Did someone say Monster was dead? They’re not. Just reawakening after a tumultuous few years of refinancing, rethinking, reorganizing, and releasing a lot of the people, property and priorities that powered “Monster Cable” over the past three-plus decades.
Monster Products ditched its $1M-a-month digs in San Francisco last year, and pared its payroll down to 25-ish locals and telecommuters in the U.S., with another 15-ish around the world, according to Head Monster Noel Lee and his son Kevin Lee, who spoke with CE Pro last week.
With clearer heads and cleaner slates, Monster set in motion this year a plan articulated at CES 2019 in January: More licensing, less meddling.
Monster websites were dead for a few days, but now the online shop is open at monsterstore.com, and monsterproducts.com redirects to that URL.
Here’s where we are …
Monster: A Short History
Quick: What’s the first thing you think of when you hear Monster Cable? Founder Noel Lee whooshing his way through tradeshows and galas on a Segway? Flashy cables? The ching-ching of once-empty tills in specialty AV shops? All-Star jams at CES? A marquee flying over the erstwhile Candlestick Park? Monster.com? Monster Mini Golf? Dr. Dre? Beats? Bling? Fast cars? Monster Money?
If you’re older than 40 … probably all of the above. Youngens may be less acquainted with the legacy and the lore, but there is plenty of both and more to come.
Monster was the vision of a scrappy little Asian guy who engineered cables that were better than the cheap lamp wires feeding most loudspeakers back in the day – for real. Handmade by Lee’s little fingers starting in 1979, these purpose-built cables were sold door-to-door by the determined dork (better than the acorns hawked by this dorky reporter), who ultimately found customers, a stage, a following, funding, and fame in hip entertainment circles and geeky tech enclaves.
Lee put a capital “c” on his little conductors, creating Monster Cable and an entirely new channel of specialty dealers who charmed customers with a new sound experience, and brought color to otherwise staid stereo stores.
Lee, no doubt, can be credited for turning audiophiles and geeks into successful salespeople who could charm the masses with music. Amazing what a little science and spunk could do to make consumers demand audio that sounded “just like that!” What started out as an earnest effort to transmit truer sound from a source became a movement to empower the lowly stereo shop.
Some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the A/V industry today can tip their hat to Monster.
And then the Cacophony
Things changed. Lots and lots of things. Today, you have on one side the audio purists who rail on Monster “snake oil,” and on the other hand a whole lot of A/V guys who owe their livelihoods to the Pied Piper. No matter the hand … Monster did make the masses wake up to better music.
What’s left? A lot of history we won’t rehash here, because Forbes and Forbes again, and Business Insider, and Wikipedia and CE Pro (we’d have to unpack our archives) and plenty others have told the tales before.
At the end of the day, Monster has a powerful brand and a whole lot of influencers who relish it –manufacturers, resellers, entertainers and more.
Today, Monster is relying on these groups to do what they do best, and relinquishing responsibility for all the little things that add up to a lot – operations, sourcing, logistics, financing, accounting, collections, packaging, labeling, sales-force development ….
“You have to have critical mass to do all these things,” Noel Lee says. “The amount of capital is too intense.”
Fine if have a nice niche or you’re generating a billion dollars like Monster did in the Dr. Dre Beats days, but “when you start to diminish, no small manufacturer or medium-sized business can afford to do this. That’s why you see so many roll-ups and acquisitions.”
Little Monster Kevin Lee recounts how he returned to Monster in 2017 after leaving the nest to earn his wings elsewhere for a few years. Things were starting to move with a big retailer agreeing to carry a 12-product line that year. But the intricacies of moving so many boxes and accounting for all of it weighed down on the company and, worse, they made an oopsie on a UPC code, “so we couldn’t get products on the floor,” Lee says. “We couldn’t get out of the register.”
Monster rallied and went to Walmart in 2018 with Monster-branded LED lighting strips under the (resurrected) Illuminessence label. This wasn’t the Tuya-based smart-lighting play Monster had announced (oh but do we have delicious home-automation news to come), just a couple of options for colored/white strips, manufactured by a licensee, that could be controlled with a companion RF remote. The proof of concept … was proved: The LED strips sold at a decent clip; the return rate was respectably low; Walmart agreed to roll it out to 4,000 stores, with plans to bring in more Monster-branded products in the future.
What’s in a Monster Brand (and Licensing Deal)?
