Who Wants an Apple? “I do! I do!”

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On a trip to the Apple store on 5th Avenue in New York earlier this week, I was struck (as I always am) at the number of people packing the place. Sardines in a can have more room than visitors to this mecca of tech.

The vast majority didn’t appear to be buying anything, yet there was a buzz in the room that made it seem like something special was going on.

This phenomenon isn’t unusual; the Apple store in my suburban Long Island mall always seems to be crowded too, albeit on its own, smaller scale.

It got me thinking: what is it about Apple stores that consistently attract crowds of people, even when most probably aren’t there to make a purchase? And what can we PR folk take from that to drive attention to our own efforts?

There are a couple reasons I think this phenomenon exists:

1. The “Sexy Cool Factor”: Apple has cultivated a culture of cool that other brands have struggled to get right, or get at all (see: Microsoft Windows 7 parties and pre-Macintosh era Apple campaigns, before this classic breakthrough in 1984). From product design to point of sale, Apple’s cool factor is integrated at a molecular level to the point where people have an almost intimate experience with the devices they are using. The movie “The Social Network” had a terrific take on this, when Justin Timberlake, portraying Napster genius Sean Parker, warned against selling stodgy ads on the fledgling facebook: “What you’ve got going for you is cool. Don’t give that up.” And he was right. Point is, Apple enhances their brand by appealing to people’s sense of cool, and it pays off.

2. Multiple reasons to visit and stay: The Genius Bar inside every Apple store has its name for more than one reason; it is a magnet for people who want to come, stay, trade ideas and learn tips. This drives traffic into the store and allows people to get comfortable – and familiar – with Apple products (and that’s genius!). No other tech store (that I know of) replicates this model this well. Go into Best Buy, and you’ll find the Geek Squad counter: it’s utilitarian, a desk with no chairs, and definitely no coffee house atmosphere. It’s almost like they’re trying to get you OUT of the store. Apple stores welcome you in and invite you to stay.

3. “Point of Thought” purchasing: The first time an employee at an Apple store used handheld scanner to complete my purchase and email me my receipt, I was blown away. Later, I realized I hadn’t even stood there for a moment to consider the price, whether I truly needed the product, and even if there was something better. “Can I help you?” was followed by scan, swipe, done. That’s genius too; making purchasing so seamless, it’s over before you can even consider NOT doing it. And it allows customers to avoid lines, making the experience more pleasant, even like an event, and they tell their friends, “You gotta see this!”

4. Community: Like all great social networks, Apple has tapped into the human desire to be part of a club; to join a network of people with whom we can interact and feel connected to. At an Apple store we can take classes, ask questions, play with new gadgets and learn from each other. There is a level of one-to-one interaction, surrounding a product brand, that fosters that feeling.

Apple has been smart about how they’ve set up their stores to be experiences at the same time they are places to purchase products, and they’ve tapped into social media techniques to create communities that do their evangelizing for them. They’re a proven example of the best ways to blend commerce and community in a way that contributes to their bottom line. It can work for you, too.

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