Finally the curious Burberry fashion show shot entirely on the iPhone 5s four days before the phone was actually available makes sense. The original news was described by many as ‘un-Apple-like” – it’s never done anything like this. Tellingly, the announcement doesn’t quote or even refer to new Apple retail chief (and outgoing Burberry CEO) Angela Ahrendts. We should’ve seen the clues, hidden in plain sight.
She gets it. Ahrendts understands retail. And she understands lifestyle retail.
Apple’s retail stores are far more similar to the luxury good boutique outlets (think Prada, Burberry, Cartier, Hugo Boss) than they ever were to the pile-em-high-and-sell-em-cheap consumer electronics stores they “compete” with. That’s what makes Tim Cook’s appointment of former Dixon’s boss John Browett so perplexing (and so glaring a mistake).
Think about the fundamental and profound change for Ahrendts. She’s leaving a job where she’s in charge of one of the world’s leading fashion brands (with annual revenues of around US$3-billion), to head up a division inside the notoriously secretive Apple. Sure, the retail business (excluding online) is a US$21-billion a year one — so that’s a massive step up. But for Ahrendts to have made this move — many would misconstrue it as a step down — its obvious she understands the nuances of the shift.
Tim Cook’s memo to staff hints at why Ahrendts is a perfect fit for Apple: “She places the same strong emphasis as we do on the customer experience. She cares deeply about people and embraces our view that our most important resource and our soul is our people.”
Make no mistake. Cook’s hired the very best in the world.
Her pedigree in emerging markets is unmatched. And while Apple hasn’t said a thing about that, this is her real strength. In the last five years, she’s grown the number of Burberry stores in emerging markets from 79 to 173 – growth of 17% a year, every year.
China is crucial to Apple’s future. It doesn’t even have 10 stores yet in what’s going to become its largest market. Burberry’s well on its way to 100 stores. Apple’s expansion in mainland China has come in fits and starts. And its fallen behind its own publicly announced plan. But it’s not only China. Burberry’s focusing on “under-penetrated” emerging markets. including the “Middle East, Central and Latin America and India.” Apple can only benefit greatly from this expertise and vision.
It’s intriguing that online has been bundled into the portfolio for the first time. But again, Burberry understands that the line between physical retail and digital is blurring. It cites its Regent Street store in London as a strong example. Ahrendts understands that digital is not an after-thought. Expect the two experiences to become infinitely more complimentary.
What’s astonishing is how structurally similar Burberry is to Apple. From that perspective, she’s not going to struggle to come to grips with a business at least seven times larger than Burberry.
Ahrendts is not going to mess with the winning formula that Ron Johnson created at Apple. But the formula needs some fresh attention – remember that this is a division that hasn’t really had a leader since he left Apple in November 2011. She is the perfect fit.
Gigaom’s Om Malik sums up what will define Ahrendts’ new career at Apple. After all, as he says, she’s a “rock star”:
The time she will spend at Apple will tell a lot about the company. The post-Steve Jobs Apple, despite Tim Cook’s assurances, still works like Apple in Steve Jobs’ day: secretive, controlling and making sure that the message of the company is airbrushed. How will she deal with playing second fiddle to working for Cook and Jony Ive, the only two people from Apple who are deemed to be stars representing Apple?
Can Apple change its culture to adapt to Ahrendts or will Ahrendts change to become Apple’s functionary? That is the real question. If Apple changes, then you are looking at the next Apple chief executive, one who can take the company in a different direction.
A fashion executive running the world’s largest technology company? You’d be stupid to bet against it.