Almost one hundred years ago, the Majestic RMS Titanic sank – with a great loss of life.
At around 11:40pm, on the fateful Sunday night of April, 1912, the great Ocean Liner struck an iceberg. Initial thoughts were that all was well, after all, it was deemed ‘Unsinkable’, that “God Himself couldn’t sink this ship”.
However, little did anybody know, that little under three hours later – the Titanic would fall victim to the icy depths of the Atlantic.
In a technology focused blog – you may wonder ‘why the Titanic?’.
Well, as we speak – Japan’s electronics industry (this report focuses on Sony Corp) is running parallels to the Titanic tragedy.
In the same way that the Titanic was built to showcase Engineering at its finest, so was Japan’s electronics industry, and very much like the Titanic, Japan’s Sony Corporation is slowly fading away, as the lights flicker and the world watches.
May, 1946 – in a bombed out Department store, the forerunner to Sony Corporation was born. Akio Morita, an individual with a deep interest in Physics, and Masaru Ibuka, an electronics industrialist formed what was to become one of the most powerful companies in the world.
The Sony Corporation quickly became a name synonymous with quality, their innovations everywhere – from transistor radios to television sets. Sony was the brand to beat, as they introduced technologies such as the ground breaking ‘Walkman’, with unrivalled sound quality, and the ‘Trinitron’ television, which delivered images 25% brighter than its nearest rival. Sony’s myriad innovations and glorious history has every ingredient for success – so why then has it gone so wrong?
In a nutshell, it’s Sony’s hubris that has caused the sprawling giant to fall. Once the King of the analogue era, the transition to the digital era saw rivals such as Samsung Electronics dethrone Sony as the Monarch of the Industry. While others began to pile resources into LCD, Sony continued its production of non LCD devices, as the time grew closer for Sony to introduce digital music to the Industry, (it was theirs for the taking, they had the market in their hand, and the technology available), they stalled – their internal development teams developed two music players – both of which were unveiled simultaneously. The VAIO Music Clip, and the Memory Stick Walkman, Sony’s attempt to build on their dominance in the portable music market were both overpriced, under-specified and gravely misunderstood, not only by the market – but oddly, Sony themselves.
Despite Sony’s string of Walkman’s post iPod, the battle to regain its throne as the leader in the field was being fought internally between various silos, and competitors were readying their onslaught of devices to launch a crusade against the Japanese conglomerate. In 2001, Sony joined forces with Ericsson to reverse its fortunes in the Mobile arena, and for a while, things at the joint venture did look up. Devices such as the W800i borrowed Sony’s Walkman brand, and the device did well – Sony Ericsson continued to borrow branding from its Japanese parent, with Cyber-shot being next, the first in line was the K800i – a superb imaging device, which also ushered in the ‘Bond’ marketing channel.
However, as the Mobile landscape changed, so did Sony Ericsson’s fortunes – dogged by quality issues, and a lack of innovation – the JV became a drain on both Sony, and Ericsson’s resources. Sony Ericsson fell victim to Apple’s iPhone (although they weren’t alone here), were slow to respond and another iPod-esque failure to respond had unfolded in a rather grotesque fashion. The move to use Google’s Android platform was a smart one – although this proved to be too little too late, as a confused marketing drive saw the stunning Xperia X10i (Launched on the outdated Android 1.6 Donut), being sold beside the lacklustre Vivaz (Running the clunky Symbian UI). Further quality problems haunted Sony Ericsson, until 2011 – where their portfolio bought a great improvement in quality, and some great features such as ‘Exmor R’ (an advanced BSI Imaging sensor) and ‘Mobile Bravia Engine’ (Software trickery from Sony’s Bravia TV’s).
2011 also saw the introduction of a device that the market had demanded since the inception of Sony Ericsson – the Xperia PLAY, an amalgamation of a Sony PSP, and a Mobile phone. This should have been the game-changer for Sony Ericsson (excuse the pun), but not even a somewhat stronger marketing campaign could save this poorly executed phone. Sadly, it just wasn’t enough – the device was unpowered, and while competitors were launching multi-core devices, this gaming-centric device was launched with below-par specifications.
The over-clocked, re-hash of the rather successful Xperia arc (aka Xperia arc S) was to be the Swedish-Japanese firms last handset (Internationally), and on February 16, 2012, Sony acquired Ericsson’s share in the venture. Born from the ashes (or rather re-born), was Sony Mobile Communications.
So what can be done to fix Sony’s deep cultural malaise? While they have seen difficult times, it’s vital that they look at ramping up their marketing efforts in the form of a more substantial ATL campaign, which will grant heavier exposure. While yes, the current ‘Skyfall’ campaigns are very much everywhere – what they do is showcase the product, not the experience. Sony must look at focusing on the important core business needs, such as Mobile. The split from Ericsson was beneficial, but may also present a pitfall, if Sony cannot implement their wizardry and electronic prowess in a high quality (note, Premium feeling) device. The current portfolio must be looked at in detail, and cut down considerably; while iPod like mistakes must be avoided at all costs (another would surely be somewhat fatal). By bringing together the technical knowledge of the VAIO team and Xperia device team, Sony could fashion another hit, however it will take more than just a great device – the marketing too, will need to hit the spot. More than anything though, Sony will need to once again be the innovator, the leader and the brand always one step ahead, by doing so they will capture the hearts and minds of the new generation, the ones who know Sony only from their PlayStation, or the old VCR.
Given the company that Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka built is very much a thing of the past – it’s vital that Sony, through Kaz Hirai, now reinvigorates that ‘Sony Spirit’, and inspire a new generation of ‘Digital Dream Kids’.
However, if this much revered brand fails to strike the right notes over the coming months, the battle to save Sony may very well be lost.
Nonetheless, for the sake of unrivalled Innovation, ingenuity, and sheer brilliance, not only must Sony’s fight be won, but so must Japan’s.
(Note: This report only explores a microscopic part of the race to save Japan’s electronic industry, and as such does not reflect any personal views).