Newton And The Apple

Legend has it that Isaac Newton was sitting under a tree – perhaps inventing calculus – when an apple dropped from above and struck him on the head.  This little thump on the noggin inspired Sir Isaac’s discovery of gravity, among other things.  Or, so the story goes.

(Yeah, I know:  I’m writing about physics again.  Maybe I missed my true calling…)

This tiny parable demonstrates how small bits of insight can lead us to bigger ideas.  So it was before Christmas that I was running errands with my second daughter, the four-year-old.  We were at a major-label pharmacy picking up odds and ends.  She didn’t know it, but we were buying supplies for her stocking.  By family tradition, our Christmas stockings are stuffed with little items:  Candy, wind-up toys, and necessities such as new tooth-brushes.

She said,”Look Daddy!  There’s Dora, Spiderman, and Pirates, just like last summer!”  

Sure enough, on the shelf behind me were gift-packs of children’s plastic dinnerware, decorated in all three labels.  They were lined up in the same order as the fishing pole sets we had purchased for the three kids last summer when we were camping at Devils Lake.  My eldest daughter loves Pirates of the Caribbean, the young boy loves all things Spiderman, and the middle daughter has split loyalties – she likes Dora the Explorer and anything Princess or Fairy.  It seems that there’s a lot of competition in licensing opportunities for four-year-old girls, but they’ve captured the pre-teen (both male and female) demographic with the Pirates franchise, as well as preschool boys with Spiderman.  

We live in a weird world, no doubt.  When four-year-olds can identify brands from a distance, it’s time to wonder if anybody will ever again have the opportunity to have a truly original thought.  I wonder what Newton would have achieved – or what would he have failed to achieve – if as a child his mind was cluttered with Spiderman-licensing initiatives…

We went from the drug-store chain to the Apple Store.  I needed a bit of hardware for our network at PEMBAbase.  This was the height of the mid-Christmas rush, and I was in a mall that I typically avoid at all costs.  The mall was packed end-to-end, and so was the Apple Store.  Surprisingly, we were in and out in minutes after having been greeted within seconds.  We were directed where we needed to go, and introduced to a second person who succinctly gave us our hardware options.  After choosing our items we were rung up on the spot.  Seconds later, a third person came from the back and delivered our purchase in a neat, reusable bag.  It took three-times longer to park than it did to get what we needed.

There are a lot of people talking about the Apple Store model, and how it might be the future of retailing.  What struck me most about my experience was the Apple brand.  Fair disclosure: I’ve been using Apple computers since 1978.  I purchased my first Mac in 1984, after owning several Apple I and Apple II machines.  (Sadly, I’ve never purchased their stock…) It’s ironic that my new Apple Bluetooth headset is shaped like a crack-pipe.  I took my first hit many years ago, and I’ve been a Mac-Addict ever since.  Many smart people have written books about Apple’s hardware and related technology, so I won’t drone on about it.  But Apple dropped the word “Computer” from their brand last year.  In doing so, they stepped away from selling merely hardware, and towards selling something more esoteric, and valuable.  These days, what Apple is selling you, is you

Today – in 2008 – when everybody and everything is a brand, the stickiest items and ideas are those that help individuals reinforce their own identities.  People can wear the mantle of a brand – like they do with brands such as DKNY, YSL, or that other three-letter outfit from our own industry – but then changing brands is as easy as changing your jacket, and just as inevitable.  What Apple is doing is something far different.  Case in point:  No two iPods are alike.  You can dress up the outside of one, but most people don’t.  Instead – just like a person – what’s important about an iPod is what’s inside: Your music, your photos, your videos, your contacts, your calendar, basically your life.  In making the iPod both a mark of status and of individuality, Apple is making their brand as personal and as permanent as a tattoo.  

(“Sure, everybody has one, but mine is different.”)

In the outdoor industry, we can learn something from this.  Or, perhaps, maybe we can remember this, instead.  This industry was the original grass-roots consumer movement of the Twentieth Century.  In part, we were born from the ashes of WWII and Viet-Nam.  Two successive generations of disaffected war veterans found solace in going to the wilderness.  Just so happens – coincidentally enough – there was a lot of army-surplus camping gear around, too.  People went to those first outdoor stores to find kindred spirits, and – by extension – to feel more like themselves.  Something changed when shops began to let the brands they sell become more important to their customers than who they are.  I mean by this that at some point the brands became more important than both the shop and the customer.  Just ask my four-year-old. 

“This is cool because we sell it/This is cool because I bought it,” became,”We’re cool because we sell this/I’m cool because I bought this.”

Maybe I need to reverse myself.  Perhaps I have it backwards about Apple.  Maybe I’m just so bought into it that I can’t tell anymore.  But I’m not trying to talk about Apple, really.  Maybe the important takeaway is that I just can’t tell.

We in this industry need to take back our own brand identities.  When everyone and everything is a brand, it doesn’t make sense to be anything other than equal partners in branding.  If customers are walking into stores solely because of a single brand – or walking out because they don’t find it – then something is definitely wrong.  Only when a brand is as vertical as Apple does this make any sense at all.  No doubt that we as outdoor enthusiasts need quality, intuitive, and durable equipment, and that certain brands have reputations for supplying just this.  (We here at Pemba Serves represent quite a few of them, after all.)  But the strength of our industry is in those shops that have created cultures that are as individual as tattoos, and just as personal.

Admittedly, this is an idea-in-progress, and merits some further thought and discussion as well.  We who live and work in retail here in the United States of Generica – where every corner strip-mall has a Walgreens, a Subway, a Talbot’s and a Gap – have everything to gain by thinking about ways of getting back to that point where people identify themselves more by what we represent and what we do (basically, how we live), than by what we buy or sell.

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