People are idiots. How else to explain the enormous amount of money invested in sales and marketing efforts across the global economy? A lack of knowledge about a specific subject -- or, rather, the presence of an infinitesimally small understanding of anything -- makes most people easy targets for master gamesmen. The river of digital information that is the Internet has helped close the chasm of ignorance that separates those in the know from those without. This, in turn, has made the task of the salesperson more challenging, for potential buyers are but a Google search away from debunking the hokum so often spewing from peddlers’ mouths. Even in the golden age of information, however, salespeople can still convince folks to part with their time, money, and -- inadvertently -- their dignity, by knowing what to say. Offering a quality product or service certainly helps the initial pitch, but the hallmark of a true winner is the ability to, in the wise words of Jay-Z, sell water to a well.
There are certain champions of the pitch. Steve Jobs, of Apple, was a believer that people didn’t know what they wanted until you showed it to them. The iPhone was seminal when introduced in 2007, and despite the protestations of Samsung, it’s arguable that the iPhone remains the standard-bearer for telephonic industrial design. Apple’s retail stores are the envy of pretty much everyone, with a profit per square foot of retail space of an industry-leading $6050. Second-placed Tiffany & Co., with their signature robin’s-egg-blue color scheme, earns $3017 per square foot.
Consider a company like Ferrari. The Fiat-owned manufacturer makes terrific automobiles, is blessed with a rich motorsports heritage, and has earned a reputation for automotive excellence. They’ve also placed their prancing horse on pretty much anything that will make them money: clothes, shoes, watches, computers . . . headphones? Does anyone really believe that Ferrari makes the “Ferrari” of headphones? I doubt it, but people are still willing to pay for the name. Why? Because Ferrari has successfully marketed itself as being the best -- and has done so with a panache emblematic of its Italian roots. Unlike Apple, however, while the Italian carmaker designs some fast automobiles, they’re not the best or the fastest around. McLaren, Pagani, Koenigsegg -- hell, even Nissan’s sub-$100,000 GT-R is quicker than a Ferrari 458 Italia.
Which invites the question: How is it that a company can become so wildly successful and profitable, possibly regardless of whether or not it makes products that can be considered “the best”? A Ferrari is beautiful and offers high performance, but, like an Apple iDevice, it’s also something far more elusive: it’s cool. And why? Because every interaction that a consumer will have with an Apple or Ferrari product is controlled to so painstaking a degree that the buyer feels as if he or she is getting something truly special. A Ferrari rolls off a production line like most other vehicles. However, its presentation in the showroom, its marketing materials, its accoutrements, the customer’s interactions with the people who sell it -- all of this combines into something you can’t get many other places. An excellent product is usually necessary, but is hardly enough for its maker to be successful.
After attending numerous audio events, I’m left to wonder if the audio industry has gotten the proverbial memo. At the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, for instance, casually dressed representatives were common sights. Clean-shaven? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Knowledgeable? All too often, not nearly enough. If you’re asking a consumer to potentially part with thousands of dollars, is it too much to ask that you dress decently -- that you look and (dare I say it?) smell well put together? I think this is the bare minimum. Don’t ask why folks are skipping your room when you’re sporting unhealthy amounts of flannel and eau de old man.
Beyond appearance, it would help if these salespeople knew their product lines inside and out, and when certain models were to become available. Too many times, I would get the basics (“1” tweeter, four RCA inputs, 150Wpc”), but when I pressed for more -- such hard-hitting questions as “What DAC chip do you use in your D/A converter?” or “What makes your amp better than the one next door that outputs the same power and costs an order of magnitude less?” -- I would be met with ignorance and a glazed expression. To such companies I say: How the hell do you stay in business? Consumers, distributors, and writers alike attend such events to see what you’re demonstrating, and when I’m told that a $48,000/pair of speakers was co-designed by psychologists and an expert in group analytics, you can be damn sure I’ll be leveling the utmost skepticism in your general direction.
Picture the jerk who precedes you into a public bathroom and decides to use the central of three uninhabited urinals, forcing you to choose from left or right. With a little foresight, your bathroom counterpart could have thoughtfully chosen one of the side urinals, and you the other, leaving a comfortably vacant spot in between. Instead, you’re needless inches away from another urinating individual. Terrific. This seemed to be the type of individual who was so often pitching his wares to me at CES 2013. I’d like to think I’m an approachable guy who can get on easily with most people. Some advice: Be warm, friendly, and aware of who is in the room with you at any given time. I don’t expect special treatment simply because I’m a reviewer. In fact, I’d prefer not to be treated as such. After all, I’m just a 27-year-old who works a lot and listens to music in his spare time.
When I walk into a room, I just want to have a conversation about this stuff -- not a lecture.
This is not an indictment of everyone in the audio industry. Trade shows like CES are difficult. Room acoustics aren’t ideal, there’s often a lot of foot traffic into and out of a room, and being on your feet pitching products for 40 hours over four days is taxing. But if you want me, as a consumer, to buy your products, give me a good reason why. If your product doesn’t look good, its accompanying literature is printed on computer paper, and you can’t explain to me why it’s better than its competitors, then it’s unlikely that you’re going to sell many, regardless of how good it sounds. Perhaps that’s unfair, but that’s life.
So, to the manufacturers out there: Make this stuff cool. Pay attention to every possible detail. Slave over the font you use in your marketing materials, the banners you use at trade shows, and the manner in which you demonstrate your wares. Trust me, someone will notice, someone will appreciate it, and, as a result, someone will buy from you. Everyone wins -- especially the consumer.
. . . Hans Wetzel