The story goes that Eric Clapton bought six Fender Stratocasters in the early 1970s, gave three away—to friends Pete Townsend, George Harrison, and Steve Winwood—and created his famous “Blackie” Strat with parts from the remaining 20-year-old, $100 guitars. In 2004, the iconic instrument sold for almost $1 million at auction.
Jeff Beck, in a recent GuitarWorld article, said nothing compares to the Fender classic: “My Strat is another arm, it’s part of me. It doesn’t feel like a guitar at all. It’s an implement which is my voice. With the Strat, instantly it becomes mine, so that’s why I’ve welded myself to that. Or it’s welded itself to me, one or the other.”
The other-worldly Jimi Hendrix was yet another famous Stratocaster player—but a leftie. Some say his signature sound was the result of him taking a normal right-hand set-up Strat, flipping it over, and restringing it. This “changed the string tension and microphone location and produced Hendrix’s signature mix of bright highs and delicate lows.”
But Fender is not only about classic rockers. Today, players such as Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses), Charlie Bereal (Jay-Z), Daniel Donato, Cecilia Della Peruti (Gothic Tropic), Connor Doyle (Borns), and Dhani Harrison (yes, George’s son) are taking the Fender American Professional Series to new places, creating new, modern sounds.
CMO.com recently had the pleasure of catching up with Evan Jones, CMO of Fender Musical Instruments Corp., in New York City. Read the interview below to find out how the venerable guitar maker plans to remain lively and relevant, and how important video, social, and digital have become for the brand.
CMO.com: Leading marketing at an iconic brand such as Fender Guitars is exciting. Can you share a little bit about your background and how you got here?
Jones: I spent my first 12-and-a-half years at Nike—eight years in Europe, and five years in the U.S., making my way up through the ranks. I worked on various businesses and eventually led brand marketing for Nike Basketball.
From there, I moved on to head up marketing for DC Shoes. I also worked at Activision as the head of marketing for Guitar Hero, commuting from Carlsbad, Calif.
We moved down to San Diego for the DC Shoes job, and I just fell in love with Southern California. So my goal was to keep the family there as long as possible. Obviously, ’08 was a challenging time period. I joined a startup in San Diego, and worked with an agency, as well, and then, prior to working at Fender, I was the CMO of New Era Cap Company in Buffalo, N.Y., for three years.
Then I ultimately was able to move back to the West Coast and land here, which, for me, in many ways, is the dream job. When I left Nike, I actually wrote down as one of the three jobs I wanted, “CMO of Fender,” but I figured it would be many years down the road.
CMO.com: What was marketing like when you got to Fender? It’s an analog company—or at least I would think of it as such—in a digital world now, so did you have to bring those parts together?
Jones: When I came in, I knew a big part of the task was going to be to reset and rebuild the marketing organization. Part of that journey was opening up an office in Los Angeles, where we now currently have our marketing, product, and digital teams. Now, a big part of our focus is: Let’s take what is fundamentally, in our opinion, the world’s best manufacturer of electric guitars and amps, and let’s really become a consumer-oriented brand that’s dealing in musical expression.
We’ve invested in the ability to have a complete internal digital product engine, but we are also investing heavily in social content creation. If you look at the last five years, we’ve been successful but slightly flat, and, this year, we’ve added a million people to our audience. A big part of it is tapping into the passion that drives players and elevating that.
And then the other side of it is just really thinking more holistically from a consumer-facing standpoint: What’s the journey that we’re going to be taking consumers on?
CMO.com: A lot of brands use storytelling. With content marketing being what it is now, is that something you’re looking to play up?
Jones: Yes, absolutely. I describe us as a 70-year-old startup. We’ve got all this credibility and authenticity that’s undeniable, and we want to stay loyal to that nostalgia but also expand in new ways. So the storytelling that we’re trying to drive right now is really designed to inspire the next generation of players and artists. As the leader in the space, we believe it’s up to us to actually evangelize the role of guitar, not only in music, but in culture.
