Two things I know about really well at this point in my life are marketing and guitars. And one of the hardest jobs there is must be marketing guitars. At least, marketing them successfully, which means increasing ROI, sustaining (if not growing)margins, decreasing costs, maintaining if not improving the target market segments’ perceptions about them, and the rest of the duties product managers, marketing managers and directors, VP’s and the other roles tasked with the job have.
I would love such a challenge, incidentally if anyone wants to put me up to it.
But guitars are similar to motorcycles, or at least some makes of them such as Harley Davidsons, certain high-profile custom bikes and a small list of other brands like Triumph, Indian, and others that have gone in and out of business due to the challenges I mention here. The main problems are saturation, limited room for product innovation, and being chained to cyclical and fickle target markets that come and go with generational tastes, fads, cultural trends and external forces such as media involvement, since a lot of what compels people (a lot of males for both, coincidentally) is the whole “image” owning and using guitars and motorcycles conveys. Or, at least what their perception is of what they convey to others, mostly fawning ladies that like guys with motorcycles and who play guitar, which is a study left to another time. Machismo is connected to motorcycle ownership, and no small number of guitars have been sold in hopes of being the next teen idol on a stage with an army of attractive roadies backstage waiting to spend time with the next Peter Frampton. Even though I’m sure studies will reveal the results are far from what someone would consider successful.
Back to marketing the things though, particularly guitars. Acoustic guitars have been around for approximately 370 years in modern form. Since 200BC if you want to consider the lute a type of guitar. Electric guitars have been around less time, understandably, for ~90 years. The number of manufacturers has been in the hundreds, if not thousands, with only a few remaining, and even fewer remaining profitable. Most makers have been absorbed by corporations, mainly buying the badge and reissuing cheaper models made in Mexico or other cheap labor markets. Some makers have used technology to make instruments at a lesser cost, by using laser cutters and robots. I’ve seen new guitars as cheap as $20 made in China, that are playable.
The big names in the space worth discussing are Gibson, Fender, and Taylor. There are a lot of other brands, like Guild, Paul Reed Smith and Washburn, but they are owned by Gibson and Fender and large corporations, and not really independent luthiers of magnitude. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of worthy brands to consider – there are – but they aren’t giant global guitar shops. Recording King is a small batch shop, which I own an instrument from, in fact. And small boutique luthiers exist all across the world and make incredible instruments. But they are specialty makers and command large commissions. They aren’t the people I’m talking about having to market either.
Taylor is an interesting case study because they’ve been around since the 1970s, in California, still headed up by Bob Taylor. Thanks to a reemergence in acoustic music in the 1990s with Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, John Mayer, et al., Taylor saw a surge in popularity and expanded their operations considerably, as they also began manufacturing instruments in Mexico and cutting costs while increasing margins by increasing their lines and prices. Rather dramatically in some cases. The US made models that use exotic woods can be near $10,000 apiece these days. Most domestic acoustics hover in the $3,000-6,000 range and aren’t for the average plinker.
But each year, if not a few times each year, Taylor introduces new models, new innovations, and new marketing strategies that keep the cash coming in. It’s impressive, and I’ve studied it carefully over the years.
There are a few ways they stay competitive that should be noted. Some are very good and some are sort of weak, but I’m sure they are still effective or else they wouldn’t be employed. (The tactics, that is, not the people.) Incidentally, Fender has caught onto some of their strategies and has done a great job themselves of keeping themselves relevant through technology. Specifically, their app, YouTube presence and lessons they offer, focusing on the new player.
Taylor sends out a Wood and Wire magazine to people that own their instruments, which is a high-end publication as far as marketing materials go. Taylor also has an app that has the usual tuner, metronome(in FourTrack), videos, and a way to store information about your Taylor guitars, but they also have come up with an innovative service called TaylorSense™.
TaylorSense is a trademarked ability to remotely and electronically monitor everything about your instrument to keep it in top condition. Specifically, humidity, temperature, battery life and impact(when it’s dropped, not how hard you’re shredding). Taylor owners typically take very good care of their guitars, and they should considering they cost more than a lot of people’s cars. Humidity control is very important for wooden instruments, there’s no denying, but most guitar owners aren’t likely to be able to have a humidor for their guitars or the technology to keep instruments at a desired humidity and temperature.
You have to have a guitar that has the sensors installed, of course. And that means….buying a new guitar! Why not!? A built-in hygrometer is a must! These features actually are useful for the gigging musician, who are putting their guitars in the back of hot cars, vans, and airplanes and carting them across hill and dale. Having your guitar in Charleston, SC for a week and then toting it suddenly to Sedona, AZ, for example, isn’t a good idea.
Fender introduces new models all the time. And a lot of the time they’re “new” just like the old ones. A reissue of 1950’s Les Pauls for example. A gold top! New flaming! There’s not a whole lot to jump and down about unless you have lots of money and collect the things, in my opinion. And even then, it’s dubious to me. Taylor does the same thing, a twist here and there to the cosmetics, a new bracing that “redefines” guitar playing, using a “new,” limited stock of wood, or whatever. But there have been few real breakthroughs when it comes to creating an awesome guitar, either electric or acoustic. Mostly gimmickry and marketing hype. Which is still effective. I have to believe the big guys have MBA types that can run tests and validate the effectiveness of the strategies, rather than just winging it like a lot of businesses do, incredibly.
