When it comes to ‘marketing and brands” I have a split personality. As a logophile (fascinated by the meaning of words) I must explain that the definition of personality is “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving”.
One side of my marketing personality i.e. pattern of thinking, the dominant side in recent years, has been to think a lot about the fundamentals of brand adoption and brand commitment since this has been at the heart of my work on Deliberate Marketing, or ‘D-Marketing’ for short. My contention is that a great deal of physical waste and most of the wasted marketing spend, still roughly half of all spend, is due to there being no explicit agreement on what makes people buy things and keep buying them. There are lots of theories and models but very few businesses consciously identify through rigorous discussion which they agree on. If you don’t really understand why people buy/keep buying then how can you efficiently invest in marketing? There may never be a perfect and complete understanding but if you are not curious you never progress. So my message has been ‘Be deliberate, have a hypothesis, continually learn and improve”. This will save money and save the planet. If you want the full version or the fun version of this argument see the links in the last post.
The other side of my personality ito my pattern of thinking, pops up every now and again triggered by a personal experience of either falling in or out of love with a brand. From time to time it feels to me that I’m witnessing in myself something similar to the Hadron Colllider, a collision of brand protons that creates a reaction, either positive or negative. I blogged about one years ago (you can find it in ‘Big Fat Marketing Tweets’, the one about falling in love with BF Goodrich off-road tires having known nothing about tires or off-roading). This week I had another real time change of heart about a brand, in this case falling back in love with it, and again it was down to a particular collision of events and stimulus.
I have been loyal to Bose headphones for more than 30 years. It was through Bose that I discovered ‘noise-cancelling’ and at a time when I was starting to do a lot of long-haul travel it transformed my life. I could block out the world and relax. I think I am now on my fourth set of headphones having upgraded a few times as new features came along. My one criticism is that the lovely soft ear pads degrade over time especially if, like me, you have a sweaty head. The first time I took them back to the store in Regents Street to see if they could be refurbished I was told about their trade-in scheme. For not that much money I could swop my old headphones for a brand new pair with the latest features – brilliant and ahead of its time in terms of recycling (the old headphones were refurbished and resold apparently). I did this twice ending up with my current pair which offer brilliant sound, very decent battery life and are wireless. I’ve had them a few years but last week as I came off a flight my ears were covered in a kind of black dandruff, the ear pads had finally started to disintegrate. So I decided to go the Bose shop – in Cape Town – and see if I could get them repaired but knowing I might get tempted to trade up.
A lot has happened in headphones since I bought my first pair of Bose. Back then they were super expensive compared to anything else available but if you could afford them, and I could, they were the best. There were really only two ways they got used, either listening to music at home if you wanted the purest sound without disturbing anyone else or being disturbed by anyone else, or else for in-flight entertainment (my first pair had all the attachments, I’ve kept them, that allow you to plug into the socket on any aircraft when watching a movie or listening to your own stuff on your i-pod/phone).
Now headphones are much more integrated into everyday life both work and play. People want to be connected to their music, pod casts, games, TV and social media anywhere anytime. Whether in the office or WFH headphones are an essential tool. There are now lots to choose from, from in-ear like air pods to over-ear like my own ‘Quiet Comfort’ Bose pair (I can only use the bigger over-ear headphones, hate things in my ear) and noise cancelling is common place across all the brands.
Since I bought my last pair of Bose, probably 6 or 7 years ago now, two other things have changed for me and I think most people. Firstly I never buy anything important without checking the reviews on-line and secondly I feel more guilty if I make unnecessary purchases and don’t try to recycle (I said more guilty, not paralyzingly guilty, I still like buying things). Thinking I would get offered the chance to spend a bit more money and upgrade I thought I better check the reviews of the latest Bose headphones. Were they worth it, were there better alternatives? If there were then I’d treat myself knowing that I could recycle my old headphones.
The quickest of searches unearthed two very relevant pieces of information. Firstly, Sony had some new headphones that were getting better reviews than the latest Bose set. Sony were ‘more expensive but worth it if you can afford it’ was the general consensus, you have my interest. Was now the time to switch brands and end a 30 year-long love affair? Secondly Apple had bought Bose and were planning to merge them with Beats. Beats were the headphones American rapper Dr. Dre backed, he made a fortune when they were acquired by Apple for $3 billion in 2014. With the exception of some Eminem, I loathe rap music, in my view the ‘c’ is obviously silent. Headphones by rappers for rap are not for me. They could be the best, most durable and cheapest headphones in the world and I would not put them on my head let alone buy them. Sony make better headphones and Bose have sold out to Beats of all brands. Was it even worth going down to the Bose shop?
