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Part III – How to save Gibson in 10 Steps... Messaging works when you know who you are

When an organization doesn’t understand what customers are looking for, the results can be hilarious. Case in point is Gibson’s Jimi Hendrix Guitar package:

Jimmy Hendrix

For non-guitarists, this offering is rather funny because Jimi Hendrix’s primary guitar, the guitar in the photo, is a Stratocaster- a FENDER Stratocaster.

Gibson offering a Stratocaster is a bit like Toyota building a race car with Richard Petty’s “Old No. 43” paint job. It’s hard to imagine that even a novice could be fooled by such a contrived offering and the good news is that Gibson wisely made this one disappear… after they had informed the media.

When you talk to the people who have abandoned Gibson and moved on to other brands, you hear a lot about unwanted robo tuners, low quality, high costs and a dysfunctional dealer networks. These problems are real, however, most are symptoms of a deeper problem.

For decades, Gibson has randomly created offerings (like the Hendrix Strat) and thrown these products, unpositioned and unexplained, into the market. Simple questions like “Why do people want this product?” and “Who are those people?” appear to be afterthoughts. So It’s no surprise that these products aren’t popular and they reinforce the case for customer-centric, industry standard, development processes that we talked about in Part II.

When you think about it, this lack of process impedes Gibson’s ability to compete and hurts Gibson’s ‘good’ products as well. When the "I left Gibson for other brands" segments leave, it’s understandable if they throw the baby out with the bathwater. They cathartically chat through their frustrations, they explain their attraction to alternative brands and ultimately increase visibility for Gibson’s competition.

And Gibson’s high quality, reasonably priced instruments get stuck in the "noise floor".

Ironically, musicians who have great Gibsons and haven't experienced problems tend to make the debate even more confusing. Defending their true love, they often position Gibson as the prefect American brand, claiming that nothing could be better and insisting that change is unnecessary.

Unfortunately, they lose credibility when they ignore the days when the emperor goes naked. When the customers who encountered challenges are told that the challenge aren’t real, the disconnect is compete and it’s understandable why the two camps are so far apart.

Of course, Gibson’s best opportunities fall somewhere in the middle of these two positions and that's what this series is about- Gibson still has a lot to offer... but they also have a lot of work to do if they want to be around another 100 years.

If Gibson is capable of change, Chapter 11 provides the perfect opportunity to build a new narrative that helps the “I hate Gibson” and “I love Gibson” camps recognize that simple business management processes can only make Gibson better.

Up to this point, we’ve talked about:

1. Restructuring Debt- Selling ancillary brands (Onkyo, KRK, etc) to grow the core guitar business – Part l

2. Competitive Review- Researching Yamaha, Fender and the boutiques who clearly understand quality/value/pricepoints- Part l

3. Balancing the Portfolio- Figuring out the right mix of markets and products where Gibson can profitably compete- Part l

4. Customer Roadmaps- Researching needs for specific customers and building products, messages and channels to support those offerings- Part II

In this installment, we assume that Gibson is ready to refocus and build messages that sustain and grow the business.

Fifth Priority- Rebranding With a High Value Umbrella Story

Gibson has many different stories- Depending on who you ask, Gibson is an historic:

  • Manufacturer of handmade acoustics

  • Electric guitar innovator

  • Mass production guitar manufacturer

  • Designer of the first humbucking pickups

However, their recent story has essentially been "Cheap to incredibly expensive- we do it all" and "Don’t forget the history part."

While Gibson is disinvesting, they need to take the time to rethink who they want to be and rebuild the brand.

Clearly, Gibson’s historical breadth and depth is part of the story, however, they need to reestablish a strong value proposition that projects quality using the language and channels appropriate for their key segments.

An additional challenge is repositioning Gibson’s signature brands, Gibson and Epiphone.

As iconic as they are, Epiphone and Gibson lines crossover at multiple price points, products are incredibly hard to compare and cannibalization is likely, making a buyer’s long-term purchasing path murky at best.

Perhaps the most important question that Gibson should ask themselves is “how can our customers research ‘good, better, best’ across all lines”?

Fender makes the product pyramid easy, offering a wide variety of low cost, entry level guitars under the Squire brand. Moving up the chain, Fender’s ‘Made in Mexico’, ‘Made in Japan’ and ‘Made in US’ lines provide similar models with increasing price and quality points and the Fender Custom Shop sits on top.

