A study of guitar branding

Guitar branding is  huge, unique and also filled with the potential to steal market share.

The market for buying a guitar — whether an electric or an acoustic — is incomprehensibly vast. Right now, the popularity of the guitar is undeniable. This is most likely due to the fact that it’s relatively easy to learn a few chords and play a popular song. Yet, it’s also true that when a Fender Stratocaster, for instance, is played with emotion and mastery, its sound can resonate profoundly with listeners. Take a listen to the solo of Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing,” and that emotional depth is ripe for the taking. In this article we are going to look at the science of guitar branding.

As we elaborate on the components that establish strong guitar branding – such as the manufacturer’s history, celebrity endorsement and craftsmanship – we will also expose just how few brands have touched upon the most important branding aspect: the musicians adoration for their instrument and its place in their lives.

On one end of this massive spectrum are the guitars that are intended for the novice player. These are those instruments that are bought by introductory players with a passing interest in learning how to strum. The guitars in this price set surely allow buyers to dip their toes into the musical waters. Those guitars are, most of the time, sturdy enough to handle a set of heavy gauge Elixir strings or can properly hold the depth of expression that comes from a whammy bar. While playable, they are not worthy of passing down the family tree. Such guitars include acoustics like the Yamaha acoustic line and the Gibson Epiphone, and electrics like the Fender Squier and Peavey line.

The opposite end of the spectrum consists of intricate, handmade models, rendered from the finest woods from around the world. These guitars are priceless and sound exquisite. They are statement pieces often placed on display or used nightly by the professional touring and recording musician.

In the middle rests a tier of moderately expensive guitar branding, very worthy of keeping a hold of for a lifetime. These are the popular models most commonly referred to as “great” and are usually the most desired by the masses. Acoustics, like Martin, Guild or Taylor or electrics like the previously mentioned Rickenbacker and Gibson Les Paul fall into this category.

While we plan to elaborate on the table stake components that establish guitar branding (the manufacturer’s history, celebrity endorsement, and craftsmanship) we will also expose just how few brands have touched upon the most important branding aspect: the musicians adoration for their instrument.

Certain guitar branding practices have a better connotation that others. 

This isn’t a lie. There is an elite group of guitar brands that is widely accepted to be the best of the best within the market. What causes these particular guitars to be considered the top?

One such reason is that the guitar manufacturer has a history of making instruments with great tonality and that are conditioned to withstand a lifetime of bumps, bruises and scrapes – and most importantly, playing.

The history of the guitar branding manufacturer is important.

Nobody wants a guitar if they know its truss rod is going to bend to the point of being unplayable or if its bridge comes flying off due to faulty gluing. What buyers want is a beautiful instrument that they can share with their friends as well as one they can make beautiful music with.

Therefore, the legacy of the manufacturer in creating guitars that are durable, trustworthy and elegant is important.

Martin guitar brandingConsider the importance that the Martin & Co. guitar places on its lineage. All you need do is glance at the homepage of the manufacturer’s website to see the value it places on nostalgia, and how paying homage to that helps to provide a story for the instruments it makes.

 

This apparent nod to the past isn’t observable with Martin & Co. alone. Take for instance this advertisement for the Gibson Les Paul, honoring the 1959 model:

Gibson Les Paul guitar brandingIronically, but also something quite commonplace with the music industry, the past is often viewed as better than the present. It’s why many musicians continue to record on reel-to-reel-tape (even though it’s a longer, more challenging and expensive process), or mic their instruments from a vintage tube amp rather than plugging in directly for preprogrammed sounds. It’s why musical purists wish to hear the Beatles catalog in mono, rather than stereo, and why Billy Bob Thornton posed the question, “Which artists, post-1980, will be remembered 100 years from now?” to Bill Maher. It’s also why lifelong hobbyists and professionals want their guitars to have a vintage look, sound and feel.

Older, in the music industry, is often deemed better.

Celebrity endorsements are often used too.

Typically, celebrity endorsements get a bad rap. The danger is if they are the sole reason why to buy a product, then that product is tied to that celebrity. Papa John’s, for example, better hope founder and spokesperson John Schnatter doesn’t get into any trouble. (Think Jared Fogle and Subway.)

But there positive examples, including Michael Jordan and the Air Jordans that defined Nike as being about winning.

Target Adam Levine guitar brandingIt’s why Target sells First Act, an Adam Levine-endorsed line of acoustic and electric guitars (even though Levine is not known for his guitar prowess).

Yet there is a an even deeper connection between the company producing the guitar, the celebrities endorsing them, and the consumer: that connection can be found within the heritage of the company.

Consider the following grab from the Guild guitar website:

Musicians guild guitar brandingDisplayed on Guild’s site is a timeline chronicling the advent of the Guild guitar, and when and with whom the Guild guitar was played. For example, we can see that in the 1960’s, blues legends Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters became “synonymous” for their playing of the Starfire IV and Thunderbird (both electric models produced by Guild). Later that decade, we see a picture of the late folk hero, Richie Havens, playing his acoustic Guild guitar while onstage at Woodstock.

In both of these instances, Guild guitar branding has used its heritage to seep into the heart of the musically conscious consumer. It is banking on the fact that you will want to buy a guitar that has history on its side and one that the legends of their respective genres have had by their side too.

Alvarez guitar brandingSimilarly, the middle to upper tiered guitar Alvarez highlights the celebrities it has sponsored as well as the professional musicians who have made it their guitar of choice. Take a look at the list of musical legends who have or did use it: Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney, Carlos Santana, and CS&N, to name just a few.

Gretsch, widely known for its line of beautifully constructed, hollow-bodied electric guitars, also boasts a long list of professional musicians that use its electric and acoustic guitars. The names on this list aren’t quite the level of, say, Guild or Martin but worthy of mentioning nonetheless. For example, the following is a shot of the punk rock guitarist and singer Tim Armstrong of the band, Rancid. Next to him are two of those gorgeous electric hollow bodies.

