A couple of weeks after I wrote my last column (exhorting MI to take its products back, partner with its dealers and create a brand identity for our industry that will resonate with the legions of consumers who want to play), Mike Matthews of Electro-Harmonix stepped up. It wasn’t in response to my battle cry: the article wouldn’t hit print until Summer NAMM, weeks away. No, this was all Matthews, and that makes it more encouraging. The level of frustration on the supply side is no secret; I’ve been hearing rumbles for over a year, and it had to be pretty strong to reach my ears even then.
By now, you’ve heard the details, but essentially Matthews removed Electro-Harmonix products from Amazon (something already done by a number of non-MI companies like Harley Davidson) and has told his authorized dealers that he expects them to stop selling EH products on Bezos-mart as well by the time you read this. He feels that his strong brand identity backed by committed dealers supporting and demoing his products will work just fine. I think he’s right, particularly since he’ll also avoid the hassle and profit drain of punitive fines, returns and other charges levied by Amazon that take up the time of several staff members.
Do I think this could work for the industry at large? I answer with a qualified “yes.” Despite the iconic brand identities of some of our most prominent companies, the industry as a whole has fragmented and ambivalent branding. We present a mixed bag of corporate, mom- and-pop, regional and specialty stores. Many hew to rigid, perhaps antiquated, industry categories (combo, band & orchestra, piano) that exclude larger swaths of music makers than they include. It’s also difficult to point beginners to a music store in some markets and know that their needs will be well served. We need to fix these issues to be successful — and unchallenged — on our home turf.
Let’s tackle the branding issue first. As shown by numerous polls, our industry history and anecdotal evidence, people new to music making — the immense pool of consumers from whom our future success can spring — really don’t look to our stores to begin their journey. A few years ago, our supposedly “unique” products popped up everywhere: Wal-Mart, Target, Costco and many other retailers all lined up for a piece of the MI pie. Consumers snapped them up initially (again showing the vast potential market), but reports piled up of problems with product quality and lack of customer service for things as simple as a broken guitar string. Despite those who found us as a second choice, we’ll never know how many we lost.
An immense number of guitars are sold on QVC and HSN, for example, purchased by people who have either rejected traditional MI storefronts or (more likely) think buying from a Keith Urban infomercial is all it takes to start playing. While convenience is a factor, look at what the new-to-guitar folks are really doing: buying something they don’t know how to use, convinced that they can become skillful and accomplished quickly and easily.
The good news is that it shows you how much people want to play. But it positions us, in many cases, as “instant success” charlatans or, alternatively, rigid taskmasters facing off the charlatans. Our brand identity needs to take the middle ground, offering help, support and a clear path: not to a step-up purchase, but to achievement. I’ve always said if people are excited and fulfilling their playing goals, they will buy stuff automatically. And they will thank us for it. But currently, there isn’t a strong, consistent belief that a music store is even a viable option, let alone the best option available.
The second aspect of this — the treatment newbies receive when they do discover us — is harder to fix and far more dangerous. Mount the best brand campaign through suppliers, NAMM or any channel combination, and it all falls apart every time a consumer walks away from a store disappointed. Even the most gear-oriented guitar shop or glitziest piano store should know where to send the customers who don’t yet fall on their market target, because they — or their family or friends — could become an ideal customer in the future. An industry-wide welcome mat, with every store taking the time to point the customer toward success, would help everyone at no cost beyond a smile and a couple of minutes of conversation. But it isn’t happening as often as it should, proved by calls I answer every day.
A side note, though: despite what many may think of Guitar Center, it sends us customers looking for violin strings, woodwind repairs and other products they don’t address. (This also reinforces my point that consumers don’t have a clear idea about the dramatic differences from one store to another in our industry.) Why are they sending me business? They understand that someone connected to that cu.stomer may someday want something GC offers, and they’ve just built goodwill toward that future sale. I’d like to think that they also know I’ll take care of that customer, increasing their cachet even more.
It seems pretty simple, and perhaps we’ve grown enough to take on that task. If other suppliers take up the torch Mike Matthews has lit and return industry products to the industry; if companies truly vet their dealers not just for dollar volume but for brand representation; and if we can welcome the music-curious and mentor them into long-term music consumers, I think we have the growth potential we’ve been hoping for. Mount a consistent marketing campaign industry-wide, and it might even become a staple for your business.