Finding opportunity in perceived threat

December 22, 2009

In my other life, away from work, I’m a semi-pro musician, playing bass in a working band. My instruments are made by one of the music industry’s icons, Ernie Ball Music Man. Company CEO Sterling Ball (son of Ernie Ball, who invented electric guitar strings) has managed to build a vibrant, distinctly American brand, selling both premium and mass-market products manufactured in the United States while remaining profitable – and while maintaining industry-leading brand equity. No small feat in today’s economic environment. How? Sterling has demonstrated unusually deep insight into his industry, his customer base and his brand identity. He is not at all afraid to question conventional wisdom. He even stays in direct contact with his end users – ordinary amateur musicians – on a near-daily basis via the company’s Web forum. How many CEOs do you know who choose to have unfiltered conversations with their customers? In a recent blog post, Sterling talks about marketing and advertising in his industry and the value of going against conventional wisdom. He cites, among other things, a great example of how he took what most of his peers considered to be a threat and turned it into a competitive advantage. Namely, the introduction of the hit video game Guitar Hero. Most of those in the music industry thought the game would hurt sales, because kids who might want to get a guitar for the holidays would ask for the easier, glitzier video game instead. The industry feared a substitution of form over substance; Guitar Hero lets kids pretend to be musicians without any skills whatsoever. They were right. Guitar Hero became a huge hit. But Ball immediately understood that this would happen and turned it into a brand-building opportunity while the rest of the industry resisted. Ernie Ball brand messaging is found within the game itself, so a whole new generation of potential customers who would never have been exposed to the brand now know exactly what it’s about. By the time they’re ready to buy their very first pack of guitar strings, Ernie Ball will be foremost in their minds. The brilliance of Sterling’s insight is that he stepped outside the corporate world and got into the minds of his future customers. He understood that kids are in fact much more interested in form than they are in substance – it’s just part of learning and growing up. I clearly remember being six or seven years old, listening to The Beatles on the radio and pretending to play guitar using my mom’s yardstick. At the time I didn’t have a clue what an electric bass actually was. If my parents had bought me a real instrument, I probably would have abandoned it -- too difficult for a little kid. Who wants to learn music? I wanted to rock! But here I am today, doing the real thing and having the time of my life. That’s what Sterling understood: Some of those kids who play Guitar Hero want to go beyond the game and experience the real thing – and when they get to that point, they’ve already got a clear impression of Ernie Ball Music Man. The result has been an increase in sales, plus an incredibly valuable increase in brand equity. All because the CEO went against conventional wisdom, got close to his customers and understood what really makes them tick.

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