Feel-good ads have been gaining momentum in the past few years, but it took a global health crisis to push them over the top. As brands evolve their strategies and adapt quickly to give customers the comfort they want, Fender’s “Play Through” initiative is a shining example of how a brand can create real communities that are passionate about its products and purpose.

Speaking on Nov. 6 at Strategic Marketing USA, a major Reuters Event that assembled some of the world’s most influential CMOs, Evan Jones, chief marketing officer for Fender, shared a recent story about the iconic guitar manufacturer.

In providing some background, Jones offered a look at Fender’s consumer demographics. Half of the company’s guitar sales are to females and individuals from diverse backgrounds. About 45 per cent are first-time players, and most quit within the first year. Interestingly, the 10 per cent who stick with the guitar generate $10,000 in lifetime value (LTV).

Realizing that the issue was one of abandonment, Fender looked for ways to reduce the dropout rate and grow the industry. The end result in 2017 was Fender Play, a complete online learning app for guitar, bass and ukulele. “Our goal was to help new players get started and help them stick with it,” said Jones.

With Fender Play a living work, Fender has been steadily adding features and tools to enhance the learner experience and has introduced thousands of songs by some of the world’s most recognized artists. Since 2017, the app has been downloaded 4.4 million times, 1.6 million users have tried it, and more than 56 million lessons have been viewed on the platform. “In short,” said Jones, “we have been teaching a lot of guitar these past three years.”

From Jones’ perspective, all of this serves as a backdrop to March 2020 when the pandemic hit and everything went into lockdown. As Fender worked through the realities of navigating the business at an extremely challenging time, the company made a conscious decision to offer Fender Play for free for 90 days to anyone who wished to give it a try. To put this in context, a subscription usually sells for $10 a month or $90 a year.

“Our intent with this offer, by making it free, was nothing more than a simple gesture of goodwill,” said Jones. “No credit card required and no strings attached for people who might be looking for a way to cope with a difficult time. As our offer said, we’re all going to be spending more time inside so we might as well make some noise.”

Fender thought at the time that 100,000 would be a meaningful number of free subscriptions and that it might take a month or so to complete the uptake. To the company’s surprise, more than 100,000 people took them up on the offer in the first three days, so they decided to open it up to one million. “What happened then was pretty amazing,” said Jones. “The minute we posted that we were going to a million, we saw the overwhelming support from the community kick in.”

At a time when brand trust is at an all-time low, brand trust for Fender is at an all-time high. Seven billion PR impressions, 1,300 powerful stories, and 140 artist social shares have resulted in a 150 per cent increase in paid subscriptions and a 232 per cent increase in YoY e-commerce. And boding well for future sales, of the almost one million people who took Fender up on its offer, 99 per cent were new to Fender and 33 per cent were new to guitar.

“If we keep more players hooked, we can grow Fender’s business and the industry,” said Jones. “It’s not just a commercial concern, but one that’s grounded in fostering creative expression and putting more music out into the world. That’s essential to our business model.”

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