Sony Walkman wakes up too late

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Sony is taking on Apple's iPod with a $30 million to $40 million marketing campaign for Walkman. "The most aggressive campaign in our history," vows a Sony exec. Too bad Sony's too late.

IPods accounted for seven of the 10 best-selling MP3 players one day last week at The top iPod ranked fourth in sales among all products across the retail site. The best score for a Sony model on Amazon's MP3 sales chart was No. 37-for a product (a MiniDisc Walkman) that came in No. 5,735 across Among all electronics wares at Amazon, the top Sony, a digital camera, came in a distant No. 49.

The Japanese marketer built a premium brand based on product innovation and superior design, yet it's degenerated to little more than another commodity supplier. We recall the milestone some years ago when Consumer Reports scored a VCR from Korean upstart Samsung above a high-priced Sony alternative. Today, Samsung is coveted for design, value and image. Up-and-coming Samsung scored No. 21 on Interbrand and Business Week's latest tally of global brands-right behind big, lumbering Sony.

Sony leads in some mature categories; Walkman owns seven of Amazon's top 10 sales slots for portable cassette players. But Sony lags in growth categories such as flat-panel TVs and downloadable music players.

The company knows music, consumers and electronics, yet it missed the MP3 revolution. While Sony misfired, Apple introduced iPod in October 2001 and took ownership of downloadable music with a winning package of technology, design and marketing. Three years later, Sony is ready to act. It waited too long.

Sony reminds us of old-line American TV-set makers in the `70s-Zenith, RCA, Magnavox, Motorola-that eventually sold to foreign firms or left the market they pioneered. Maybe Sony can save itself. But it desperately needs market-defining innovation. For now, Sony the one and only looks more like Sony the one and lonely.

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