Listen to This

Before I tell you what every marketer and product developer should learn from a successful stereo speaker manufacturer, you need to know why you should listen to me in the first place.

I’ve been part of the audio industry for 21 of my 34 years. I built my first pair of speakers when I was 13 and, as a young entrepreneur, made my first speaker sale to a customer when I was 14.

I studied electrical engineering and acoustics in college, then designed speakers at Jensen, where I was involved in projects for the Honda Civic, Ford Probe, Acura Vigor, Jeep Cherokee, Chrysler Cirrus/Stratus, and even a skunkworks subwoofer project for Advent.

Several years ago, I moved from engineering to marketing. These days, I no longer design cutting-edge products. As a marketing consultant to tech firms, I help people publicize and sell them. And, having walked along both sides of the fence, I can assure you there are a few lessons to be learned from a marketing-savvy, technology-driven company like Bose.

Some people in the speaker business don’t like Bose. Bring up the subject in a bar full of audio engineers and you’ll get an earful of epithets and insults. Kind of like mentioning Keanu Reeves in a room full of aspiring actors.

There are two reasons for that. First, the company is wildly successful. Bose is often the first brand consumers think of when someone says “speakers,” and this irritates designers at competing companies. Second, its designs violate all kinds of industry conventions, and Bose speakers do not always perform well according to the traditional criteria many speaker engineers consider important.

Simply put, Bose does not build the speaker that a typical acoustical engineer wants. They build the speaker that a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker wants to buy. Their products are packaged brilliantly — not from an engineer’s point of view but from a customer’s point of view. That’s why they’re one of the biggest companies in the business.

Consider the Bose Wave Radio. When people hear about its acoustic wave guide and integrated signal processing, it never occurs to them that this thing is a glorified boombox.

The acoustic wave guide is valuable not because it suspends the laws of physics for never-before-achieved bass response or some such thing, but because it creates a story for the Bose advertising department to tell.

The wave guide is not better, it’s just different. And different is the key. Bose commands a lot more money for this product — more than almost everyone else out there. That really upsets engineers who know this stuff is not magic.

So here is the lesson: Most products have some kind of subtle innovation or twist inside, something that might not initially seem to matter but can, nonetheless, create an interesting story.

What untold story lurks beneath your product?

Other tactics from the Bose playbook:

They package their products to make it hard to comparison shop. Consider the Wave Radio again — not quite a boombox, not quite a clock radio… and far more profitable than either.

They use celebrity endorsements. (Paul Harvey extols the virtues of the Wave Radio on his popular radio program.)

They create a story for every product they sell. Simplified illustrations of their speakers show sound wave diagrams that make you feel smart.

Their ads are keyed with special codes so they know which ones are producing results.

They recycle old ideas. Their Acoustimass products, which can be credited with popularizing subwoofers in the 80s, are patterned after some obscure designs that were popular in the UK in the 60s. “If you need a new idea, read an old book.”

I’m part of a newsgroup that discusses audio topics. I recently got a message from a guy named Alan who said, “I went out with this girl on a blind date. When I told her I built speakers, she asked me if I could make some just like those neat Bose speakers she saw in the store.”

His response? “Aaaarrrrgghhh!”

So I told him this…

I’ve been in the speaker world for 21 years, three of them as a professional driver designer. Throughout my engineering career, I harbored a healthy disdain for Bose. During my Jensen days, when people would find out that I designed speakers, they would ask, “What do you think of those new Bose [AM5] speakers?” Translated, this means: “As a professional speaker designer, can you comment on their wonderful breakthrough technology and the thunderous bass that comes from those tiny little cubes?”

At the time, I viewed the AM5s as something designed to help buyers part with seven hundred bucks. A fantastic plan on Bose’s part, considering what I estimated it cost to manufacture them. I often told people what I thought, too. A couple of times, though, I had to remove my foot from my mouth when I learned that the person I was speaking to owned a pair.

For the last seven years, I’ve been away from the engineering side and in the profession of sales and marketing. During my first two years in sales, I had the exquisite privilege of living on bologna sandwiches and ramen soup. Things started to turn around for me when I got through my thick head something Bose clearly understands and has understood for many years:

Don’t sell people what you think they should want.

Sell them what they want.

Do most people want flat frequency response?


Do most people want low Total Harmonic Distortion?


Do most people want phase coherence, imaging that’s precise to the twelfth decimal place, or superior impulse response?


What do people want? Small, unobtrusive design. Exciting sound. Glamorous, impressive technology that will make their friends salivate and their wives amorous. (Note: Huge, room-dominating Klipschorns or Cerwin Vegas don’t have that effect on most women.)

Bose gives the people exactly what they want. Everybody else gives them a woofer, a tweeter, and a simulated woodgrain box. Have a close listen to all those non-Bose $600 speakers on the showroom floor. They all sound similar because most speaker manufacturers know how to get a reasonably flat frequency response.

Audio journalist Tom Nousaine once told me about visiting Bose in Framingham, Massachusetts, meeting Amar Bose and listening to an amazing concert hall architectural simulation software/hardware system they had developed. Very impressive, state-of-the-art technology, according to Tom.

Clearly, the people at Bose have the technology. No one can say they don’t. But they use their technology to their advantage, and they make a lot of money doing it.

So does that make the people at Bose bad people?

No. Just fantastically wealthy people, with happy customers, who get more respect than most speaker guys out there.

And there’s a lot to be said for that.

[Ed. Note: Ready for more Perry Marshall? Would you like to not only meet him in person but also have the opportunity to have him personally help you grow your online business? You’ll have that chance at Early to Rise’s upcoming Info-Marketing Bootcamp, where Perry will be a featured speaker. And he’ll be joined by a dozen of the top Internet business builders working today.

And check out Perry’s free e-mail course, “9 Great Lies of Sales and Marketing,” in which he takes on some of the most beloved “sacred cows” in sales and marketing.]