Sonos’ wireless speakers consistently receive five-star ratings from the tech and music press (including Marketing’s sister title, What HiFi?), as well as on retailer sites.
The brand was early to target modern audiophiles with high-end speakers that can stream music wirelessly, meaning users can listen to their entire collection anywhere in the home.
The brand is well-loved among its core base, but now wants to educate a wider audience about what it does. However, with cheaper competitors (like Samsung) now muscling in, Sonos has its work cut out persuading consumers that not only do they want wireless speakers, but also that those speakers are worth paying up to £420 a time for.
Chief marketing officer Joy Howard, who is seven months into the job, says anyone who streams music at all is a prospective Sonos user.
She tells Marketing: "We’ve learned a lot over the past couple of years. We’ve had a lot of success in spreading awareness about Sonos. But we almost forgot we’re really trying to drive adoption of a disruptive tech. That was a strong insight for me in first few days I had here."
Howard has ambitions to close the big gap between the number of people paying to stream music, and Sonos’ sales.
"It’s not about [our] year-on-year growth, which is phenomenal, it’s more about whether we are capturing the full opportunity," she adds.
To put this in context, Spotify alone has more than 75m active users, and 20m paying subscribers. There’s no reason, then, in Howard’s eyes, that those 20m shouldn’t be Sonos customers, along with anyone who subscribes to other music services.
She explains: "My intuition is that the gap between awareness and consideration is larger than it should be [due to] people not understanding what the product is."
Finding the right CMO
Part of the problem is that Sonos left the CMO role open for 18 months, meaning marketing had been left to the brand’s agency, 72andSunny, and its co-founder, Greg Perlot, notwithstanding anyone else who wanted to pitch in.
There’s also the fact that, ideally, the Sonos system requires more commitment than buying just a single speaker. To maximise its potential, several are required, so that music can be played wirelessly and simultaneously in different rooms. That means persuading consumers to fork out hundreds of pounds.
Then there’s the Sonos app. While it is easy to use, it means that someone who wants to listen through the Sonos speakers, but normally uses the Spotify app, for example, has to stream their music via the Sonos app instead. Defaulting to the Spotify app is a habit that’s hard to break. When asked by Marketing whether this might change, Howard concedes that the brand is "keenly aware" consumers want to keep using their usual music apps.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking about brands in this static way when you’ve worked on such different categories before.
Then there’s Trueplay, an 'audio geek' function that lets users 'tune' their Sonos speaker to the room, as one might do with a professional hi-fi system.
Lastly there’s the fact that Sonos is uniquely dependent on its streaming partnerships. If Spotify, Google Music and TuneIn revoked third-party access to their services, that would be that.
Explaining all of this is a tough challenge for any marketer, not least Howard herself, who is new to technology.
She earned her senior marketer stripes as vice-president of marketing at outdoor clothing brand Patagonia, vice-president of global marketing at Converse and global marketing director for Coke.
Howard says: "It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking about brands in this static way when you’ve worked on such different categories before."
She has turned to the work of communications academic Everett Rogers, and his 'diffusion of innovations' theory, to help shape her strategy at Sonos. This is the premise that the adoption of new technologies or behaviours doesn’t happen all at once. Rather, there are the innovators and early adopters – familiar terms to anyone in technology – and then segments of the mainstream, who prefer to see evidence that the technology works, or improves their lives in some way.
"We need to help people, if they can’t observe [how the technology works], and explain what it is, and persuade them it’s really simple," says Howard. "We need to lower the risks of them using it, and that’s maybe not the sort of thing you think about through the classic funnel."
In short, it’s education, and that’s been the focus of Sonos’ recent campaign featuring musicians Q-Tip, Gary Clark Jr, St. Vincent and producer Rik Rubin. Both Rubin and Q-Tip are on Sonos’ board of advisers.
The campaign came about partly because of Q-Tip's frustration that many people didn’t understand the full benefits of Sonos. Howard describes the spots as a "window" both into artists’ creative processes and how Sonos itself works.
The brand will build on its artist ties for future campaigns, says Howard; a technique adopted by Apple to push its Apple Music streaming service – which is, incidentally, coming to Sonos next month.
And does Howard hope Sonos will eventually achieve the same kind of sheen as Apple?
"I had this conversation with our CEO and head of product the other day," she says. "[They] asked me: who’s done what you’re trying to do?
"Google was able to focus and harness search in a way that drove rapid adoption, based on a single experience. Then, of course, there’s Apple and smartphones. But outside those two, it’s hard to think of any that have done what we’re trying to do."
To date, Sonos has focused its brand efforts largely on its home market. Figures from Kantar US show the company spent $16.6m on media in the first half of 2014, dropping to $10.7m over the same period in 2015.
Figures from Nielsen in the UK peg media spend between January and September in 2013 at £1.13m, dipping slightly to £1.11m over the same period in 2014. Spend dipped significantly for the same period in 2015 to just £60,000, although this is likely to be because the figures don’t take into account Sonos’ latest TV campaign.