If you look on Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Craigslist, Reverb, or a gazillion other places where there’s a used guitar marketplace (and new guitars as well) it’s easy to see there’s no shortage of guitars in the world. Just like motorcycles. Nice ones, too. So, how does a company get people to shell out $1000+ for a new guitar?
With the methods above, like the nice onboarding job Fender’s doing with their YouTube videos, creative placements, like within Youtube videos like this one with Ed O’Brien of Radiohead fame, talking about his Stratocaster offering with Fender, or Rush’s guitarist Alex Lifeson discussing his namesake gear in other very interesting and genuine interviews/lessons. Authenticity is a big deal in marketing, and using it is effective with this type of product, and companies. If you look in the comments on the “That Pedal Show” video, you’ll see many people wanting to go out and buy that guitar of his just from watching the video. Or this one. Myself included.
A friend of mine from New Zealand wrote a stunning guide on how to choose an electric guitar. It’s free and you can find it with that link provided. I coincidentally bought an old Suzuki acoustic guitar whilst trekking through New Zealand at a bookstore for $20. It kept me busy many nights at hostels and camps while moving around the islands. I still have it hanging right here on my wall, in fact, around 25 years later.
Another effective tactic is to grow your target market. Women and guitars haven’t traditionally been one in the same, save for but a few creative, explorative, adventurous types. And of course in guitar advertising, with half-naked women draped over guitars, or holding one without even pretending to know a single chord. How they fit in playing guitar is an interesting topic in itself. However, there is a recent noticeable surge in interest by women and acoustic guitar ownership, which is successfully being seized by manufacturers, if not helped greatly by guitar marketers.
If you join some of the many guitar-related groups on Facebook, you’ll notice how many fantastic ladies post videos of themselves playing, and singing, pieces they’ve learned or even written. It’s impressive. I’d argue women should be able to equal if not surpass men with acoustic guitar proficiency. I base that on the fact they’re generally better with small tactile tasks with their fingers. They can do fast, accurate motions better than thick-fingered
gorillas men can, like sewing, embroidery, knitting and lock-picking. Just kidding about that last one; I have no idea. But it makes sense. They are no less creative when it comes to writing music, and often are more naturally adept at converting passion and feelings into works of art. Music itself has lots of mathematic undertones to it, which is one of the few reasons that may deter females. I’m not saying that to be masochistic – it’s just a natural fact, which some people refuse to believe despite evidence as long as humans have existed to the contrary. It’s why women are having to be coaxed, unsuccessfully I might add, into engineering and computer programming fields, as well as mathematics and other highly quantitative areas.
When scouting out marketing tactics for this piece, I noticed Fender marketers decided to take the safe route and inject an androgynous female with a man’s haircut, but with tattoos and rings and edgy clothing with their acoustic and electric models on display. It’s as visually neutral as possible.
Although you can, and should use effects pedals and loopers with acoustics, they generally are gear for electrics. And this type of gear that men can spend a fortune of money on as women can shoes, and days playing around with, is just something that doesn’t interest the softer sex. It’s like guys like remote controls and lots of knobs on things, and women want it simple and “just done.”
I don’t seem to notice more women adopting electric guitar ownership, which is also understandable for the above-mentioned reasons. Electric guitars don’t offer the natural, soft, organic tones and typically the same level of visual artistry as acoustics do, with their exotic woods and finishes. Electrics are made from driftwood and anything you can think of as well, sure, but they just don’t add up to acoustic instruments in terms of sheer beauty. The electronics, huge fingerguards, tremolos, knobs, and other onboard instrumentation detract from the luthier’s work on an acoustic. Some don’t, like Taylor’s electrics, but generally, they’re night and day visually. The pricing on visually beautiful electrics also set them in another league in terms of price from the everyday Stratocaster/Telecaster/Les Paul type guitars. You’re looking at several thousand dollars just to get an entry-level Taylor. You can get an arguably decent, yet totally average-looking and constructed electric for a few hundred.
Something guitar marketers are smartly doing is making guitar ownership something personal, and something that is enjoyed on a level that is enjoyed as a passionate hobby for self-improvement and recreation. That’s opposed to years past when guitars were bought to become the next rock-god, usually even just in the owner’s mind.
The evolution of electric guitar ownership typically goes: air-guitar to tennis racquet to Harmony garage-sale acoustic to Squier Strat to used bottom-level Les Paul or Mexican Made Telecaster to new Strat, Tele or Les Paul, to collecting dozens of vintage collectible Les Pauls, Strats, Teles to collecting all sorts of exotic, weird, vintage makes.
Rock and roll music was what kept people, mostly teenage boys and middle-aged men, buying axes from pawn shops and lusting after shiny new ones. But over the past decade or two, rock and roll has taken a backseat to hip-hop and more electronic music, instead of wannabe Stevie Ray Vaughns. Cultural trends have had an impact on the industry which has been brutal.
These guys talk about Fender and Paul Reed Smith and dicuss the topic, and they know their stuff:
This is a great discussion about Rock and Roll and the future of music in America.
Instead of receiving long, related “strings” of ideas, organized or synthesized for us, we are increasingly exposed to short, modular blips of information–ads, commands, theories, shreds of news, truncated bits and blobs that refuse to fit neatly into our pre-existing mental files. The new imagery resists classification, partly because it often falls outside our old conceptual categories, but also because it comes in packages that are too oddly shaped, transient, and disconnected.
Also published on Medium.