The Branding of Taylor Guitars
By Chris A Riddle
In the chapter called “The Brand Expands” from “No Logo” by Naomi Klein she chronicles the tsunami of the megabrands. However what was not covered and what seems to be hidden is the rising power of the “Subtle Brand”. These are strategies that some companies use to compete and beat megabrands. In his book “Guitar Lessons”, Bob Taylor the co-owner of Taylor Guitars, talks candidly about creating the Taylor brand. You see only 20 or so years ago Taylor Guitars was going along competing with famous guitar companies such as Martin, Fender, Gibson, Guild and many others. They were a still a relatively small guitar company; however Bob and his partner Kurt Listug had a different vision for their company. They both were Harley riders and they liked the Harley culture. When you ride a Harley you are riding more than a motorcycle, you are riding an idea of freedom, Americanism, quality. You can run into a 60-year old grandmother who will tell you about the trip she took on a Harley when she was in her twenties. You will have people yelling from their car windows “Ride American” as you go by. You don’t have the same culture in any other brand of motorcycle and Bob and Kurt wanted to bring those types of feelings to their guitars. One day Kurt saw an ad for a Harley that had a beautiful picture of the night sky and it said something like “Some people look up at the sky and see only the Big Dipper, while others see a ’59 Panhead.” This ad was selling a feeling instead of pushing a product. And people who “got it” and understood the culture didn’t feel like explaining it to those who didn’t get it.
So they consciously decided that instead of the mega ads that the other guitar companies were doing featuring Music stars holding their product or pictures of guitars listing all of the features, most of which everyone else had also, they were going to use subtle branding. This was a big deal for them because they were still rather small and they planned to take full two page spreads for their ads. This was a great deal of money and if it didn’t work it would cause them some financial problems. The first ad featured a beautiful pastoral scene with green grass, blue sky and a lone tree. The byline read “In its simplest form a guitar is just a hollow box made of wood. It’s up to you to decide how to fill it.” This was the beginning of the “Trees” campaign. I have found two example ads that are exemplars of this ad campaign that contained five ads.
Let’s take a look at this ad for a few minutes and see both what it is and what it isn’t telling us. First the picture seems to be of a somewhat mysterious place or the trees seem somehow enchanting. The fog cloaks a secret. Are you worthy to know it? Are you an initiate? That’s how it seems to me. At least something is visible, however some things are unknown. Then there is the main text. It compares two very different things that can be accomplished with a piece of wood, a coffee table and the sweetest sounding guitar. Finally it makes a statement that this is for everyone who doesn’t want to play a coffee table. What it leaves unsaid is that if you want to be a guitar player that is able to create great music you should be doing it with a Taylor. Under this huge two-page image there is a small tagline that reads “Some trees become pencils. Some trees become paper that becomes guitar magazines. Some trees become shoe trees. Some trees become Taylor guitars. Some trees have all the luck. Write us: 1940 Gillespie Way, El Cajon CA 92020” followed by a very small image of the Taylor logo at the top of their peg head. Remember this is in the middle of magazines packed with bright full color ads featuring rock stars, guitars, girls in suggestive outfits and poses, etc. They stood out by their seeming simplicity, and people “Got it.” People saw that this was a company that understood their desires and dreams. That was for the everyman instead of the superman. Another in the same campaign was:
This picture is very different from the last in that the image is full of many more trees and more light however it retains the mystery. It also indicates a healthy well taken care of forest. An environmental consciousness, that runs through both the ads and the Taylor company culture. Both Bob and Kurt are strong advocates of responsible use of trees and they make sure you understand that that is something you are buying into when you buy a Taylor guitar. This is similar to the coffee karma talked about by Zizek in the video called “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.” Part of the Taylor culture captured by the Taylor brand is an environmental element the other part is illustrated in the main text, that people who play Taylor guitars are special or one of the few. This is in stark contrast to what most of the ads of this time said, which was that only special people played their guitars. The difference is that I have never seen a Taylor ad that is built around a certain rock or country star using their guitar. The Taylor culture is for you, and me.
Let’s look at the small text at the bottom of the ad: “There are trees. And then, there are trees. There are guitars. And then, there are Taylor guitars. It’s that simple. And that difficult. Write us at 1940 Gillespie Way, El Cajon CA 92020 to find out the difference” with another Taylor peg head logo. This is a simple series of statements that, when combined with the main text, makes the reader ask themselves if they have been picked to play beautiful music. And if they get it then they should look into how the Taylor guitar is special like them. These ads were nominated for the Kelly Awards which are like the Oscars of print advertising but more than that they were the beginning of the gradual creation of the same type of culture surrounding the Taylor guitars that were illustrated by the Harley culture. If you own and play a Taylor, the people who “get it” will understand, the ones that don’t haven’t been picked.
I am going to show a fairly recent video example of Taylor guitars co-branding with GE Capital. You will notice there are still no celebrities or stars. You are the star with Taylor guitars. That is what they are selling and that is their message.
And here is a small collection of past ads showing that the Taylor brand is fulfillment, environment, friends, family, America, quality. You are buying more than a guitar, or as Zizek would say you are buying into much more than just a guitar. This is one counter example to the branding juggernauts like Nike, Apple, Coke, Tommy Hilfiger et cetera that have so dominated our airwaves and our discussions. It seems that there may be a counter to Naomi Klein’s discussion of the megabranding issue. This is the quiet branding of Taylor guitars; now the largest producer of high quality (over $200) guitars in the world. Is this a better type of advertising than the loud in your face ads spoken of in “The Brand Expands” or just another type of manipulation? Will this type of advertising someday replace the megabranding as people get tired or burnt out by the bombardment of in your face advertising or is it just a niche ad for a niche product?
So what do you want to be, sawdust or sound?