How much vertical integration is needed in consumer products to make them a great consumer product. Just like the Palm Pilot before it, the iPod is the quintessential 21st Century consumer hit, however it is characterized by a highly integrated experience from design all the way through to the in-store experience and the brand experience. Corporation by in large have been notoriously bad at creating experiences when they have been successful at the corporate level.
Compare and contrast products like Burberry, Hermes, BMW, Apple, Ikea, Sony and others. Although they are great consumer products, they are not corporate products and don’t seek to create a corporate experience. For example BMW has successfully created a brand around success and drive-ability. (This does not translate into the Ford Mondeo or Chevy Impala, both fleet vehicles. ) The brand experience permeates from the advertising through to the buying experience. Those who have been fortunate enough to purchase through a BMW dealer, you will understand that it is very different than buying from a Chevy Dealer. Both BMW and Lexus understand this and make it a requisite to selling a BMW vehicle. And yes they do provide free lattes and muffins and some of them do look like Starbucks stores. (The BMW dealers prefer the white and stainless steel look like Shelley BMW in Wellington and BMW Sydney in Potts Points as well as BMW Toronto, where as LandRover/Jaguar likes the Wood Paneling.)
Back to the Sony Walkman, as I stated previously, the Walkman need to have the music prepackaged and available. Because of the Phillips Compact Cassette this was possible at the time in large numbers. In fact it would be reasonable to state that without both Sony and the Music Industry benefited enormously with the Walkman and created a new level of economics with the Music Industry. It is now a fact that this level of integration, the cassette and the portable player was a necessary precondition for the market to exist. This is because although it was indeed possible to copy music onto the tape desk and a lot of us did, we also purchased prerecorded music in large numbers to quickly and easily.
In June 1989, 10 years after the launch of the first model, the total number of Walkman units manufactured had exceeded 50 million, and in 1992 this reached 100 million. In 1995, total production of Walkman units reached 150 million. Including a special 15th anniversary model, over 300 different Walkman models have been produced to date and Sony has remained the market leader. [Source Sony Corporation.]By contrast the Apple iPOD has sold in it’s first 4.25 years 67.9 Million iPods in it’s various flavors and looks to reach 100 Million iPods in about 6 Years, beating Sony by about 7 years
Sony also spent a lot of time on the brand experience. The name Walkman was both clever and multilingual. They were able to clearly create the brand around the Walkman that expressed youth and freedom. The ability to listen to your music when and where you need it became the rigor of the day and is a fact we take for granted today.
Walkman as a Verb or Generic Noun
As much as Google dislikes the term “Google” as a verb “to search”, it is not up to them but the consumer to decide what brands are verbs. They should be flattered because it is an esteemed position in the market that signifies a market position that is unequalled. Walkman along with the iPod, the Hoover and the Xerox are all brands that achieved this position. Walkman became the defacto name for a portable music player right up until Apple replaced it with the iPod. Although it is still difficult for older people to replace Walkman, for younger people the Walkman is just another music player.
However Sony was able to create the “Walkman” brand as a class of device which made it almost impossible for anyone else to compete for consumer mindshare. I challenge anyone to come up with an alternative portable CD or cassette player. I would argue that Apple has achieved this so far and we look to see if the term “Zune” makes any in roads or is just another wanabee brand.
Vertical Integration Must Include the Brand Experience
So the second element is that the brand experience is a vital part of the Vertical Integration strategy which leads us closer to the argument that a platform won’t work in the consumer space and that is because they value the experience beyond the device and maybe they buy the device to subscribe to all the values that the brand provides.
What if Microsoft called it the MSN Player instead of Zune?
Our natural reaction is that this would not work buy why?. I would hazard a guess that it is because there is already preconceived brand experience that consumers would apply to the Music Player and you do not want to move those brand values across because they are not the experience you want convey. The MSN network is what we refer to as the ghetto portal. Unlike Google and Yahoo, who have great search and great media partners, MSN is a hodge podge of content with some apps around it. If it disappeared tomorrow no one would care too much because it is a duplication of Yahoo who does it 10 time better. That is not to say that Windows Live will not improve on that experience (the fact that they have to do Windows Live shows that MSN is going to be taken out back and clubbed to death) but Windows Live is trying to brand extend into the Portal space.
Does the OS Vertical Integration Argument Extend to Music Players?
Again the ability to experience digital music in a consistent fashion from the purchase through to the listening was an important part of the iTunes/iPod success. The key failing of the Sony Digital Walkman is that it did not integrate cleanly with music downloads. The Sonic Stage Software is unwieldy and difficult to use. It requires a level of skill in moving music across to the player that was beyond most consumers and it’s restrictions on playback were frankly counter productive. This is because of the limitations that Sony placed on itself when rolling out the Digital Product, it was in fact it’s own worst enemy.
Because Microsoft has dropped the Playsforsure partners, they too have admitted that the the iTunes/iPod combination is a necessary condition to compete. They did not say that a few years ago when they were courting partners for this system, they thought that a platform approach where they would license the software and DRM to manufacturers would work.
So to paraphrase, what was the strength of the Sony Walkman, prerecorded and prepackaged music and a strong brand experience was indeed their downfall. Because Sony did not make it as simple and convenient as possible to use their product, they failed to pick up on the iPod tread and gave the market to Apple and the iTunes/iPod combination. Sony because of it’s success in the CD/Cassette Player market believed they could control the experience of the consumer and how they could use their music. They also had the limitation of owning a large record company (Sony Columbia) that lobbied hard at the corporate level to cripple the Digital Walkman and ultimately left the way open for Apple to take the lead.
Before we get to the question of whether Windows will make a difference to the Zune ecosystem, we need to understand why the Playsforsure ecosystem failed and has Microsoft learned any lessons from this.