Branding Your Innovation: The Genius Bar Case Study
The Genius Bar is a place dedicated to providing technical support within Apple stores to customers having problems with the product or application. In large part because it is branded, the Genius Bar is a lynchpin of the most successful retail concept of recent times and a builder of the Apple brand and relationship.
The Apple store’s financial performance and impact on the Apple brand is amazing. The sales per square foot for its 380 or stores is more than $5,000, which is six to ten times other successful retailers, and the average store pulls in 18,000 visitors a week. Perhaps more important, the stores provide a way to express the Apple brand and showcase its products. No longer are Apple products and brand tarnished by retailers who are unwilling or unable to provide an in-store Apple experience. And the stores provide a source of energy to the brand and a new link to its rabid fans.
The fact that nearly 2,000 stood in line for the opening of its Ginza store is illustrative. There are several reasons for the success of the stores, including the products, the Apple brand and following, the architecture, the look and feel, the staffing, and the locations. But the Genius Bar plays a key role. The Genius bar works because of several characteristics.
- It’s branded. No other firm can have a Genius Bar because Apple owns the brand. Any other firm will at best be an imitator.
- The brand has a personality — humorous and understated yet competent and reassuring.
- It is staffed from a large pool of people many of which are Apple devotees who are both knowledgeable and disciples of the products and philosophy.
- The training is disciplined following the APPLE dictum of Approach customers with a personalized warm welcome, Probe to understand the problem, Present a solution, Listen for issues, and End with an invitation to return.
- Because Apple makes both the hardware and software, it has a unique ability to create and staff a Genius Bar.
- It enhances the customer relationship with its person-to-person approach. And finally, it can transform a disgruntled, disappointed customer with the potential to have a distasteful retail experience and become a negative voice in the marketplace into a satisfied if not enthusiastic supporter of the Apple store.
I call such branded innovations branded differentiators because they provide a way to own and communicate a point of differentiation that may otherwise by quickly copied or appear to be copied. I also have noted that they can represent a “must have” that defines a new subcategory for which retailers that lack a service like the Genius Bar will not be considered.
An instructive footnote: The Genius Bar would have been killed by many retailers during its early years when it was underused. But, as reported in an HBR interview with the brilliant creator of Apple stores, Ron Johnson (now the CEO of JC Penney’s), strategic instincts prevailed over data reporting on customer traffic. Johnson realized that the Genius Bar was a vehicle to reinforce and enhance customer relationship damaged by product issues and that Apple is in the customer relationship business as much as the computer business. As a result he stuck with the concept and was rewarded when it got so much traction that reservations became necessary to handle the customer flow.