And one of the best ways for us to do that is through artists. Nothing beats a great story about a great artist and their product. How do we tell stories about where the guitar’s going? How is the guitar being used in music today? What are all the diverse ways that it’s actually infiltrating music?
CMO.com: Where do you look for your new audience and customers?
Jones: We worked with Flea on his first Signature Bass with us. He’s a virtuoso player himself, but through the storytelling aspect of our content you found out that he’s a beekeeper, and he was doing crazy stuff on the top of his house. We found a way to speak to the next generation through this mini documentary. I showed that video, for example, to my 16-year-old and all his friends, and their immediate takeaway was, “That guy doesn’t care about anybody or what anyone thinks. That’s cool.”
CMO.com: So even though you have some new ideas about marketing, the player is still key to Fender.
Jones: Absolutely. For the American Professional launch, we have Duff McKagan in studio, Guns N’ Roses’ bass player. We’ve shot documentaries with Mac Miller and Ty Dolla $ign, two totally unexpected players who are using the guitar to create music now and ultimately expanding Fender into different genres. So part of it is, I think, expanding our reach and expanding our storytelling to get outside the comfort zone and really reach today’s player.
The other part of it is, on the artist-relations side, we’re investing heavily in supporting the next generation of artists who are coming up, so we work with over 1,000 artists directly. We also have a super engaged social audience, and we’re using those channels to help elevate artists. So when we come across somebody who’s up-and-coming, we want to amplify that.
CMO.com: Years ago, everybody had a band. Every kid had a guitar in high school. I should know—I was one of them. That appears to have changed. If that’s true, has it had an effect on your customer base?
Jones: This is what we’re in the middle of working through and figuring out, as a team. If you look at the brand, we don’t have an awareness issue. People know who Fender is. What the industry has overall is an abandonment issue. About 90% of the people that pick up a guitar will drop out within the first year, maybe even in the first three months. So if we can reduce the abandonment rate, obviously, we’ll have a much longer lifetime customer. If you become a guitar player, you’re going to own between six and seven Fenders in your lifetime.
There are a couple of ways we’re looking to reduce that abandonment. One is we are investing in those digital products and services designed to accompany players on their journey. If you think about the first-time player—How do you tune? How do you strum? How do you restring?—you help them get over those fundamental hurdles. Right now, the only resource you have for that is the YouTube landscape.
Our assumption is, if we can give you compelling instruction and we can put it up in a very compelling brand wrapper, that’s going to give you, as a consumer, a head start in getting over that first hurdle.
CMO.com: Other than video, is there any digital component to all this?
Jones: Sure. Look at the Mod Shop as an example. It’s basically the NIKEiD of guitars. For the consumer who’s on their mobile phone, it’s a great way for us to actually help provide an understanding of what they can do and create. We know, for example, that a long-time player has a specific set of magazines and media that they’re paying attention to, but the vast majority of players who are coming in, ages 16 to 34, aren’t looking at those same destinations for information. We’re putting a lot of time and energy into really expanding our understanding of the funnel. We’re building media strategies now that generate earned media into more lifestyle-oriented spaces. And we’re also really building up the ability to welcome that first-time player into an ecosystem where it doesn’t feel intimidating and actually feels like they can do it, too.
CMO.com: So how do you keep track of your prospects and customers and who’s buying your guitars?
Jones: We did some research about a year-and-a-half ago, when I first got here, and we really wanted to understand: Who’s buying guitars today? What’s the makeup of that audience? What we found is that 50% of all guitars in the last five years have been bought by females and that the biggest buying group is the 24- to-36-year-old audience. Maybe there’s a Taylor Swift effect. Purchase of acoustics have grown dramatically, as well.
Digital has made it way more accessible to create and share with your friends, and, as a brand.We have to be able to speak to both electric and acoustic expression and making that social connection is a big priority. But that’s a huge audience, and there’s a ton of cultural relevance and youthfulness that will come out of it.
CMO.com: Music is certainly different today than it was when Fender first started to rule the rock scene. How has that affected your brand?