Gretsch guitar brandingGreat guitar companies also tell how they make guitars. It is an important part of guitar branding. 

This is another component of guitar branding. With the construction of any instrument, there is great artistry at hand. With guitars, craftsmen search the world over for ideal and sustainable wood that can be molded in such precise and caring way that it resonates profoundly with musicians.

The Taylor guitar is often considered to be one of the most dignified brands on the market today. The reason for this is that Taylor sells its guitar manufacturing process. Buyers know they are getting a divine instrument, where the utmost attention has gone into each and every detail. In fact, when in the market for a Taylor guitar, you can mold your guitar search according different facets of the construction process. You can find a guitar that has been sculpted a particular way, as well as one made from a specific kind of wood. Take a look at the categories provided for on Taylor’s site:

Taylor guitar brandingIt’s not surprising then that, in the “About Us” section on the Taylor guitar website, you can find a sentence that reads: “Outstanding playability, flawless craftsmanship, and stunning aesthetics are just a few of the reasons that many of today’s leading musicians make Taylor their guitar of choice.”

The Canadian guitar company, Seagull, also places importance on the construction process of its guitars. Take a look at all of the images on the right hand side of the company’s homepage. All of these pictures show craftsmen honing in on the minutest of details, all of which leads to the production of a stunning guitar that sounds just as elegant.

Seagull guitar brandingThe same attention to craftsmanship is exhibited on the Takamine guitar site. The Takamine line of guitars, which is often seen as a reliable middle-tired acoustic guitar (but one that also has a more expensive, Pro-Series line) is advertised as the guitar that is built by “artisans.” Take a look at the following image that was pulled form the Takamine website:

Takamine guitar brandingIt’s very clear that Takamine recognizes the value of guitar branding in its handiwork, isn’t it?

Most guitar branding only uses these three components in advertising. Why?

From what we’ve seen in the marketplace, the advertising for guitars isn’t very good. Most advertisements leave viewers with a lackadaisical feel as they rarely connect with the heartstrings of the potential buyer. The reason for that is most ads simply sell one or two table stake components. Worst of all, they are missing what a musician is really seeking: to fall in love with their instrument.

Take, for example, the following advertising for the Brain Setzer line of Gretsch guitars:

Brian Setzer guitar brandingSure, the story of these models is hit on within the copy of this advertisement, and we have a celebrity, Brian Setzer; but in what way does this impact the buyer? It’s more of a glamour shot for Setzer.

The following print advertisement for the Taylor guitar is certainly better than the the Gretsch ad, but we tend to think it’s still missing something as well in the art of guitar branding. Sure, we know that Taylor builds guitars, but the copy reads like it is angry at the world for not knowing that. This seems like an advertisement that imbibes Taylor with itself, rather than one that elicits what the buyer wants most: to have the Taylor represent the musician in us.

Taylor guitar brandingIn the following ad, the electric guitar company, Reverend, empowers the buyer to make the unique choice of purchasing a Reverend guitar. While we get a slight sense of the manufacturing element of the Reverend guitar, we still don’t know the type of guitarist that plays a Reverend nor what would drive them to choose a Reverend as their musical soulmate. As is, this particular Reverent guitar has a clean looking head (the top of the guitar that houses the tuning pegs and keys) with metal tuners. However, not much is left to motivate the buyer.

Reverend guitar brandingWe could bore you with ad after ad for acoustic, electric, classical and 12-string guitar, but we would continually be discouraged by the outcome. Few in the guitar market have clearly defined who the guitarists are when they use those guitars.

To steal market share, guitar branding must focus on what resonates most with buyers. 

Winning in the guitar market shouldn’t be too hard. Right now, everyone is selling a portion of what they should, but foolishly, hardly anyone is doing what’s right: selling to the emotional wants and desires of the musician. What they want is to rendezvous with a beautiful sounding six string.

Consider the following print ad for Manzer guitars:

Manzer guitar brandingThis ad works because it focuses on the experience that the guitarist is going to have with a Manzer guitar. A beautifully made guitar, when played, can make a guitarist feel like they have transcended the world around them. It speaks to a guitarist who feels his/her music can be transporting, reaching that stage of bliss that most serious musicians aspire to reach.

Manzer is certainly doing things right with its advertising. The copy for the following ad, for instance, is simple yet powerful: “Imagine a Therapist that does all the talking.” It doesn’t hurt that the Manzer guitar pictured here has an intriguing and beautiful fretboard. This is just what a guitarist is seeking.

Manzer guitar brandingThis print ad for the Martin & Co. company also hits the right stroke just as the Manzer ads do. Guitarists have a sense of allegiance to their primary guitar. Here, Martin recognizes that most guitarists want a lifetime friend in their guitar and that, as it ages, that friendship will deepen (this is why Willie Nelson continues to play his beat up and old guitar). Guitarists believe in superstition, like a basketball player wearing the same socks. They believe in the emotional connection they have with their instrument.

Martin guitar brandingThat’s why it doesn’t matter is you are a beginning guitarist or if you’re a pro, you want to feel and be a part of this collective musical story. And that story has always been the same. It’s the hope of one day becoming a rock star, playing for an audience that knows the words to all your songs, and doing so with your traveling companion: your guitar. That guitar holds a special place in the heart of the guitarist. It’s their baby. They love it. They bond with it. They create with it.

This, then, is the the ingredient that must be used upon most when companies are attempting to steal share in the guitar marketplace. Sell the place where the guitar lives in the guitarist’s life. Answer the question: What does the guitarist aspire to be? Without this key concept, we’re left with nondescript advertising that does little to move the heart strings.

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