At some point just about every marketer is bound to look at something that Apple is doing and wish they could have done it for their own brands. There are a few other brands that have this universal admiration from marketers. Coca-Cola is the other notable example that comes to mind. Yet there is a temptation I have noticed to simplify the success of Apple to two things: innovative products and great marketing. I would love to believe this as much as any other marketer, but there is a crucial missing third element that most people never talk about which I think is actually the most important reason Apple has been so successful. They do one thing that almost none of their competitors in any market can do … they control distribution.

They have their own stores, their own sales people, and their own model for selling their products that cuts out any middleman or competitors completely. The fact that they control distribution offers many benefits:

  1. Consistency of messaging – As opposed to other consumer electronics brands that must educate sales people who work for someone else, Apple can control their sales force and the messages that they learn to talk about. As a result, everyone tells the same story about their products.
  2. Removes the competition at point of sale – A big issue for many of their competitors is that a customer may come into a store with one product in mind, but can often get steered toward another during the time they are in store. Often they will walk out not with the product they intended to buy, but something that was cheaper, recommended more heavily by the sales staff, or (most frustratingly) another product whose packaging simply was more appealing.
  3. Makes upselling easier – When you walk into an Apple store, everything is Apple branded in some way (even the products manufactured by other companies). As a result, you are in the ultimate upselling situation, where you might pay $45 for a connector cable that would ordinarily cost $5 elsewhere. When you are captive in the store and already spending $499 on a big product, who really cares about another $45, right?
  4. Retail environment reinforces the community – Apple fans are enthusiastic about the brand and products that they love. Because Apple has distribution focused on their stores, they can create events, features and resources that all reinforce this community. From the Genius Bars to special events hosted at Apple stores, this offers an invaluable marketing asset that few of their competitors can match.
  5. Pricing is controlled – It is virtually impossible to find huge discounts on Apple products (particularly new ones). This is another effect of this controlled distribution, that if you are setting the places people buy your products, you can also centrally control the price. Not only does this allow for more consistency, it also gives you the ability to include pricing in your marketing materials and ads because you know its the same price everywhere.