Howard says Sonos will boost its presence in the UK. The company opened a studio in London's Shoreditch in September to host intimate, tech-powered gigs. The space features modular panels to allow performing artists to 'tune' the room, not unlike with the Sonos speakers themselves.
Howard says: "There’s so much opportunity for us, and to open the doors on the company and let people see inside."
When Sonos opened their first retail store in New York’s SoHo this summer, it was a pioneering moment for the brand. Having dominated the wireless speaker market, eclipsing other competition easily and steadily along its 14 year journey, Sonos finally had a place its customers could visit as a home away from home from all their audio needs.
The open-plan flagship space promises to make your music listening experience “epic”. A promise it fulfils through seven incredibly well kitted-out rooms, all aesthetically and acoustically optimised for THE ultimate listening experience. There are no hot or cold spots for the audio, so every single inch of the space is the primed to show off Sonos’ products which are arranged differently in each room to illustrate a variety of potential home setups. The living room for example, showcases a Home Theatre setup using the brand’s Playbar, Sub and surround sound speakers. As far as “epic” music listening experiences go, this is certainly one.
Founded in 2002, Sonos started life as a tech startup full of nerdy engineers and designers who loved music. At the time, innovation within wireless, digital music streaming was a far cry from today - iTunes Music wasn’t a thing, Napster and its infinite music library was only just in the process of being shut down and many households didn’t yet have routers. It was a gamble when Sonos’ founder, John MacFarlane, predicted that all future music would be streamed then, but together with his co-founders, MacFarlane envisaged the future of digital music listening long before anyone else.
Sonos’ name came courtesy of David Placek, a branding expert who also came up with the names of the PowerBook and the BlackBerry. It’s palindromic nature and the fact that it looks the same when rotated, made early branding simple but effective.
Fast forward 14 years and we live in fixed-broadband subscription, online streaming, app-heavy times. Sonos’ evolution has paced itself perfectly with that of emerging technologies and the brand’s products are now found in homes across more than 60 countries worldwide. The Sonos Wireless HiFi System’s success is thanks to its ability to stream “all the music on earth” wirelessly in every room of your home with control from your Android smartphone, iPhone, or iPad. In addition to playing your personal digital music collection, Sonos gives you access to millions of songs and thousands of radio stations by partnering with AUPEO, Deezer, iheartradio, JUKE, Last.fm, MOG, Napster, Pandora, Rdio, Rhapsody, SiriusXM Internet Radio, Slacker Radio, Spotify, Stitcher SmartRadio™, TuneIn and Wolfgang’s Vault, to name but a few.
But more than this, Sonos does so well because it is improving the experience customers have with music in the home for years after they buy it, constantly updating its technology to better its customer’s interactions with its products. Testament to this dedication is the brand’s Controller app. It was one of the first apps available on iTunes back in 2008, offering a free controller for all of its music systems, and whilst Sonos also has a remote control product on sale, it insists on directing customers towards its Android and Apple apps to help them keep their costs down. Other speaker companies don't offer this - forcing customers to fork out for expensive add ons after buying the initial speaker unit. But Sonos’ universal accessibility means it wins big in the end and it continues to develop free apps for new products as they emerge (the Kindle Fire was one such example) so that this accessibility is never threatened.
In 2011 the brand introduced its sonic burst logo—something Sonos called ‘the amplification mark’. It was some genius brand identity work by Bruce Mau Design - the design pulses like a speaker when scrolled, appearing to emit sound waves across the screen. This new iteration marked a new chapter for Sonos as it launched its Play:3 speaker, a smaller, more compact version of its previous integrated speaker system, more suitable for smaller spaces such as bedrooms and offices.
Despite a wireless speaker market now saturated with competition, Sonos’ careful pacing again paid off. The Play:3 was the best and most affordable wireless speaker on the market at the time because it had been so long in development compared to competitors that were only just starting out. This launch, as well as the brand’s redesign repositioned Sonos from a technology brand beloved by people ‘in the know’ to a reception of broader appeal, focused on the ultimate affordable listening experience.
Back to today, and whilst their New York retail space may be the first of its kind for the brand, Sonos are no stranger to linking the customer and the product in acoustically designed environments. LA's Sonos Studio opened its doors in 2012 as a place for people to interact with Sonos products amongst rotating exhibitions from musicians including Beck, galleries, performances and more, appealing to multiple markets within one location. Off the back of the space's success, London opened a sister studio in Shoreditch last year consisting of a concert platform, listening rooms, work stations and a café, hosting a range of events focussing on music, sound, creativity and tech. Both locations help Sonos serve the community socially and collaboratively whilst showcasing their products.
The brand’s new flagship store marks is the next step in this journey now. There’s no doubt in our mind that Sonos’ ambition to pioneer and direct the future of our digital music listening needs will be successful - they're light years ahead of the competition.