The following paragraph is from an exchange between me and a manufacturer of high end audio products:
[I] Totally agree - much of high end is about marketing. My old rep used to tell me "Change the look of the [product] - time for a change." I would say, "I've incrementally improved it along the way. It's therefore not dated, the platform is update amenable. I can't do better unless it's on a significantly more expensive product." He said, "It does not have to be better, just look different. Raise the price. This will stimulate the market, dealers will need new demos, customers will feel insecure and have to change to the more expensive one."
This was part of a larger letter expressing the manufacturer's frustration with having to deal with "marketing issues" as well as building the best product he could build at the various price points that he was targeting. The market is difficult enough as it is and many who build in this market would like to concentrate on building and refinement. Creating fictitious improvements simply to get product attention is typically low on their list of priorities. Those that have it higher on their lists have product that is generally inferior, but their sales techniques are great. For a small high end audio manufacturer with a limited amount of resources, figuring out how to create a balance between these two issues is a difficult job. Most end up putting the effort in the marketing tools to the detriment of the product. A few put the money and effort into the product. For this group, sales can be a frustrating experience as they watch the more able-marketed competitors build inferior solutions that cost more but have greater sales.
This is not an isolated experience but echoes the methods of most of the manufacturers I know. Change for the sake of change works; it creates sales and that is why suppliers do it. This behavior is encouraged by just about all the media one is likely to encounter in the world of electronics. For instance, in the "Recommended Components" section of Stereophile, one of the criteria for inclusion in the list was that the product could not have been on the list for more than three years. The implication being that anything over three years old could not be competitive with a newer product. The tragedy is that this is simply not the case, and there is at least one product that I can think of that has remained essentially unchanged for over 10 years and still has not lost ground to its competitors. The covers of audio magazines are regularly hawking the new, improved, and state of the art. However, you may have noticed how few reviews actually deal with a product not just among its peers but against the past. Cutting all ties to past products paves the way for the current product to be the best since it is more or less judged in isolation without recognition of preceding product. In the case of updated products, in comparisons made to previous incarnations we learn about all the faults of the previous design and how those have been exorcised from the current version. These faults were not newly exposed faults, but faults that existed previously and are worth more now, when brought to light as historical information to buttress the new by belittling the old in comparison.
Now, not all manufacturers do this, and the exceptions are notable not only for their willingness to stay the course of their belief in their products but, perhaps more importantly, the overall quality and longevity of those products. These are the products destined to become classics and often won't be eclipsed by any others for years. There is something to be said for the means of product design and execution as it is the spirit of intention that so often drives the final result. Purchasing products of this nature takes a certain type of mindset as a customer. These buyers need to have the same confidence in their listening experiences as did the designer in his product design. They also need to have enough self-assurance (or sonic acuity) to recognize what they have in their choice of product and be willing to get past the constant pressure to change for the sake of change. Of course, the best method of achieving this status is taking the time to listen carefully. Auditions are a must and one should be wary of any manufacturer or store that takes your money for that privilege. If the store or manufacturer has confidence in its product, it should be more than happy to let the product speak for itself. But auditions are seldom offered, for it is the marketing papers that do the most effective selling, priming the already eager with useless facts and figures and all manner of exciting hype carefully crafted to convince of the product's efficacy long before one sees or hears the piece. This is good selling. But good selling is not necessarily good buying. As always, it pays to tune out the marketing malarkey and just listen. You might be surprised by what you hear.
© Cadence Magazine 2005