Insight article

6 lessons from Apple Events

What is there to say about Apple that hasn’t already been said? As a brand, as an organisation, as a lifestyle… for so long now, it has been held up as the quintessential example of how a business can not only succeed, but thrive in the most demanding of eras. Search any airport bookshop, and you are bound to find a book or two claiming to share the secrets of its alchemic approach.

But while so much of Apple’s success is routinely ascribed to supreme technology, innovation and leadership, this week the world witnessed another vital element in how Apple achieves such phenomenal, enduring success: the enduring power of the live launch event.

Apple’s product launch events have become the stuff of legend, commanding the attention of a global audience and defining an entire industry. Here at The Storytellers, we believe it is no exaggeration to say that these events are an essential part of Apple’s success. As experienced producers of story-driven events ourselves, we know that there are certain key critical success factors to how Apple makes each year’s event a resounding success. Here are six of the most important:

1. Create a sense of intrigue – the global interest that Apple generates for its annual event is phenomenal. Of course, some of this can be put down to to the sheer industry-leading quality of their products. But get past the hype and there’s a fundamental learning here. As humans, we enjoy suspense, but we also crave resolution. Before the event has even started, Apple expertly keeps the sense of mystery as high as possible, taking its global audience from total secrecy… to revealing key details one-by-one, week by week… to sneak peeks on the latest products… all the way to the big reveal at the event itself, where expectations are both met and confounded. Effectively, the launch event becomes the next chapter in an ongoing narrative about the new Apple product, and about Apple as a whole – and it makes for an incredibly engaging, satisfying experience.

Working with each client ahead of their own Story launch, we know that it is so important to create the same sense of anticipation, to engage the same sense of innate curiosity in our clients’ audiences. A teaser campaign, securely anchored to the big messages and goals of the overall programme and which makes sure everyone is intrigued and involved before the big day, is truly the foundation of a stunning event.

2. Reflect the brand – when you picture an Apple launch event, what do you see? Most likely it’s something like a sparse stage, carefully lit, with a huge image of the new product fronted by a casually dressed presenter, and probably little else! It may look simple, but in fact this entire look is carefully manicured to precisely amplify and echo Apple’s brand values. Whilst the products themselves are the ultimate brand experience, Apple knows that it is vital to ensure that whenever it is in the public eye, in whatever way, the experience reflects everything that Apple stands for.

When it comes to our clients’ own events, we know that by gaining a deeper understanding of our clients (not least through the process of identifying their strategic narrative), we put ourselves in a position as event producers to holistically create an experience that truly reflects not only what an organisation stands for today, but where they need to be tomorrow. And although Apple’s events are predominantly externally focused, it’s just as important to get this right for internal events – especially when you are hoping for a community to take a new change journey to heart. This underlying confidence in the brand, and the fact what is being witnessed visibly reflects who we are, is so key to ensuring that we create the conditions necessary for real change.

3. Serve up a feast for the senses – Apple’s events are distinctly and memorably flavoured by the sensory experience they deliver for its audience. Minutes before the event gets underway, all Apple employees remain tight-lipped, taking the sense of anticipation to fever pitch. Only visual cues direct attendees to where they need to be. Then, as the show begins music, carefully chosen for maximum emotional impact, starts to play. Discussions and on-stage demonstrations follow, all linked together as a cohesive narrative. Finally, rooms are provided for people to get their hands on the latest models and have a play for themselves. As an example, see this wonderful video from the opening of the Steve Jobs theatre in 2017: words of wisdom from beyond the grave, the simple Helvetica font, the emotion of the piano in the background, the screens glowing like candles… Apple knows that to get everyone’s complete attention it is so crucial to engage the heart and the mind.

Without senses, we would have no experiences. Without experiences, we would not have memories. In order to create the most memorable occasion possible, we seek to engage as many senses as possible in the events that we create. In this way, the key messages of our clients’ stories have as many chances as possible to be crystallised as enduring memories that last way beyond the event itself. A stunning opening film that tells the story of the strategic narrative, the perfect lighting for all situations, creating opportunities for rich conversation, getting people on their feet and moving at the right time… choosing the right pieces of music to open and close the event… they’re all vital to ensuring that our events go down as wonderful, rich learning experiences for every single audience member.

4. Create a liminal space – ‘liminality’ is an anthropological term that, simply put, means the quality of being ‘at the threshold’. It’s a term often used in reference to rites… and when you consider the zeal and enthusiasm that Apple generates in its acolytes, it’s not a stretch to see their launch events as religious ceremonies of a very modern kind. 

