February 7, 2011
Yes, Apple is amazing. In no uncertain terms, the company has had a seismic impact on our society. Apple has changed everything from what we buy to how we work and awakened both corporate executives and the general public to the value of good design. Apple has raised our awareness of the value of simplicity (and the rejection of feature overload); the importance of paying attention to every little detail (down to the layout and typography on product manuals); and the seemingly unbelievable business domination that comes from examining not just isolated customer touchpoints but the entire customer experience ecosystem.
Not surprisingly, customer experience professionals at other companies want to follow Apple’s lead. And it’s only natural for one company to be influenced by another.
But in the case of Apple, I’ve been completely stunned over the years to see the degree of blatant copying that’s taken place. This has come, of course, from Apple’s direct competitors. Take, for example, the roughly 40 tablets that were announced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show; the various Android-based phones, which look more like iPhone clones than not; and the app stores that have popped up to support every major mobile platform.
More than direct competitors, though, I’ve been fascinated by the number of companies outside of the consumer electronics industry that seem set on copying Apple. The latest culprit? Citibank, which recently made news for its “branch of the future.” In an article on financialbrand.com, Citibank’s chief innovation officer was quoted as saying, “We’re knee deep in everything Apple. We’re huge believers in their capabilities, approach, and philosophy, which is about really strong design backed by extraordinary systems.” And while I applaud that thinking, I was shocked when I saw the pictures of the new branch: Blink, and you’d swear it was an Apple store. (Citibank even went so far as to hire the same architectural firm that designed the Apple store concept.)
To be honest, this smacks of an attitude that I thought I had seen the last of during my junior-high days, when everyone copied the most popular girl in the class. But unlike junior-high girls, who will eventually develop more sophisticated perspectives, brands playing the “copy Apple” game face two very real dangers:
- The experience you create will not be aligned with your brand. The Apple customer experience fits the company’s focus on design and innovation down to a T — but that doesn’t mean it’s the right customer experience for any other company. Are your company’s brand attributes the same as Apple’s? Is your strategy the same as Apple’s? If you answered “yes” to both of those questions, good luck. If you answered “no” (and 99% of companies should fall into this category), then you need to focus on defining the customer experience that’s right for your brand. For example, companies aiming to bolster brand attributes like trust, luxury, or healthy living should craft wildly different types of customer experiences than a company focused primarily on innovation.
- The experience will be one dimensional — and set the wrong expectations for customers. The customer experience that Apple provides at any single touchpoint isn’t just a veneer. It reaches deep down into the bowels of its products and services and into every single decision that Apple makes — whether it's circuit board design, packaging, transportation, or hiring. (As Apple’s human resources website says, it’s “part career, part revolution.”) So unless your company has created a customer-centric culture that drives every single employee and decision, pretending to be like Apple at any single touchpoint is just going to lead customers to disappointment when they inevitably discover that their experience is an isolated fluke.
Smart execs know that the path to success lies in not looking like everyone else — even if the companies they want to emulate are true leaders. Be your own brand. And define the amazing customer experience that’s right for you.