Teenage Engineering’s debut product in 2011, the ‘OP-1’, was a powerful full-keyboard synthesiser which cost £800. Musicians loved it. French electronic producer Jean-Michel Jarre said ‘musicians will still be using the OP-1 in 50 years,’ while Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor described the portable instrument as ‘simply great’. It followed up with a £500 wireless speaker in 2014.
The Stockholm-based company then decided to do something radical. Instead of building more high-end products for music aficionados, it wanted to go after the mainstream, and effectively make a simple keyboard to rival a big company like Yamaha.The switch in direction had significant implications for features, purpose, price, manufacturing and marketing. Its answer was a £49 pocket operator, or ‘PO’ as it tagged it, released in 2015.
The plan was to pare everything back and focus on synth newbies. It was ‘important users won’t get bored of it after six months,’ says programme manager Oscar Ahlgren.
Everything but the essential components were ditched, even the casing and an on-off switch. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much more than a flimsy, calculator-sized circuit board, with some concisely labelled knobs, buttons and lights.
What has remained, says Ahlgren, are high-quality components like the microprocessor and speaker which sit behind the small LED screen.
Raising awareness of this new, affordable device required a fresh marketing mindset.
Teenage Engineering could no longer rely on high-profile artists name-dropping the brand and working the music industry’s trade events. Swedish denim brand Cheap Monday emerged as an unlikely partner. The POs were sold alongside skinny jeans in a bid to attract teens, positioning the keyboard as a consumer product and emphasising its dominant feature: it’s really thin and small.
Insight: Companies often set out to be either high-end and expensive or mass-market and more price-driven. Breaking out of either camp often requires a completely new division and brand identity.
Yamaha has been making synths since 1975. It now also makes everything from jet skis to motorbikes.
Casio’s keyboards are cheap and aimed at amateurs. Other products include calculators and watches.
Selling the most expensive keyboards on the market, Moog is used by professional artists including Coldplay.
More for the music purist; Korg makes amps, tuners, effects pedals, drums and, of course, synths.
Teenage Engineering isn’t the first company to shift from a super-specialist niche to chase mainstream customers. Here are three companies which have switched to mass-market commercial products.
The company became famous in the 1960s and 70s for high-end amplifiers. Guitarist Pete Townshend is credited with redefining the sound of electric guitar at live concerts; he used a Marshall amp. More recently, the company was convinced to develop a mass-market strategy and licensed its brand to a manufacturer. The brand is now more commonly associated with everyday headphones and playful mini Bluetooth speakers.
The drink was originally concocted by scientists at the University of Florida in 1965 with the express intention of replenishing the carbs and salts lost by American footballers on the university’s team. Word of their success went around among other athletes. Quaker Oats bought the drink in 1987, while Pepsi later bought Quaker Oats in 2001 for £9.9bn, specifically for Gatorade. It’s currently distributed in over 80 countries. By 2009, the University of Florida had racked up nearly £100m from its share.
Giorgio Armani shot to fame in the 1980s for its glamorous gowns and suits. It has been one of the most prolific creators of mass-market sub-brands in the fashion industry: Armani Jeans and Emporio Armani became cash cows for the business. It led the company to license its brand and take a 25% stake in an even more mass-market spin-off in 1991: Armani Exchange, created specifically for the US market.