take place online. Sometimes it can take place in the media. And sometimes it has to take place in person — hence, the Apple stores.

Today’s consumers are everywhere. The future of any kind of marketing is to meet them where they are.

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