Rock behemoth Gibson Guitar is facing bankruptcy, leaving scores of music fans to ponder what went wrong. Some argue its the decades-long decline of rock music’s popularity that explains the demise of this musical instrument company. But, first impressions frequently miss the mark, and this writer argues that Gibson’s demise has more to do with a forgotten story than anything else.
Originally founded in 1896 by Orville Gibson, who at the time was a famous manufacturer of mandolins, Gibson Guitar's were originally renowned for their innovative wood designs, durability and heavier sound quality. For the next forty years till about the 1940’s, the company was the leading manufacturer of both mandolins and acoustic guitars until a peculiar design change began revolutionizing the world of guitar manufacturing.
Guitars, originally built from several pieces of wood and hollow on the inside, began to be made from a single piece of wood with added electronics. These first designs (created by Les Paul, an employee of Gibson) were rudimentary and made from solid pine with electronic pickups and strings attached.
Fast forward through the next fifty years, guitars manufactured by Gibson became the gold standard of musical instruments, with connoisseurs arguing over which year produced the best model. Naming the most famous musicians who prefer Gibson is impossible - B.B. King, Jimmy Page, Joan Jett, Bruce Springsteen and Prince—the list is endless and covers a who’s who list of musical luminaries.
As we know, adaptability and flexibility are two important attributes for longevity in business. Whether advancements in technology render current methods outdated, or demand for a product decreases over time, at some point most businesses must reinvent themselves in order to remain viable. Evolving from a mandolin company to an acoustic guitar company and from an acoustic company to an electric guitar company are simply examples of being clever in business and adapting to the ever-changing customers' needs.
What went wrong? Enthusiasts argue the company lost sight of who it was, what it did well and what story it was trying to tell. A guitar manufactured by Gibson was an expensive instrument, a workhorse that would last a lifetime and be passed down generations. Even though they were expensive they were worth the price. But somewhere along the way, in an attempt to attract a larger consumer audience, Gibson started manufacturing cheaper guitars and used lower-quality products. The woods used were not cured properly which caused the instruments to warp and the electronics weren’t as high-end. The result, of course, was the guitars played poorly and deteriorated over a short time.
Ultimately, the company made a lower-priced product with a high cost to the brand’s reputation. And equally as fatal, Gibson grew out of sync with its core audience and forgot the consistent story it told for over a hundred years. It even got worse when the company began assuming its customers would want their instruments to be gadgety and began selling self-tuning guitars and guitars with a myriad of built-in sound effects. Both endeavors failed and failed miserably.
Any guitarist knows that the first thing they need to learn is how to properly tune their instrument, so a tuning device actually was a counterintuitive feature. On top of that they weren’t user friendly and required a charging cable for the instrument to be playable (think about that, a charging cable for a guitar), not to mention the devices tuned a half-step flat.
Eventually, Gibson figured this out and offered to take back the guitars sold with the self-tuning feature and “repair” them to be regular, old fashioned guitars. As for their guitars with a variety of sound effects, they were also a colossal flop. Guitarists enjoy the science and challenge of creating their own tone and style using pedals and amps, so a guitar with built-in sound effects was seen as gimmicky. The new guitars seemed to come from a company that was marketing to the idea of a guitarist, and not a company of musicians thinking about what musicians themselves wanted.
Another problem was the company cast its net too wide. Over the past two decades, Gibson tried to grow its brand by acquiring several musical instrument companies which most of them tanked within the span of a few years (Baldwin Pianos, Ludwig Drums, KRK Audio Systems, Cerwin-Vega PA, Stanton DJ Equipment, the list goes on and on). With these acquisitions, Gibson showed ambition but lacked a game plan and the reinvention of its story. For whatever reason, whether lack of funding or foresight, these companies never developed new products once they were under Gibson’s umbrella, and they couldn’t hold their own against competitors in the field.
So, here is the takeaway. A successful business isn’t it in alone, rather its story is a collaboration of its employees, customers and stakeholders. Orville Gibson manufactured quality mandolins, and the company saw an opportunity to expand the design to acoustic guitars. Les Paul repeated this with his electric guitar design. The best work of Gibson was created by people who deeply loved and understood the products they were making and the customers they were selling to.
When a company abandons its story and begins making changes for the sake of changes, problems arise. The story of Gibson reiterates the constant need for companies to stay focused on their audience and what will best serve them in the long run. Losing sight of this shows, as Gibson has shown us, that the stairway to heaven is always right around the corner.