Apple Store’s New Sneak Preview/Open House Event Strategy for Watch: Opening Doors, Changing Minds, Shaping the Narrative

Undercutting the Lede

You might have seen this amusing Reuters article from yesterday that impressively manages to deflate its headline premise in the space of three short paragraphs and barely over 100 words.

Don’t take my word for it:

Exclusive: Apple Watch not on shopping list for 69 percent of Americans: Reuters poll

Apple Inc’s new smartwatch may be a tough sell, with 69 percent of Americans indicating they are not interested in buying the gadget…

However, the survey also showed limited awareness of the watch. The poll was taken after Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook rolled out the product on Monday, and only about half of respondents said they had heard news of the timepiece in the last few days.

Also, in an encouraging sign for Apple, roughly 13 percent of survey respondents who did not own an iPhone said that they would consider buying one in order to buy an Apple Watch, which needs an iPhone to work fully.

(Emphasis mine.)

I think this “acronymically-profane” 😀 perspective might be the better read than “about 70% of US consumers not shopping for Apple Watch (briefly after the Spring Forward keynote)”:

Actually, You Did Have a Point There

Tonally confused Reuters article aside (or is it just another one of those “made you look” headlines that, yep, worked on me?), it does illustrate a “problem” for Apple. Namely, being able to more fully control and shape the product narrative after announcement but before sale – even though Apple has its keynotes, endless cash to buy ads, and its own website as part of that pre-sale messaging platform.

The media and reviewers, of course, can be wild cards, and first takes can resort to “amusing” namecalling which I thought were usually reserved for days of misspent youth.

Hard-hitting punditry right there from Mr. Digg (Kevin Rose), in the special to TechCrunch. Clicking optional I’d say.

Anyway, as it so happens, Apple’s now unveiled a never-before-tried (recently, at least) product intro strategy which, whether intended to or not, combats the exact “problem” highlighted by Reuters:

Beginning April 10 in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, the UK and the US, Apple Watch will be available for preview, [and] try-on by appointment at Apple’s retail stores…

Apple Watch preordering begins April 10, and so do live product demos at Apple Stores. The subtle sea change in Apple’s product secrecy? The general public gets access to Apple Watch (and by-appointment try-on sessions) two weeks before it ships or delivers to anyone.* And it’s not trivial – that’s 400 Apple retail storefronts** across nine countries which are constant or common first-stage iPhone launch locales.

The benefits of this Apple 3.0 approach may be plain for all to see, who knows. But since I don’t see any perspectives out there on it, I might as well don the “Capt. Obvious” hat and type ’em anyway.

Opening Doors, Changing Minds, Driving Growth and Adoption Long-Term

The “sneak preview/pre-availability early access” paradigm presents a potentially appealing middle ground to not giving your competitors any ideas, but still keeping customers engaged.

Previewing lets Apple demo features in real life to real people. They can see it in person. They can ask questions about the new and unfamiliar. They can experience the product. They therefore make better-informed decisions (ideally free of negative preconceived notions) before the new product is available for sale.

Skeptics/fencesitters can become believers, and believers, whether or not they were prior skeptics/fencesitters, will not only buy, but bring their friends and family to the product preview, or otherwise be a purchase influencer via word of mouth, social media, etc. Pre-release experience is a potent, practical antidote to the a priori survey, assuming the product or service in question is worthy on its own merits.

Two potential side benefits: Negative feedback can be quickly routed to Apple’s product teams, providing that much more precious time to evaluate and set fixes in motion. And Apple’s Retail teams (comprising around half of Apple’s entire full-time-equivalent corporate headcount) can go from “actually, I don’t know any more about this just-announced product/service than you do” to “you can be the first in the world to experience this new product/service, only at our Retail stores, and we can’t wait to tell you all about it and sign you up for a preorder!” No small thing in terms of energizing, empowering and motivating employees, that.

This serves Apple’s overall fiscal objective (corporate prime objective(s) are obviously quite different) of driving growth and adoption long-term. After all, getting to Apple’s revenue stature and staying this massive and vibrant (much less continuing to grow steadily year-on-year) is no easy task. One “key to the game” (even if one of many) is to keep potential and existing customers excited about the company, to retain and expand the consumer base. Allowing the general public a window of time to try, to understand products/services (at least the brand-new ones) before volume shipment helps Apple control the narrative and build buzz organically – again, assuming Apple continues to surprise and delight. Apple Retail has always been an important brand and revenue multiplier for the company. And with pre-release product demos, Apple glass-and-steel-and-wooden-table stores expand their usefulness as a product/service launch platform.

For a Limited Time and Purpose Only?

There are serious drawbacks to consider, of course. As far as my limited imagination takes me, at least two.

Development cycle pressure. Apple is a corporate crucible. You don’t need me to tell you that when developing hardware or software, every day, every hour counts. Apple’s annual product cadences for iPhone and iPad are brutal, and asking product teams to move up availability, even in limited supply in “a few hundred” locations, is asking a lot. People-hours alone can’t accelerate innovation, otherwise Apple would simply commit more money and human resources and we’d be at Apple A12 chips and Apple Car 3 by now.

It could well be that this is a special case where Apple, for once, had the ability to take its time in a nascent market and super-perfect this particular first-gen product relatively free of competitive pressures. Or, Apple just felt so enthused about Watch, it decided to “damn the torpedoes” and crack the whip on the poor development teams to have a finished product ready in service of the Retail pre-release marketing effort. (Thank Goodness for the annual Thanksgiving Break.)

Retail pressure. The more new products Apple eventually comes out with, the more there might be a demand for these same kinds of sneak previews. Where do they end? These kinds of special events take time, resources, and store reconfiguration. Ironically, Apple Retail employees probably find great comfort in “slow days”, universal corporate maximum utilization ideals aside – because when high-volume products launch, and when the holiday season rolls around, things get busy. And Angela Ahrendts was presumably brought in at least in part to roll out the opposite of John Browett’s apparent “run leaner” strategy.

Overtaxing retail employees and overcrowding Apple Retail Stores clearly isn’t optimal, and it’ll be interesting to see where Apple finds that balance.

Hey, maybe this is just something Apple ends up doing once a year, or even less. In which case, false alarm, “situation normal”.

One-off or Not, Likely to Serve its Purpose

It could well be that Apple’s “preview/open house strategy” is occasional at most. Perhaps the iPhone 6S and latest iPads don’t need in-store previewing (for 2 weeks, or a custom table, or a bunch of employee training) to help unit sales along. Perhaps it’s a special-case initiative when Apple wants consumers to have the best chance of “properly” understanding truly new and unfamiliar product categories that Apple’s entering – certainly the case with Apple Watch.

Even if you don’t see this from the Apple Playbook for a while – or ever again – I think it’s safe to say it will serve its purpose quite well. As I’ve become a little too fond of typing lately, lack of originality notwithstanding: “Try before you buy/decry.”

* It’ll be interesting to see what this means for media reviewers. Are they embargoed shortly before, until, or after April 10th?

** Not including “Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Isetan in Tokyo and Selfridges in London”, which will also carry Apple Watch for preview and try-on. They don’t count as Apple Stores of course, but they’re clearly important as first-stage, high-fashion launch partners.

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