Did the Monster logo sell the LED strips? Yes and no, according to the younger Lee: “On the one hand, brand matters more, and on the other hand it matters less.”
For commodity products like cable and power and light strips, consumers don’t want to be standing around in Best Buy or Walmart weighing a bunch of confusing options, explains. “They just want to get out.” he says.
Here, consumers have a couple of seemingly safe choices: They have money, so they just buy the “best” (most expensive) product … or they go with the cheapest option because if it’s no good, they can just toss it out. Lesson learned.
That’s where branding comes in, according to the Monster playbook: “If you step up from the lowest price, you need a brand.”
Kevin Lee believes Monster is still a “really good brand” that stands for quality among consumers who are familiar with the logo. “But even if you’re not familiar with the Monster brand, it’s still a really great brand.”
True dat. (You can call me Dr. Je.)
His father adds that several brands, especially in the audio category, have tried to resurrect their businesses under new ownership (he rattles off a few), but “this model doesn’t work unless you have a powerful brand. You need people who want to license the brand and pay a reasonable amount of money for it to explode.”
That is not to say that Monster won’t care about quality and cachet. Au contraire, the company needs to re-elevate the brand to Monster Platinum, which might not trip off the tongue or Tweets of younger consumers today, but absolutely must if Monster is to thrive in the whatever-ennial future.
Kevin and Noel Lee both speak at length about Monster’s role in design and testing and other areas that Monster will be hands-on (careful now, isn’t that what got them in trouble in the first place?). Monster will continue much of the image-making, hob-nobbing and audio-festing that made it famous in the first place.
Noel Lee says Monster today has eight “really great” licensees. Since January, the company has mentioned longtime and newer partners ESI, ProMounts, JEM Accessories (parent of Xtreme Cables), Allied Green, Power Play and Vanco. Come CES 2020 in January, Monster has a couple of doozies to announce.
“There was a transition time where we had to pull out of retail because we weren’t manufacturing anymore,” Noel Lee says. “There was kind of a gap. Now the licensees are coming back really strong.”
Expect to see the Monster brand throughout CES (CE Pro will have a few exclusive announcements) across legacy product lines, as well as new categories and new channel plays. There will be cables and strings aplenty, as well – for instruments and more. I’m hoping we see bright-colored Monster shoelaces at prime POS locations, rather than the old (and wildly profitable) ScreenClean liquid and wipes.
“I’m excited about the enthusiasm that licensees have for the brand,” Noel Lee says. “They’ve already made presentations” to major resellers.
He acknowledges potential challenges in terms of managing different licensees across different categories and outlets, but maintains Monster won’t allow “a lot of overlap.”
“We’re able to do a lot with a leaner staff,” the senior Lee adds. “We’re back in the garage, so to speak. We have a smaller company spirit. It’s been very rewarding. When a company gets too big, you don’t know everyone in the company anymore.”
The younger Lee concurs: “You start to lose your culture. Now we have a brand you can feel again. We’re not a marketer writing down what the brand is.”
Monster still has a stable of over 200 Monster trademarks and URLs, according to Dad, who says he wanted to “Monsterize” everything in the early days — Monster finance, travel, money … “The IP is tremendous.”
And yes, while Monster took a leave from the custom channel to pursue big-brand blingidy bling, the chief swears, “We’re going back into it.”
Oooooh …. maybe a Monster Mash at CEDIA Expo 2020?*
* That’s just JJ talking.
What Audiophiles and Acolytes are Saying
“Rough few years but, he is still one of the most influential & brilliant people out industry has had.”
“He invented the high end cable business! Mad props!”
“The biggest deception in the history of audio.”
“I first sold audio gear back in the age when we would actually give speaker buyers as much free zip cord (lamp wire) as they needed! Noel Lee came along and changed all that. Along with Bill Lowe of AudioQuest, he educated us (and the masses) to the concept of wiring as a critical component. When I became a store manager I forbade my crew from bad mouthing Monster (or any other brands we didn’t carry).”
“I’ve never heard of the brand. I did a little internet reading. The company seems to have featured years of high-profile marketing and sponsorship, endless and multiple litigation and absurdly expansive brand diversification. Not surprising it ended in tears. All that remains is the litigation.”
“Monster Cable was the Bernie Madoff of the audio world…almost everyone got sucked in.”
“Holy cow, I had forgotten how annoying audiophiles can be.”
This story was edited multiple times to fix typos, clarify licensing partnerships, and add still more color.