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Senior Correspondent

The Paradox of Two Guitar Companies

The Paradox of Two Guitar Companies

They are global, they are successful and they have become the quintessential icons of pop music. Since the birth of rock ‘n roll sixty years ago, the esteemed products of Fender Musical Instruments and the Gibson Guitar Corporation continue to dominate a market enthralled by rock music and rock personalities. From wannabe pickers to professionals, Gibson and Fender are as close to transcendental as a brand can be. Perennial success in the competitive consumer products business is usually attributed to superior business strategies and outstanding marketing. All one has to do is consider the role of marketing in the development of dominant brands like Nike, BMW, Coca-Cola, Apple, L’Oreal, Harley-Davidson, Rolex, FedEx, and McDonald’s. By contrast, Gibson and Fender marketing is woefully lacking.

Here’s a quick checklist of a market leader's strategic “musts” and my assessment of Fender and Gibson's performance against that criteria.

1. Relevant/consistent brand positioning: No positioning for either brand on the website or in social media.

2. Captivating slogan to communicate the positioning: I couldn’t find a slogan for either brand.

3. Strategic product portfolio: Unfocused and over-proliferated. Fender offers 312 models of which there are 56 Stratocasters and 47 Telecasters. Gibson offers 343 SKUs (stock keeping units)

4. Prudent pricing strategy: Both companies market ‘cheap’ entries. Fender Bullet sells for only $199.00 and the Gibson Les Paul Jr. is priced at $215.00. As a rule, low-priced entries generally tarnish the image of premium brands.

5. Websites and social media: Fender and Gibson websites are “sales-oriented’ with plenty of dealer information and price lists. I found no strategic messaging anywhere on the sites. Ditto their Twitter and Facebook pages. However, the irony is that Gibson has a sensational video on YouTube depicting the painstaking ways of guitar-making. Check it out here.

6. Powerful advertising, heavy media weights: These brands are virtually unadvertised

So with all that going against them, what is it that makes these brands so successful? Is it unrivaled product quality? Perhaps. But there's also a morgue of quality products that are six feet under because of awful marketing. Despite themselves, the success factor for Gibson and Fender is the usage of their products by rock stars. In other words, they benefit from indirect celebrity endorsement. Buddy Holly, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Roy Orbison and Chet Atkins are all gone but Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and B.B. King live on. As for the executives who run Fender and Gibson, I’ll give them this: These folks are the luckiest global brand marketers on the planet.

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