Sony Tries to Breathe Life Into Once-Great Walkman Brand

Walkman X Is a Lot Like the iPod, but Likely a Niche Player

By Published on .

YORK, Pa. ( -- Don't look now, but the Walkman's back.

Actually, the device that virtually created the portable-music market never left; it's been around as a player for cassettes, CDs and digital music in one form or another since 1979. According to Sony, the company produced 150 million Walkman units during its heyday in 1995. But in recent years, the device has all but fallen off the map thanks to missteps by Sony and huge advances by Apple's iPod, which has a stranglehold on the digital-music market. Still, Sony will seek to leverage its brand legacy once again with the launch of the Walkman X, a product that comes closer to the iPod line than ever before.

Sony's Walkman X
Sony's Walkman X
It's not the first time Sony has tried to revive Walkman. Early in this decade, the company tried to pique interest in the brand with a $30 million campaign from Y&R themed "Walkman has landed." The effort included commercials featuring an alien character called Plato who brought the newer technology to college campuses with a spot called "Spaceship."

But it ultimately failed to shake the mighty iPod in the U.S., and it's unlikely to do so now -- a fact pretty much acknowledged by Sony. "I can see where the X series Walkman would be seen as the device that can advance the brand as far as the U.S. goes," said Mitch Li, senior product manager for Sony Electronics, who oversees the Walkman brand. However, he said that if the "niche product" does overtake the iPod, he'll be "very pleasantly surprised."

A niche player
That said, the new Walkman is arguably most like the iPod Touch. The small, black Walkman X is sleekly designed, featuring a large video touch-screen, built-in applications and, for the first time for the brand,wireless access and web browsing.

Walkman is meant to present a premium music and video-viewing experience in a niche position rather than trying to be the "jack of all trades" that the iPod is, Mr. Li said. For instance, the Walkman X includes noise-canceling technology and an OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screen, the sharpest and brightest screen technology today, intended to re-create a studio-quality listening and viewing experience. And while it does include WiFi for song downloads and YouTube and Slacker applications preloaded on the device, it does not include an applications store. The product is priced comparably to the iPod Touch, at $299 for the 16GB version and $399 for 32GB.

Mr. Li said Sony's target will be technophiles and audiophiles interested in a high-quality video and audio experience. The company has not yet finalized marketing and advertising plans, but given its target, it isn't expected to employ a broad marketing campaign. In Japan, the company is doing an understated campaign, posting video to YouTube of experimental musicians doing performances. Sony's agency is 180 LA.

The Walkman X apps are partnerships with YouTube and free online radio service Slacker, which can be cached on the Walkman X so users can listen when not near a WiFi spot. However, downloadable applications -- with which Apple's App Store has had a huge hit on its iPod Touch and iPhone -- will not be available yet. When asked about them, Mr. Li said, "Yes, that's desirable. ... I'm sure it's something that's being considered."

Sony's WM-2 from 1981.
Sony's WM-2 from 1981.
What it brings to the brand
Of course, he is also confident about what the Walkman X brings to the Walkman line. "A piece like this can only enhance the Walkman brand," he said. "It's definitely a major step forward for us."

Even so, it's doubtful that Sony can finally grab significant market share from iPod's 71% grip on the U.S. digital music player audience. Sony is third in market share with a 2.6% of units sold, behind Sandisk at 10.5% and ahead of Microsoft's Zune at 2.1%, according to NPD Group data at the end of the first quarter.

It is still possible, however, that there is opportunity for Walkman. Kevin Joy, VP at BrandProtect, said the Walkman name may have enough brand equity to attract new and former users. "The Sony brand, whether audio or video, has always had a premium image, and Walkman had always enhanced the Sony name in audio. So there's equity that could be derived from that," he said. "Also my sense is that the 35-plus [age] group would have more name recognition of Walkman as well. ... As long as they don't stray from the quality of Walkman of before, and rather extend off of that, they should be able to use that equity."

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, pointed out that there are about 100 million iPod owners, but about 3 billion wireless phone owners worldwide. "That would suggest there is a huge untapped market out there of people who have no music device. That's why so many companies keep trying," he said.

Missed opportunity
But why is it that Sony, which 30 years ago created, defined and owned the concept of portable music, is still trying? "With Sony, it was a gigantic missed opportunity," said Dave Rosenberg, a marketing consultant and CNET blogger. "They had better technology, access to the best-qualified engineers, a large R&D budget, unbelievable assets in hardware and software, access to content. ... They had everything."

Except, perhaps, vision. When the original cassette tape Walkman was launched in 1979, Sony was an electronics company. It did not have the music and pictures content arm that it had acquired by 2001 when MP3 players began hitting the market. Media companies at the time were afraid of losing control over their intellectual property -- and revenue streams. Sony Electronics' sibling company, Sony Music Entertainment, was one of them.

"Sony got so hung up on digital-rights management that it destroyed the user experience. The first [digital music] Walkmen were gorgeous, but so incredibly difficult to use," Mr. Enderle said.

Steve Baker, an analyst with NPD Group, said while the music group probably prevented Sony from being aggressive in the space, it wasn't preventing the company from coming up with a great digital player from the start. "Their main focus was on managing that cash cow, the CD player," he said. "But in fairness to Sony, when you have a big dominant brand and market share, it's hard to cannibalize yourself like that or see past it to the next big thing. ... They missed the transition, they kept sticking with the CD, while the market moved to digital."

Meanwhile, Apple, which didn't have its own music or video intellectual property to worry about, did cut deals and created the iTunes store, as well as an ecosystem of accessories and add-on gear with sanctioned partners. To date, no competitor -- neither Sony nor Microsoft nor any others on the market -- have been able to duplicate that broad user experience. "The world changed -- and Apple affected a lot of that change." Mr. Rosenberg said. "In music today, you live in Apple's world."

Brand revivals

Sony is trying to kick up interest in its Walkman, which was once the brand to beat. Can it be done? Other major marketers have pulled off big brand revivals or are in the process of trying to do so. Here are a few:

Made it from tired, clown-repped obesity problem-maker to hip, urban pit-stop.
How: Slimmed down the fattening menu and adopted a phat new tagline to appeal to a younger generation. They're lovin' it!

Came back from online "Dell Hell" infamy with online customer service and new-media savvy.
How: Hired dedicated online staff, started blogging and communicating online, and put systems in place to address queries and complaints quickly.

Still working to make the transition from old-world maker of memories stored in a shoebox to digital media maven and trusted keeper of online memories.
How: Massive downsizing in products and personnel, followed by targeted hiring of digital-brained executives and managers.

Still making the transition to hip, upscale national department store with a local sensibility after absorbing host of Federated retail brands, including Marshall Field's, Filene's, Kaufman's and Strawbridge's.
How: Changed all brands to Macy's (although it ticked off many of those smaller brands' loyalists) and pushed out an aggressive marketing and advertising campaign to promote the newly-consolidated big brand. It's also evolving its product mix locally to address close-to-home tastes and trends.

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