Sony looks to redefine itself via ultra-upscale Qualia line

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At first glance, it seems an odd strategy for a mass marketer like Sony. Its Qualia brand is comprised of only four products that sell in just two retail outlets in the U.S. Only a limited number of each product will be made and all will carry hefty price tags. But Qualia is part of the electronics giant's grand plan to conquer the upscale market.

"Qualia is an initiative to reassert Sony's leadership in design and quality technology," said Steve Fisher, director-marketing, Qualia. "This initiative is very important in rethinking the company."

As such, Sony engineers and designers are invited to conceptualize their wildest and/or fondest dream products and pitch them as a Qualia product. Sony Chairman Nobuyuki Idei, who first talked about the Qualia idea in 2001, personally approves each one. The products are numbered with the first idea approved called Qualia 001, the second 002, and so on.

The four products available now are: 004, a high-definition home-theater projector; 010, headphones; 016, a thumb-size digital camera; and 017, a brass MiniDisc player. Coming this month is the 006, a 70-inch rear-projection high-definition TV with high-end proprietary technology backing it. The 005, a 46-inch LCD TV with more high-end wizardry from Sony, comes in spring.

The target audience for Qualia is the top 5% of households earning more than $150,000 in the U.S. The lowest-priced item so far is the $3,900 mini digital camera. On the top tier pricing goes as high as $30,000 for the home-theater projector.

Buyers can expect premium customer service along with those premium prices. Each Qualia customer is assigned a personal concierge (based in Fort Myers, Fla.), to give pre-sale information, delivery help and answer post-purchase questions. Follow up includes welcome letters and updates, but also "surprise and delight gifts" such as tickets to Sony artist concerts.

"The most effective way to initiate a relationship is with direct contact," Mr. Fisher said. "We're evaluating our media plans though, especially as we go to a broader distribution." That may include taking print campaigns in magazines such as Architectural Digest and Cigar Aficionado.

`we're different'

NPD analyst Stephen Baker said, "Qualia is part of the whole idea of Sony's tagline `Like no other.' It says `We're different.''s not just some exercise in brand awareness. They can make some money with Qualia. There is a very well-defined market for high-end electronics. "

Qualia, a Latin plural roughly meaning qualities or the sum total sensory touchpoints that make up an experience, was launched in Japan in June 2003 and in the U.S. in April. The first Qualia retail outlet, 1,000 square feet in the basement of the Sony Style store in New York, opened in September. A second store in Las Vegas opened in October. Mr. Fisher said Qualia will increase from the two dedicated stores to between 300 and 500 specialty audio/visual and custom retailers across the U.S.

Qualia "gives Sony the opportunity to showcase the stuff they can do," said Gartner G2 analyst Van Baker. "They will leverage the products from the prospective of look what we can do on the Qualia line, and some of that technology will move down into the Sony brand."

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