agile competitors. The mega brand is obscured by iPods, and the slogan “It’s a Sony” now seems like misplaced arrogance, when just two years ago it was a logical and important statement. It’s a Michael Jackson brand in a Justin Timberlake world. How has Sony lost it’s way so quickly?
Sony’s Walkman, first sold in 1979, propelled the brand into the limelight and solidified the public’s perception of the Japanese company as purveyor of state-of-the-art electronics. It made the first music you could carry around in your pocket with the Walkman; it let viewers shift time and watch television programs any time with the Betamax home VCR. But back then, Sony was a very different company. In 1979, it made televisions and turntables (remember those?), and of course, Walkmans. In 2005 Sony still makes televisions and Walkmans, but it also owns a music label, a motion picture company, a mobile phone joint venture, a financial services company and an online music store.
With so many products and interests in many media markets, Sony has eroded the strength of its brand and mired itself, while its competitors innovate. It has become a passive brand, resting on the laurels of past innovation. This is visible in Sony Style stores. Unlike Apple stores, where one can work on Macs, hear seminars and discover how to use the products, the focus of Sony Style stores is just that—style. TVs to watch, stereos to listen to, but not much to actually do.
Apple, on the other hand, seems to have an innate ability to engage people. It is an active brand. Its marketing for Macintosh focuses on movies you can edit and music you can create. Advertising for iPod shows people dancing. This active marketing plants the seed of engagement in the minds of consumers, the same way that blonde teenagers frolicking on beaches did in the Coca-Cola ads of the seventies. Apple shows us how we can be cool, fairly obvious stuff for marketing fashion, relatively new for “nerd boxes.” (Ever heard of someone buying an IBM to look cool?)
Another reason why Apple is cool and Sony is not is that Apple’s corporate structure allows it to be a rebel. Take music downloads as an example. A few years ago all music downloads were basically illegal; there was no industry, just criminal activity. Sony, with its vertical integration of its media assets, including both music rights and the technology to play music, found itself with a severe conflict of interest on its hands. It made equipment that could potentially be used to download, store and play for free what was its own commercial property. It indirectly cannibalized its own market.
Sony had a real and unforeseen problem on its hands, and it responded in a way that any company under siege might. It filled up the moat, stocked up on rations and produced Atrac3, its own proprietary music file format. This seemed to solve a lot of those nagging copyright problems in one swoop, except of course that it was the only company making Atrac3 equipment—equipment that didn’t play MP3s, the near-universal format.
Meanwhile, Apple, a company with no vested interest in music copyrights, looked at the problem from a totally different angle and found a viable, commercial solution in iTunes. Consumers could have their MP3s because iPod was compatible.
Sony also lost ground on the design front. Its industrial design is stylish and, at times unusually beautiful, but it’s just too sensible. It’s a Corbusier designed art gallery adorned with Mondrians and Rothkos. Stylish, classy and so very sophisticated, but lacking character. The problem is not product quality; no one disputes the fact that Sony makes high quality products. Unfortunately this quality isn’t what wins the hearts and minds of consumers.
Apple’s design evolution can be traced easily because each step is a major new idea. Macworld expos, traditionally the time for new product launches, generally brings breathless anticipation by loyal followers. Each point in Apple’s design trail is a revolution while Sony’s design is an evolution. It’s a lot slower and far less exciting. The new Sony Network Walkman looks stylish, but it also looks like past Sony design from a decade ago.
The lesson here could be that when it comes to consumer brands, being big doesn’t mean much at all. No matter what the size, it still comes down to the all important two way relationship with consumers. Make cool stuff, and consumers will hand over the money; stop innovating, and they have no reason to see you or return your phone calls anymore.
Sony is no longer taking chances. It needs to find a way to make us say “Wow! It’s a Sony” once again.