Bose: No Highs, No Lows, Just $1B in Net Worth
Defining the legacy of Dr. Amar Bose, founder of Bose Corporation, and what it means to every integrator, besides just being a bit jealous.
All together now - “No highs, no lows, must be Bose.”
I’ve said that phrase thousands of times in my 40-plus years in the business. I’ve heard it even more. I’ve heard it on retail floors, in CES and CEDIA Expo booths and at national sales meetings from the mouths of presidents of some very large companies. It might be the most commonly uttered slogan in the annals of consumer electronics (CE).
With some time to reflect on that sentence and Bose founder Dr. Amar Bose after his recent passing, I’ve come to the conclusion that every one of us who ever spoke it was just jealous. Jealous of one of the greatest marketing and branding geniuses in the history of CE or perhaps consumer goods. Envious of the son of a Calcutta freedom fighter who died with a net worth of over $1 billion after donating the majority shares of his privately held company to his three-degree alma mater, MIT.
A Brand & Sales Strategy Based on Just One Product
It was sometime early in 1969 that I first heard the “no highs” sentence from a sales manager of a competing speaker company. I was working in a little stereo store in Boston and big old multi-store Tech Hi-Fi had just become a Bose dealer. On some Saturdays it seemed like every other person who came through our door was asking, “Do you have the Bose?” (Back then some actually called it “Beau-Zay”!) A “No, but” answer and the customer was out the door. We had no counter. The sentence helped - a little.
What convinced Tech to sell the original Bose 901 was the review by Julian Hirsch, senior writer for an influential magazine named Stereo Review. Most product reviewers back then were long on the technical and short on the platitudes. Hirsch changed reviewing forever when he wrote: “At this moment, I must say that I have never heard a speaker system in my own home which could surpass or even equal the Bose 901 for overall ‘realism’ of sound.” He concluded with the most famous sentence in the archives of audio reviews, “I was reluctant to turn them off and go to bed.” The rest is history.
The 901s at $476 a pair (the Doctor was never one for price points) were The Bose Corporation’s only product until 1975 when the less expensive, but still direct/reflecting, 501 appeared. Imagine nearly seven years with just one, expensive for its time, product. The 501 was followed shortly thereafter by the 301, a small bookshelf that still remained true to Bose’s interpretations of psychoacoustics. Those three were it for quite a while.
Even in those early days, Bose’s relationship with retailers was uneven at best. Bose wanted complete control of the sales process all the way into the end user’s home. Retailers, he felt, shouldn’t even carry any other speakers and they should never discount his stuff lest they diminish its value.
To demonstrate his desire for control, when the original Bose Wave Radio was introduced amid incredible fanfare and hype in 1984, Bose would not sell it to speaker retailers who, by then, included some very powerful regional specialists like Tweeter, Bjorn’s and other members of the Pro Buying Group. This, of course, did not sit well with any of the company’s retail partners. It would prove to be a harbinger.
Bose saturated America with advertising and the Wave nearly became a brand all its own. You had to buy it direct from the factory. For a while, Bose even recruited a national crew of clean-cut young adults wearing Bose letterman style jackets over Bose polo shirts to sell the Wave cold calling door-to-door, copying the business model of Electrolux vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias. The all-American kids were ultimately sacked, but the idea of keeping his products (and all the profits) in his hands by selling direct was a huge success. And all the while, the Bose brand grew in recognition.
Headphones, Retail Outlets & Lawsuits
By 2000, Bose engineers had developed a consumer-friendly version of the bulky but award-winning aviation noise-cancelling headphones the company engineered a few years back. The Quiet Comfort noise cancelling headphone was born with a bang. More very slick and informative TV advertising was buffeted by equally effective full page ads in every airline seat back magazine ever printed. They were available only by calling the magic toll-free number that rang only at “The Mountain,” the sprawling and opulent corporate headquarters Bose built for cash in the Boston suburb of Framingham.
Bose was one of the first to develop a consumer sales website, way ahead of Cambridge SoundWorks, Crutchfield and most of the planet. By 1993 there were Bose-only stores in outlet malls beating Sony to the punch by over a decade and Apple by nearly as much.
About a year later, the next milestone in Bose’s truly amazing CE journey hit center stage. The Doctor and his staff were among the first to realize that the traditional audio component market had peaked and that the oft-discussed marriage of audio and video might actually happen. Bose “Lifestyle” speaker systems arrived somewhat quietly in 1994 and CE specialists, still miffed by their exclusion from the Wave success, were lukewarm about a simple plug-and-play concept with what they felt were short margins. Bose simply went downmarket to the big-box stores that thought the margins were just fine.
Chuck Schneider is a freelance writer with a long history in consumer electronics. He started and restarted his award-winning manufacturer’s representative firm - Value Added Marketing - and was also a vice president and general merchandise manager for a multi-regional CE chain, as well as a buyer for Lechmere's (a division of Target). Today, he is a freelance writer. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Chuck at firstname.lastname@example.org
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