How differently this story might have ended had I chosen to stop there and buy on-line but I have recently had a few really bad experiences buying on-line and it was easy enough to go to the Bose shop and see if they could replace the ear pads and better still, check out the latest Bose headphones for myself. I like shops, especially specialist shops. I like talking to the kind of experts you get at a dedicated brand flagship store. Thank goodness I did and thank goodness Paul, the manager who had persuaded me it was worth trading up to my last pair of Bose, was still there. What did I learn from Paul?
- The story of Apple buying Bose is b*******s, a false internet trope to put it more politely. MIT (the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have a significant stake in the business which they use to fund leading edge research into acoustics technology and the business is proudly private and independent.
- Bose were, and thanks to their MIT connection still are, the pioneers in noise-cancelling and many other areas of acoustics.
- The latest headphones are better only in the sense that they have been optimized for both work and play. Bose offered the equivalent to the latest Sony product with, for example, more than one setting for noise cancelling and slightly longer recharge intervals. For how I use headphones my set were still as good as any.
- Bose have tried hard to find better material for the ear pads but can’t. More durable means less comfortable so they have accepted that they need to be replaced every few years and offer a replacement set at a reasonable price. Swopping them over takes just a few minutes and could be done while I waited.
- They no longer offer the upgrade policy, but I guess they don’t need to if the headphones can be refurbished while you wait and your last pair are still excellent.
I have checked all this out. The Apple rumours are indeed fake news that started with an April Fool Tweet from an Apple employee. The founder of Bose, Dr. Amar Bose, donated some of his shares to MIT of which he is an alumnus. And having listened to the new, top-of-the-range Bose headphones I could tell no difference to the set I have which they still sell alongside the newer more expensive model. I’m fairly sure it would be the same with the Sony equivalent. So, I paid a fraction of the price of a new set of headphones and walked out with my old headphones looking, feeling and sounding as good as ever. I felt really good about this, I’d saved myself a lot of money and done the responsible thing. I also felt a lot warmer and better informed about the Bose brand. I’d fallen in love all over again on the basis of new information:-
- Bose were driven by the passion and expertise of a founder, Dr. Amar Bose.
- They work and innovate with the best people, MIT.
- They strive to be the best not the biggest or most profitable.
- They are proud of their products and only too happy to restore them rather than just try to sell you a new pair.
What’s not to love? And by the way check out their sunglasses with inbuilt speakers, brilliant sound, audible only to the wearer and yet you can remain aware of what is going on around you. Bought a pair of those too.
What learnings do I take from this? What has been re-affirmed in my mind?
1. The combination of Macro/micro marketing insight is imporant. Learn from looking at a market, examining the data driven models, the top-down analysis but also learn from personal experience.
2. Love/delight/positive emotion are the key driver for some brands. I did not want to buy Sony, I love Bose, I was looking for positive affirmation of my brand choice, a reason to stay with them.
3. Because, alongside the emotional connection, it is what you do that counts, not what you say or project. The products are brilliant, the service first class, the repair/refurbish/re-use ahead of its time.
Making people aware of waste is the goal, that will change behaviour. I am informed about, and now sensitized to, the issue of excessive waste and unnecessary purchases. A few years back I would have looked for every excuse to buy some new headphones I did not really need and not thought twice about it. Now I am responsive to doing the responsible thing, if it’s made this easy.
On-line shopping is potentially very bad for society. There are some occasions and some purchases when on-line ordering makes sense, for example if you know precisely what you want or cannot get to a store. But on-line research and peer group reviews cannot be totally relied on, the ability to just click and buy, thereby missing out proper consideration and first hand research, is what creates the very wasteful ‘reverse supply chain’ where one in three products get returned and often scrapped.
Much as I love Bose there are some lessons for them. Firstly their range architecture is not great in terms of how they position each product. It’s fine if you are talking to a knowledgeable Bose person like Paul but just looking at the names and features does not help you navigate their range as well as they could.
The Apple buying Bose rumour was very high and prominent on the list of search results – they need to fix that.
Bose is one of the few brands that I allow to have and use my email address – so use it, communicate some of the useful information I only found out once in-store. For example, scotch the Apple rumour, let me know about the replacement ear pad kit.
Finally, I’m not sure Bose have nailed their over-arching positioning. I think it’s something around “The art and science of getting much more from less” but what do I know?