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Blame it on Apple
Published March 2, 2015 in the
Kansas City Business Journal 

If I have to read another article praising Apple for it’s visionary, disruptive, legendary design, I may go nuts. So instead, I’ve decided to write one, albeit a little skewed. For years Apple’s talent for redefining the world we live in has captured the attention of journalists, design bloggers, educators and even politicians. Because of Apple, we’re all now design experts (and critics.)

More than just products, it’s not a surprise to anyone when you say that Apple has also redesigned the retail experience. In fact, this may be just as revolutionary as their product design. Today’s millennials are growing up with an “experience” standard that far exceeds anything from the past.

For organizations like sports teams, movie theaters and museums, Apple’s new standard of experience design has created a host of unforeseen challenges.

While many people think of professional sports teams as sophisticated, multi-million dollar corporations, it’s more accurate to view them as small, family owned businesses with very expensive employees. Yes, they get hundreds of thousands of media hits daily, yes, there are television networks dedicated to their daily dramas, yes, they engage the very hearts of millions of loyal fans… BUT, when it comes to designing and marketing their “experience,” many are not the ultra-savvy consumer marketing powerhouses one may expect. In fact, when you compare all that is offered by the organizational sophistication of even a tier 2 consumer brand with a tier 1 sports franchise, the team can look downright provincial.

And that’s why Apple is so scary. When Apple introduced the first Apple store on May 15, 2001, it created the new benchmark for a retail brand experience. Instead of the cookie-cutter experience a shopper has in a typical big box office warehouse store, consumers were welcomed into a completely new experience, where cash registers disappeared, employees acted like concierges, and prime floor space was dedicated to free consulting service. While Apple was redefining what it was like to shop for a computer, other brands were doing the same in their spaces.


Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister and other brands targeting youth are creating “caves” where shopping feels as opulent as it does “secret.”


Abercrombie & Fitch took Ralph Lauren’s aspirational lifestyle approach, turned down the lights, added 6 ft. square soft-core photography, and injected an unseemly amount of teenage hormones.

And, next door, do we need to re-hash the redefining of what was happening to the “coffee shop” by Starbucks?

Through the start of the millennium, early corporate adopters and savvy marketers at sophisticated companies were now in the “brand experience” business because they found when they improved the customer experience, their revenue shot through the roof. Kids and parents alike have always treated shopping as entertainment, but now the show was so much better.

In the meantime, the “show” in true entertainment businesses was not keeping pace. Kids view museums as boring and dusty; fans have to accept semi-warm hot dogs and uncomfortable seats at most stadiums; and movie theaters were still charging way too much for popcorn and a Coke.


The Starbuck Reserve, welcoming all of us into the “third place” after home and work.

Because of Apple and many other progressive consumer brands, today’s shopper has “brand experience” standards that are incredibly high. What worked in a stadium, arena, movie theater, hospital, or university setting ten years ago does not work today.

What’s worse, though, is that the price at many of these dated venues is rising steadily (a ticket to a sports event is competing with the new sweater at A&F or the mini iPod at Apple.) But we’re not done yet… Compounding the crisis further, enormous HD TVs make at-home viewers feel like they’re at the game and the television networks have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to make the couch potato-experience must-see-TV.

It’s become the perfect storm: teams, theaters and museums are all facing declining attendance as people would rather spend time at the Apple Store, where they are buying HD devices that keep them at home. The Coke is cheaper, the chairs are comfier and the parking is free. Who’s winning now?

Millennials have new experience expectations. While it may appear counterintuitive, your customer is not comparing your experience to your competitor, they’re comparing it to every other experience where they spend their time and money.

Knowing that we face this very real challenge of how to reverse declining attendance and successfully compete with the incredible experiences outside their walls, let’s ask ourselves “now what?”

Brand and experience designers can’t operate in a vacuum. They shouldn’t just look at other stadiums when they have a stadium client, or other theaters for a theater client, or other universities for a college client – they need to look for inspiration in the brand experience of their client’s customers. One can’t approach working in the NFL by keeping up with the Joneses. Instead, they must look to retail experiences, tastes in fashion, music, concerts and technology. They must go to the mall, search out the most progressive and hip restaurants, hotels, festivals, and movements. They should investigate home design, product design and pay attention to how people want to spend their free time and limited disposable income. They should monitor how those customers interact with their friends, and where they find meaning in their lives.

Because most venues currently being designed and worked on won’t hit their stride for years, the future of brand experiences is where we live.

Translating the best practices of brand experience to physical environments is what makes brand and experience design so much fun and so incredibly challenging.

So, now that we’ve blamed Apple, is there any good news? Yes. When you ask the question, “What does the stadium of the future look like?” we do know one thing: it won’t look like the Apple store. That’s been done before. It’s time for what’s next.

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