The key to this idea, and where Apple again shows its mastery, is how the familiar and the unfamiliar are blended. So on the one hand, so much of what Apple does at its yearly launch events is repetitive – across most categories, Apple essentially repeats what it did the year before. The theatre-style seating, the look and feel of the staging, going through the product’s key features before giving the audience a demonstration of how it works… the consistency of certain elements brings a satisfaction, and reinforces trust in the brand.

But by varying the location, speakers and the products themselves, the familiar and unfamiliar are blended in such a way that creates a space in which heightened emotional responses are provoked, feelings of creativity and innovation are stoked, and the right setting for people to better absorb and reflect what they are hearing is created. 

At The Storytellers, we achieve liminal space in two key ways – firstly, the act of consistently sharing an evolving story in itself creates a sense of the familiar and the unfamiliar. In this way, consistency of form shifts the focus from less important elements back onto the key messages of the strategic narrative itself: much how Apple achieves maximum focus on its products. Secondly, we work with our clients to find the most impactful venue for their story launch events. Just as Apple may host its events at their headquarters, or at another venue in San Francisco, so we recommend venues that are not just practical, but also meaningful according to the particular client Story that needs to be told. 

Fundamentally, liminal space is all about creating an environment in which learning and development are stimulated, and it’s a critical factor in how we ensure that our clients’ stories are truly embedded in an organisation through powerful live experiences.

5. Get the running order right – in many ways, one of the great marks of success of the Apple launch event has been how it has survived the loss of Steve Jobs. Whereas Jobs would dominate the stage, sometimes taking up the entirety of a keynote speech, we now see Tim Cook adopting more of an MC approach, introducing different speakers, sharing the limelight and on average using up less than 20 minutes of the keynote presentation. Being malleable enough to respond to these challenges and maintain the same strong brand impression, given the vast differences in leadership, is a great achievement. Not only this, but Apple has also evolved to respond to wider social shifts – more women than ever share the stage with what once would be almost entirely men. One has to look no further than the recent recruitment of Angela Ahrendts, previously CEO of Burberry, to see that Apple takes every opportunity and angle to visibly demonstrate to the world that it’s moving with the times.

In another sense, each year’s agenda design also subtly reflects the key messages that are being shared and the focus that Apple wants people to understand. By choosing a certain order for the different agenda items, Apple sends a myriad of messages about how it is evolving, and how it now ought to be perceived. Getting the balance right for the shifting leadership team, and at the same time ensuring that a story is told through the way in which the audience are taken through each year’s new products, is surely one of the more unsung elements in how Apple consistently delivers incredible launch events.

In the same way at The Storytellers, we know that it is imperative to choreograph our different speakers according to the particular leadership style of the team that we’re working with, and to the key messages that are being shared. The time that a leadership team shares with its teams around the business is so precious; carefully co-creating our event agendas with our clients is a vital element in making sure that this is time well-spent.

6. Value solid technical production – so often, the technical production of an event is only newsworthy when it goes wrong: and Apple is no exception. At the 2014 Launch Event, viewers from around the world watching on Apple TV and online were stuck on a blank screen for the first 30 minutes of the event – a PR disaster. More recently, when introducing the iPhone 10 and trying to show off its new facial recognition software, the phone failed to recognise SVP Craig Federighi … and he was embarrassingly asked for a passcode instead. Such events not only impaired the audience’s chance to hear the key messages and understand what the new products were all about, but also came to overshadow the entire event itself. These were of course blips in what is generally seamless, top-drawer event production, but unfortunately it is so often the mistakes that people remember, and for Apple, these moments will go down in history.

Every year, we run many events for our clients – whether taking full responsibility for our clients’ story launch events or working with other production companies, our technical directors work tirelessly to ensure that our clients’ story events are remembered for the key messages and rich conversations that ensued with their colleagues; not that moment when the power failed or the screen went down. The value of an event that runs without a hitch truly cannot be underestimated. One wonders what Tim Cook would pay now to go back in time and avoid the calamities Apple endured in 2014 and 2017. When it comes to technical production, it truly is the case that a stitch in time is worth nine.

In conclusion: it is so telling that the most innovative, inventive, technologically sophisticated company that the world has ever seen continues to use the live event as the central moment in each year in which to share key messages and reinforce the journey it’s on. Despite losing the most iconic business leader that we have seen so far in the 21st century, Apple has unwaveringly persevered with its live events. Each September’s launch event is the focal point for so much of what it does… and there are no signs that this is about to change.

As experienced event producers ourselves at The Storytellers, we know from running countless shows that there are certain factors that will determine the success or failure of a live event. But if there is anything at all to be learned from Apple’s reliance on the live event, that most preternatural format for sharing information, it is simply this: that the impact of a well-produced, story-driven event reinforcing the trajectory of a business is truly limitless.

Daniel Castro