Fender: Reinventing Guitar for the Digital Age

By Aarthi Rayapura September 12, 2017

By Dan Mullen

The world’s largest guitar maker joins the Subscription Economy.

Since its founding more than 70 years ago, Fender has become the world’s largest and perhaps most iconic guitar maker. Its instruments have inspired generations of artists and shaped entire music genres; its brand appeals to pros and hobbyists alike.

But sales of electric guitars, industry-wide, have fallen by about a third in the last decade, and Fender’s own revenues are down since 2011. Almost half of Fender’s sales are to brand-new guitarists – but 90 percent of them quit the instrument within a year.

That’s largely because guitar is “a hard instrument to learn,” explains Ethan Kaplan, Chief Product Officer – Digital for Fender. But if it can keep people playing, Fender knows that most will remain customers for life.

Cutting abandonment rate became a key priority. Solving that meant thinking beyond guitars.

Fender Play, the company’s new subscription-based online video teaching service, is the core of Fender’s strategy for keeping beginners engaged.

Launched in July 2017, Play equips guitarists to perform their first riff or song in a half-hour or less. After a free 30-day trial, Play costs subscribers $19.99 per month.

Everything about Play – from its focus on songs, to its pedagogical approach, to its high production value – was designed with Fender’s customers in mind.

“We did a segmentation study to really understand our audience, and we used that as the nexus point to develop the digital strategy,” Kaplan explains. The success of Lynda.com, the subscription-based training website, also helped convince Fender there was a market for Play’s premium content.

Fender Tune, a free mobile app for guitar tuning, was Fender Digital’s first product offering, in August 2016. Tune helped clear the way for Play – and helped Fender get up to speed on harnessing vast amounts of consumer data.
“I can see minutes spent [on Tune], how many people are tuning, what they’re tuning, if they’re successful,” Kaplan says. Before launching Play, Kaplan’s team spent a year building its data analytics and dashboards for real-time insight across Fender’s digital products.

Play users begin by selecting acoustic or electric guitar and their preferred music genre; Play then creates a personalized learning path through levels of increasing difficulty. This fall, Fender will begin adding more instruments, genres, levels, and instructors; Play’s song base, which numbers well into the hundreds, expands continually.

To Fender, Play isn’t just a product offering – it’s an ever-evolving platform for learning, Kaplan says. It’s also the hub of Fender’s digital ecosystem, which, besides Tune, includes Riffstation, a learning tool for more advanced players; Fender.com; and the world’s first Bluetooth and WiFi-equipped guitar amplifiers.

“Having a continual dialogue with our customers through learning is really key,” Kaplan says. “I don’t want to just sell people guitars and then hope they play it.”

Fender knows it makes great guitars. But that isn’t enough. Play is the centerpiece of a digital strategy that, in less than two years, has helped the company influence how – and how often – people use its products. It’s also opened up entirely new ways for Fender to develop and own its customer relationships.

Fender CEO Andy Mooney, who closed Zuora’s 2017 Subscribed conference, is bullish on Play. Simply reducing abandonment rate by 10 percent, Mooney points out, could double the size of the industry.

Fender’s digital offerings are a far cry from the guitars that founder Leo Fender started building in 1946. But Kaplan says that throughout its storied history, Fender has always innovated and pushed itself forward.

“Leo Fender was always trying to reinvent the electric [guitar], and that’s how we got some of our most beloved products,” Kaplan says. Leo might have rested after the success of his first guitar, the Telecaster. “But he continued,” Kaplan says. “And we continue, and we keep that legacy.”

Now that legacy includes Fender’s evolution from products to services, and its bold entry into the Subscription Economy.

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