There is some overlap across Fender’s lines; in the age of computer controlled manufacturing, many players have found MIMs that they believe are just as good as MIUS. However, “Will I receive additional value if I move up a tier?” is rarely a challenge with most Gibson competitors.

A similar decision across Gibson lines is difficult. Some confusion is due to the incredibly wide range of dissimilar guitars that share the ‘Les Paul’ and ‘SG’ name. As mentioned in Part l, it’s probably a good time to use the 80/20 rule to cull or reposition underperforming products that muddy the view of the good stuff.

Another challenge is Epiphone’s strength as a standalone brand.

Unlike Fender’s Squire brand, Epiphone isn’t confined to the bottom of the heap. Although they do produce entry level, mass produced guitars, many users prefer Epiphone’s high end instruments to Gibson’s; discovering better quality, value and price points.

At the same time, Epiphone has a wide range of popular, classic designs. It can be argued that Epi has done a better job understanding innovation from the customer’s perspective- focusing on logical new designs (Rumblekat) or strong derivations (Blueshawk), Epiphone has avoided Gibson’s expensive experiments, including Robo tuners and the Firebird X.

Great Epiphones

Great Epiphones: Cassino, Blueshawk, Rumblekat (clockwise from top left)

Epiphone classics include many hollow bodies:

  • Casino (a Beatles’ favorite)

  • Sheraton

  • Emperor

  • Broadway

  • Coronet (one of the few classic Epi solid bodies that remain popular)

New, innovative designs:

  • Wildcat- A small, hollow body designed around classic P90 pickups with a strong retro vibe in a modern package.

  • 1966” Century electric

  • Tom Delonge Signature ES-333

  • Allen Woody, Rumblekat bass- short scale Allman brothers tones.

And hard to get, innovative guitars originally designed by Gibson:

  • B.B. King Lucille- No F-holes reduces feedback

  • Blueshawk- Single coil tone with noise reduction

  • Nighthawk- Fender scale length, achieving a nice mix of Fenderish and Gibson qualities.

Considering Epiphone and Gibson strengths, imagine a future business model where all products, except boutique products, fall under the Epiphone brand.

This would reduce crossover model confusion and allow Epiphone to optimize value on the bottom and potentially increase margins on their high end models.

And perhaps most important, the Gibson Custom Shop would be doing what it does best; focusing on high quality, high margin instruments. Gibson’s highly talented workforce would be razor focused, creating the best of the best, while Epiphone becomes optimized to compete with tight margin competitors.

Back to brand, Gibson’s messaging opportunity is easy to describe. As soon as they figure out who they want to be, Gibson needs to build a realistic overarching narrative that ties everything together:

  • The core story needs to encompass specific segments, rolling up needs, language and images around a common theme.

  • Persona-driven website navigation, where consumers click on images that look like themselves to drill-down into stories that emphasize details for their segment, is a great way to directly engage totally different user types.

  • Persona-driven navigation also allows a single product to be positioned entirely differently to meet the needs of dissimilar segments. Moving down the Classic Rock path, a narrow neck SG could be described as ‘fast and furious’. Within the Entry Level Female path, the same SG might be described as lightweight with a small neck.

  • The core story needs to emphasize value and quality across multiple lines, clearly differentiating against competitive strengths- (Yamaha-like strengths at the bottom, Ibanez-like strengths in the middle, with PRS and Taylor defining the upper middle and the Suhrs and Lowdens at the top).

  • And the core story needs to clearly position Epiphone and Gibson brands in tandem; clearly defining lines and building underlying narratives that reduce crossover confusion.

(Want a taste of a great classic Gibson? Check out a beautiful 76 Les Paul Deluxe at

So what do you think? What’s your perspective on Gibson and the guitars market? Looking forward to your input because we learn from you!

Considering the amount of information in this installment, we split it into two parts- If you’re ready for more (and want to see the funky guitars displayed at the top of the article) dig into Part IV- Marketing is a lot more than advertising

Michael Stierhoff is the Chief Customer Officer at Lighthouse Marketing and Business Solutions; helping Lighthouse customers grow their business by better understanding their customer’s needs.

Perhaps more important for this article, Michael is the Chief Cook and Bottle Washer for the where we help guitarists “Find Their Perfect Sound’.

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