Just as Bob Dylan went electric, Fender has gone digital. Nieve Cavanagh, vice president marketing, EMEA talks to Laura Swinton about digital transformation, the Fender Beginner’s Hub and how the iconic music brand is breaking down barriers with a creative approach to CX
Legend has it that blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, in exchange for his preternatural musical skills. Thankfully, these days any aspiring axeman (or woman) keen to level up won’t have to enter into such a diabolical exchange. Iconic guitar-maker Fender has swapped out the devil for a bit of digital transformation, creating an online platform to help wannabe guitarists, bassists and even ukulele-ists learn and improve.
Digital tools and platforms might not be the most obvious route for a brand whose products are exquisitely tactile and physical. Undulating maple or rosewood bodies, steel and nickel strings, smooth and sharp under fingers. But back in 2015, after an enormous, in-depth research project that broke down the entire guitar industry, Fender uncovered some surprising insights that nudged the business online and sowed the seeds of what would become Fender Play.
Nieve Cavanagh is vice president marketing, EMEA for Fender, and she explains that the insights were pretty eye-opening. “First of all, we found that 45% of all guitars sold were going to first-time players - much higher than anticipated - and half of those first-time players were female. A lot of those beginners were buying online to avoid physical stores which can appear pretty intimidating for any first-time player. Coupled with in-person lessons arguably being expensive, there were a lot of aspiring new players who weren’t getting the guidance they needed when making their first purchase or the lessons they needed to kick on,” she says, revealing that 90% of first time players were abandoning their instruments in the first year. “It became clear that there was an opportunity to provide tools to support and engage these new players.”
And so, Fender Play was launched in 2017, an all-in-one guitar, bass and ukulele learning app. Over time, the platform has evolved, with new songs, riffs, courses and techniques added regularly. The brand also launched new tools like Fender Tune (a tuning app), and now the whole experience sits in a recently-launched Beginner’s Hub, which helps guide newbies through the whole experience, from finding the right instrument (Find Your Fender), tuning it (Fender Tune) and playing (Fender Play).
From an experience design perspective, the team had to break down the behavioural levers that help create habits. “They [players] can dip in and out of a simplified, song-based lesson plan and pick up where they left off each time. Video lessons with real tutors introduce players to key skills and then show them how to apply them when playing a song. Players can reap the rewards of the lessons straight away, which makes for a gratifying and engaging learning path. Lesson plans are tested out by real players and user feedback informs how we enhance the resources on the platform.”
Fender was already far along its digital transformation journey when Covid-19 hit – but the sudden influx of new lockdown learners and the shutdown of physical stores meant that these platforms took on a whole new significance.
“The pandemic put so many of us in a difficult position and a lot of companies were helping in any way they could. Free access to Fender Play felt like a meaningful gesture and a way we could help people in some small way during the lockdowns; it was something to help people enjoy their time at home as much as possible, allow for creativity and the chance to learn a new skill,” says Nieve, who reveals that the appetite among new players was overwhelming. “Initially, Fender offered 100,000 free Fender Play subscriptions but the overwhelming response led to nearly 1 million players taking Fender up on the offer! Recent research suggests that 16 million people actually picked up a guitar during the pandemic in the US alone. We see our job now as giving these new players the tools they need to continue their journey in a way that keeps them entertained, engaged and inspired.”
Given the enthusiasm for Fender Play, the team at the brand realised that they needed to build a platform and experience that was more complete, providing everything a beginner could need in one place, covering a range of genes and styles and accessible on all sorts of devices from mobile to desktop. And so, the Beginner’s Hub was born, a place to guide new players every step along the customer journey, from selection to getting to know the instrument right through to playing and improving.
One of the new tools in the Beginner’s Hub is one that helps people figure out what kind of instrument is right for them. Heading into a guitar shop, trying out as many models as possible under the watchful eye of an experienced (and intimidatingly knowledgeable) shop assistant is something of a rite of passage, so bringing that into the online CX was a particularly interesting creative problem. “As for challenges, an obvious one is how we can recreate the magic of the in-store experience and meeting your first guitar for the first time, online. We think we have done a great job at making the experience accessible, fun and engaging in a world where more and more of our purchases are made online,” says Nieve.
In October 2021, Fender launched a new campaign promoting the Beginner’s Hub. A montage of all sorts of people, it consciously defies the stereotype of the guitarist in popular consciousness. “The Beginner’s Hub is all about lots of types of different people. Research consistently shows us that new players don’t come in one shape or size, but many - a diverse range of genders, ages, ethnicities and geographies. It’s important to us to acknowledge and cater for every single person out there. Guitar is for absolutely everybody.”
Overall, accessibility is a huge driver behind these activities. The team is keen to remove barriers that prevent people picking up a guitar (or bass or ukulele). That could be a cost issue – so Fender is consciously striving to offer guitars at as many price points as possible. It could be time – and Fender Play offers bitesize lessons ranging from two to 15 minutes each. But aside from these very practical barriers, there’s one emotional barrier that looms above them all. “As for fear of failure - Fender Play gets you playing along to your favourite songs within minutes and we have an entire community of people online helping and encouraging each other,” says Nieve. “We are all in this together!”
And that open-minded view of what a guitar player looks like means that the media strategy has had to be equally open-minded. It really is just about getting to as many different future players as possible. “We see everybody as a potential new player,” says Nieve. “So, our strategy is simple - showcase the joys of playing to as many people as possible, in a myriad of ways which speak personally to them. We reach our audiences with a mix of paid and earned media across a breadth of platforms and media outlets. We also kicked off our biggest-yet influencer campaign for the Beginner’s Hub, enlisting some really exciting people from various worlds to help us tell the learning story.”
This sense of purpose has been instrumental for Nieve personally. As a marketer, it’s given her a deep sense of satisfaction to see how the tools the brand is creating and the messages it’s putting out there are helping more people to realise their dreams. “I’m incredibly lucky to work for a brand offering such great quality instruments and cultural value to its community,” says Nieve. “I genuinely feel that we are offering people an incredibly important creative outlet through our services and products. Engaging with a passionate fanbase of people eager to learn is incredibly rewarding and we are seeing that the Beginner’s Hub is improving people’s chances of sticking with their new passion. Also, driving campaigns that speak to such a diverse range of people is a true privilege.”
With 75 years of history to lean on, Fender has a tremendous legacy. Its instruments have made wonderful music in the hands of the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Nile Rodgers, Buddy Holly and George Harrison. But, as Nieve points out, it’s as relevant to the artists and players of today. Modern artists like Nova Twins front their Player Plus campaign while Jordan Mackampa champions in the Acoustasonic Player Telecaster. And, of course, by leaning into the connectivity of the digital age the brand is able to give more people than ever the magic of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Yes, Fender has an unrivalled history but today we move side-by-side with the artists that are pushing music forward today - making tomorrow’s history as we do it,” reflects Nieve.