1964 Again

23rd December 2008 by Tim Jarman

In the early 1960s B&O faced a problem. Their home market in Denmark, which they had previously shared only with a handful of other local brands, was coming under threat from imports from Europe and beyond as barriers to trade were gradually dismantled. B&O’s response was pragmatic: move upmarket and offer compelling products with international appeal, whilst moving away from reliance on the small Danish market and onto the worldwide scene. This was the birth of the B&O that we know today, with stylish cabinets and high performance. This was not an obvious choice at the time, nor was it guaranteed to succeed. However, the alternative was clear, and that was to slowly disappear and become just a part of history. Remember Arena? Thought not.

Today we are at a similar crossroads. The sudden and drastic slowing of the world economy has put all types of business under threat. Manufacturers of consumer products and luxury goods are amongst those that are being the hardest hit, B&O falls squarely into both those categories. Think about it – are you likely to buy an expensive TV set or audio system in the next 12 months?

So what can B&O do this time? The answer is certainly not to make smaller products, they are particularly bad at this sort of thing. A good example is the company’s mobile telephones, which are typically years out of date, remain in the range too long, are too expensive and sell in tiny numbers. This is hardly surprising, the business of designing and making mobile telephones is complicated enough to occupy most of the workforce of an organisation the size of Nokia – and even they don’t get it right all the time. Teaming up with budget brands like Samsung is also not the solution, this just de-values the B&O brand to no good effect.

But don’t panic yet. I have a plan. It is at the same time revolutionary and breathtakingly simple. Whereas the key word back in the 1960s was “quality”, the key word now should be “sustainability”. A popular B&O slogan back then was “Bang & Olufsen: For those who consider design and quality before price”. This is a tough one, it’s like saying “Bang & Olufsen: Brace yourself, it’s going to cost you”, but it worked because the message was in-step with the thinking of the time. I suggest the new slogan should be “Bang & Olufsen: Forever”.

How would this work? It’s simple: B&O must offer a range of products which they make clear will receive full support from the factory and dealers for as long as the owner wishes to keep them, something that is certainly not the case presently. This is at odds with the current “throw away” policies that dog the electronics industry as a whole and makes the ownership of home entertainment products a wasteful and polluting process. Technically this is not particularly difficult, but it requires thorough planning.

Designing new models around “industrial” rather than “consumer” parts ensures supplies for years to come; industrial equipment on the large-scale is a major investment and is expected to be maintained and to work for decades. Component manufacturers who supply this sector rarely make anything obsolete if even the tiniest demand still exists.

As long ago as the early 1980s B&O were producing models that were described as “future proof”, the range of TV sets from this period included features such as stereo loudspeakers and AV connectors which were pretty useless to most people at the time but now allow these sets to continue functioning well into the digital TV age. It seems that “future proof” was no idle boast.

Similar thinking can be applied to a new range, even if the part of development is not clear all the design team has to do is to leave some room in the cabinet and remember to make the add-on modules to fill it later. Again, this is not particularly difficult. Looking even further back, the Beolab 5000 amplifier of 1967 lacks nothing that a proper modern hi-fi amplifier has these days, which is why they are still popular and useful even now, although one can imagine that a lot of the connections on them were unused for the first few decades!

The subject of styling need not be a concern. B&O have been making timeless products for years. Quality does not date. So my plan is technically feasible, but how would you sell it? Again all that is needed is a little creativity. Most advertisements speak to the public as if they are distant, childlike morons. Devoid of facts and strong on hype, they rely on stimulating the impulse to consume rather than treating the would-be customer as an intelligent friend who may be interested in learning something. Changing to this sort of focus can be very successful. The DBB agency sold millions of Volkswagens to sceptical Americans in the 60s this way in their now classic series of press and TV advertisements, yet this technique is not widely employed by anyone today. It is easy to demonstrate how wasteful the electronics industry is today whilst at the same time offering a genuine alternative. Another campaign could be based around putting some nicely shot pictures of classic products from the past in the quality newspapers with a snappy strap line ("Is this the new Bang & Olufsen?") in such a way that the series becomes interesting in its own right.

What would the result be? There is an opportunity to be at the forefront of the new consciousness that realises that consumerism as it stands today cannot go on forever. Surprisingly, the car industry is already making some progress in this area as the buying of large, polluting vehicles slowly becomes socially unacceptable. Just as in the 1960s and 1970s when owning Bang & Olufsen showed that you were the type of person who recognised and appreciated quality, today it could show that you have a mature world outlook and a sense of grown-up responsibility.

Once again, B&O can be the “first” to do something, an event that was once quite regular but seems to have tailed off in recent times. One may argue that this policy will mean the company sells less equipment but if things get much worse they may soon be selling none at all.