Jones: I think the mistake would be to only define guitar music in historical terms. If you look at the Jazzmaster, for instance, it’s less of a ripping solo guitar and more an atmospheric soundpad guitar that’s used by some of the most interesting bands coming up today.
We have to get outside of the “We only make this” and actually get into, “What are artists creating? And how do we support them in what they’re creating?” It’s less about what worked in the past and way more about how we connect and engage with this up-and-coming player. We talk all the time about our job being to create the next generation of players. And if that looks different and sounds different than the way it did 10, 20, or 30 years ago, that’s fine. Let’s elevate that.
CMO.com: And the digital transformation is a place for that to happen, right?
Jones: We’re investing very heavily in digital, with the development of an internal product engine. We just reset our dot-com and we took it from what was more of a catalog-based experience to a consumer experience. If you now register on Fender.com, you can sign up for Fender Connect. We’re going to start feeding you content based on your personal experiences–what genre you like, what instruments you like, what artists you like. We see that evolving dramatically in the next two years so that you start to build a personal relationship of discovery, and we support you in your journey. We launched the tuning app for iOS and Android this year. We’ve had over 300,000 downloads for iOS in a very short period of time and a five-star rating in Apple.
CMO.com: How have you re-created the marketing at Fender? How is it different now than it was when you got there?
Jones: First, it all starts with the artist and the artist relationship, and we invest heavily in our relationships. But once you get past there, the creation and digital distribution of assets is our No. 1 priority. We actually have “build community” as one of our top three priorities from an overall marketing standpoint.
In the past, I think we’ve been very focused on specs and benefits and promotional activity; last year, it was much more about lifestyle-oriented, inspirational and how-to content. We took what was essentially a pretty flat-line social audience and grew it by 30%, almost all of it organically. Part of what drove it was really being smart about how to work with artists. You can tell our audience knows when an artist is advertising something versus when an artist is advocating for something. On the content side, we have built enough of an in-house creative team with enough experience and background that we’re creating our own network of producers and creators that we can collaborate with.
So, in terms of the transformation, two or three years ago, you would have seen a heavy print budget and a lot of focus on in-store collateral or promotional offers. I would say 80%, 90% of everything we do is now digital, either paid social, paid media, and also distributing content across all of our retailers’ own channels. We respect the past but have that digital mindset, where every day you have to earn trust.
CMO.com: What I think is fascinating is the quick use of things like Snapchat and Instagram for brands. It’s really come a long way.
Jones: Well, the pain point that I probably share with every other CMO out there is: What’s the funnel? What are the levers that are going to make a difference? How much of that should be paid? How much of that should be earned? And how do I make sure that my voice is delivered authentically across both?
We don’t spend a ton of money on paid right now. We’re spending a ton of money on great content, smart distribution, a lot of earned social push, and leveraging our best storytellers, which are artists. As we are building our funnel and learning more about our segments, you’re going to start to see us push more and more on the lifestyle.
CMO.com: What have you learned since you’ve been at Fender that you could share with other CMOs?
Jones: I think the definition of authenticity evolves at a rapid pace. In the case of our brand, there’s a timelessness that we have to respect. So I guess another way to say it is we know that consumers have a very high bullshit meter. For us, if we can maintain the true authentic voice in terms of who we are, we can succeed. My mindset walking into this role was, “OK, let’s go. Aggressively drive all the storytelling.” What I’ve learned is, sometimes the best thing to do, when you’re us and you have this access to these incredibly creative individuals, is to actually ask what they want to do and have the confidence and trust that that is going to be as or more compelling than anything you could make up.
In terms of the voice, we just decided that the Fender brand voice really is the sum total of the voices of all the artists who use our product. It’s been written in their hands throughout time, and I think we just have a role to play, as a company, to really amplify the artist voice. If we do that right and keep our focus on serving players, young and existing, first-time and lifetime, that’s going to lead us in a great direction. As a brand, our mission statement right now is, “Accompany every player at every stage.”