iphone_releasesEvery year it happens: Apple introduces a new iPhone, and, like salmon returning to the river, throngs of faithful fans start forming lines outside Apple stores. This past Friday, the Apple acolytes lined up for the new iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c, and Apple produced yet another blowout weekend, selling a record 9 million phones.

But why do Apple people love to line up?

That’s a question that has puzzled me for years, and apparently I’m not alone, as Casey Neistat, a filmmaker, created a short film trying to explore the topic. The video is embedded below, and I warn you, it might make you very depressed about your fellow human beings.

Totally Irrational

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about Apple fans and their penchant for line waiting. Because, first of all, let’s be clear: there is no rational reason for these people to do this.

These people aren’t waiting in line for food, or clean water, or some other kind of necessity. They’re waiting for smartphones. And those are not exactly very high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Furthermore, most of these people probably have the last version of the iPhone, which usually isn’t that much different from the new one.

So: this is not a matter of life and death. Also, no matter how much demand there is for a new Apple phone, the worst case scenario is that you wait a few days, or at worst a few weeks, and then just walk into the store and get whatever product you want, no waiting required.

Let’s also remember that you can order Apple products on the internet, and the company will ship them to your home. Yes, this time things were a little different, as Apple did accept pre-orders for the 5c but did not accept pre-orders for the iPhone 5s, which meant the only way to get a 5s on opening day was to stand in line.

But even if Apple had accepted pre-orders for the 5s, there would have been lines outside Apple stores.

So Why Are They Standing There?

Here’s the thing. Apple fans like to stand in these lines. They enjoy the experience. Some stood in line in New York for 14 days! And that was totally pointless, since most people don’t show up until the night before the product launches. Which means, yeah, those people spent 13 days camped outside a store, even though they didn’t need to.

Here’s what you need to know. This isn’t about the product. This is about the brand. Apple’s brand is so powerful, and so compelling, that people want to attach themselves to it, or attach the brand to themselves. They want people to see them standing outside the Apple store. They want to be identified with Apple, and what Apple represents: good taste; sophisticated design; a minimalist aesthetic.

Most of us, especially people who work in marketing, have two reactions to this. The first is to think that those people deserve to be mocked and laughed at; and this, I believe, is a legitimate and rational reaction.

But the next reaction is, hey, how can my company evoke a response like that? Because let’s be honest, while companies like Microsoft and Samsung love to mock Apple and its line-standing customers, they’d both kill to have fans who were as loyal and passionate as Apple’s fans.

Apple's Playbook

So how do you do it? The short answer is that most companies probably can’t. And certainly you can’t do it quickly. Apple has been around for nearly 40 years, and has had a long time to develop its cult-like following.

Nevertheless, here are some things that contribute to the phenomenon, and which any company can emulate.

Make a great product.

I know I said above that those people aren’t standing in line for the product -- and they’re not. They can get the product without lining up. But the products have to be terrific. And Apple’s products almost always are. Their quality is so consistent that people trust that whatever Apple comes out with next will also be fantastic.

Provide great customer service.

Have you ever had to take an Apple product in for a repair, or for help? Their customer service is amazing. They go above and beyond what they have to do for you. They realize that this moment, when you come in with a problem, is actually an opportunity to create a deep and lasting connection with a customer. They turn the experience upside down. You come in upset about a problem, and leave feeling blown away. Ironically, they’ve taken a shortcoming and turned it into something positive.

Stand for something.

Figure out who you are, and why you’re in business. Why does your company exist? Probably more than any other company, Apple has a sense of its identity and its mission. Apple has a point of view, a way of looking at the world. That gives customers something to align themselves with.

Don’t try to please everyone.

Apple freely admits that its products aren’t for everyone, and they’re okay with that. Because of that position, customers who do “get it” form a stronger attachment with the brand. There’s a famous Apple blog called Cult of Mac, and the name isn’t entirely a joke. They really do see themselves as a kind of tribe, bound together by a set of beliefs and principles.

There’s a lot more to Apple’s magic than just these few things, of course. You could (and many have) write a whole book explaining all of the things that contribute to Apple’s success. But hopefully these few items will provide some inspiration and food for thought. You may never convince your customers to stand in line outside your store, but you might be able to create a more passionate connection with them.

Image credit: GONZALO BAEZA

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Originally published Sep 23, 2013 2:00:00 PM, updated July 28 2017

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Branding