How the veteran electric guitar company took a deeper look at its customers and made some shrewd, innovative, data-driven decisions which transformed the company and upturned conventional thinking about what it means to be in the guitar business in the 21st century.
50 years ago, everyone wanted to be a guitarist. The boomer generation came of age as rock giants like Jimi Hendrix, Jimi Page, Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana straddled the globe. This continued well into the 80’s and 90’s as their successors, guitar heroes like Eddie Van Halen, Slash, Kirk Hammett and Kurt Cobain, inspired by their predecessors and the punk revolution continued to annoy their parents by cranking up to 11 and blasting out four chord rock ‘n roll.
The death of the electric guitar
However, over the last fifteen years, electric guitar sales have plummeted leaving most high street guitar retailers in dire straits. Gibson, the iconic manufacturer, filed for bankruptcy in 2018 after a disastrous move into consumer electronics and betting the farm on a radical self-tuning system that bombed with consumers.
The press and pundits had a field day. A Google search of ‘The Death of the Electric Guitar’ yields scores of articles in the mainstream press and industry journals. Metallica’s Kirk Hammett going as far to say that the game was over “Like all instruments, there’s a time when it goes out of fashion.”1
Under the leadership of Andy Mooney (CEO), Fender set out to buck that trend. With an open mind and no assumptions, Fender did a deep dive into its market data and discovered some interesting and surprising patterns.
- 45% of all the guitars Fender sold each year were bought by first-time buyers.
- 90% of those first-time buyers would give up playing within a year, many in less than three months.
- The 10% that stuck with it tended to become lifelong players and end up owning several guitars.
Digging a bit deeper then yielded some thought-provoking insights that really turned Fender onto a previously underserved market.
- Over 50% of new guitar buyers are women who tended to buy online rather than in a guitar shop. (Authors note – I can confirm that Guitar shops are intimidating places for a middle-aged male, never mind for a female beginner).
- New guitar buyers will spend a whopping 4x as much on lessons as they do on the guitar itself.
Fender’s data mining also highlighted that 72% of first-time players pick up the guitar to gain a new life skill and improve their self-esteem. Over 60% just want to learn to play songs for themselves or with their friends and family as opposed to aspiring for stardom and glory, and 42% indicated that playing the guitar was an important part of their personal identity.
The Taylor Swift syndrome
Mooney recently said that this industry transformation was once considered ‘the Taylor Swift syndrome’, something of a temporary trend but which has now developed to be fundamentally long-lasting. “Today, the diversity of how a guitar is used is way beyond the advent of punk. It has never been more widely used geographically or genre-wise.” 2
This is easily evidenced by looking at the success of Warpaint, St Vincent, Haim, Chelsea Wolfe, Courtney Barnett, Wolf Alice, Speedy Ortiz and other women along with the resounding success of Fabi Reyna’s ‘She Shreds’ magazine dedicated to women guitarists.
For Reyna, her mission is about visibility and access for female musicians, especially women of colour, working with guitar companies in the mainstream. Speaking to The Cut, Reyna talks of guitar company execs becoming enlightened as “They totally see why we all need that community in the guitar industry. We are consumers. We do have power in this economy. We want more people to recognize that as female guitar players and bass players, we have that power, and we aren’t going anywhere.” 3
These data-driven insights spurred Mooney and Fender into thinking differently about how to break down the barriers to entry for aspirational female guitarists.
- Fender designed a new range of guitars, with the ergonomics geared toward young women. These can be personalised too, so anyone can design their own bespoke product.
- They also launched Fender Play, an online, app-based subscription service offering online lessons, a play-along song catalogue and other tools. New players are asked questions about their preferences and interests in taste and style. The App then curates a personalised learning path for each subscriber.
Fender appears to have got their formula right with a very contemporary approach to business, data-driven customer insight, making the best of digital and bricks and mortar channels and thinking creatively about lifestyle and service as well as product features. Sales have increased dramatically with over 50% of new guitars now sold via online channels with a 15% sell-through rate from digital marketing.