Random Thoughts

The Sony Corporation has a long and storied history, with the company being founded in the ashes of post-World War II Japan. They started with simple devices like rice cookers and vacuum tube checkers, but officially stepped into “high-tech” with the introduction of one of the world’s first tape recorders in 1950.

By 1955, Sony had expanded into portable electronics, developing some of the first portable transistor radio. By the late 50s the company name changed to Sony and they were recognized as manufacturers of some of the best radios on the planet. They also offered their transistors for sale to other companies.

The late 50s also represented Sony’s first foray into Video Tape Recorders, with Sony being the first Japanese company to develop one. They also kept on developing products for the consumer, including the world’s first transistor based television, the TV8-301.

Once color television sets started to appear on the market, Sony fell behind and felt their leadership position as an innovator was faltering. In response, they worked on better ways to build color television sets, and eventually developed the Sony Trinitron television sets.

The first Trinitrons appeared in 1968, and Sony developed the first working prototype of the VCR that year, as well, forever banishing the concept of reel-to-reel video tape recorders to the history books. Sony wasn’t happy with just developing for the commercial VCR market, though, and they were determined to bring VCRs to the masses, and thus in 1975 was born Betamax, and with it, a phrase still used today, “time-shift”.

By 1976, as Sony was getting ready to mass-product Betamax VCRs, JVC was also prepping their competing VHS format. VHS used a larger tape, with inferior picture quality, but had the advantage of longer recording times. JVC was significantly more aggressive in signing up third-party licensees to their technology, and won the battle. Sony, however, managed to hold onto the lucrative professional market where BetaCam is still widely used today (although it is being supplanted by digital solutions now).

It’s also worth noting that Sony is the company that stood against Universal Pictures in the fight around copyright and the VCR. It is because of Sony’s fight that we are able to enjoy simple copyright provisions like “fair use” today.

Sony also kept up its lead in portable electronics. They introduced the Walkman, the world’s first portable cassette tape player, and kept on producing portable radios and tape recorders. They also developed 8mm video, in response to the desire to have small camcorders for consumer use.

Over a period of 50 years, Sony had managed to build their reputation up as a company which understood its consumer, which innovated to meet the needs of the consumer, and where quality never took a back seat to cost or convenience. Because of this Sony was able to charge a premium for their products. Even though a Trinitron television cost significantly more than a competing color television, you always knew you were getting what you paid for.

In the last ten years, though, Sony’s reputation has become tarnished. This is something that started happening long before the PlayStation 3 launch, and is indeed reflective of a slow and deliberate change in the corporate culture at Sony.

As the expansion of Sony continued in the 1990s, there was a requirement for them to manufacture more goods at a lower cost than they could do in Japan. Sony began to outsource “lesser” tasks to manufacturing plants in Mexico, Malaysia, China and other countries.

The way Sony initially did the outsourcing was to initially produce the products in Japan, and once the manufacturing processes were perfected, begin to move their manufacturing overseas. This was certainly a good idea from a cost reduction point of view, but it also significantly reduced the quality of some of their products.

I remember my first experience with a “non-Japan” Sony product. I had a set of Sony tower speakers which were manufactured in Mexico. Within a year, the wood began to separate on one side of one of the speakers, causing an audible buzz. A little wood glue fixed that problem.

Not long after my speaker issue, the Sony receiver I had purchased at the same time (also manufactured in Mexico) began to overheat. This would cause it to randomly switch off, and required a Sony recall on the model for repair.

Around this time, the original Sony PlayStation was launched. Before making my purchase, I checked the package because I was curious about where it was manufactured. The initial models were made in Japan. About a year later, a friend of mine purchased a PlayStation, and I noticed it was built in Mexico. Curiosity got the best of us, and both PlayStations were disassembled so they could be compared.

In looking at the Japanese PlayStation versus the Mexican PlayStation, it was obvious that the same basic design was being used. All the parts and components were the same, and the board layout was identical. The big difference was in the attention to detail in how the unit was manufactured.

The Japanese PlayStation had every component, regardless of how insignificant, placed perfectly on the board. The Mexican PlayStation had the same components, but it was obvious that the machine was built quickly rather than carefully. While all the solder and connection points lined up, components were twisted and bent in various positions.

Electrically, both PlayStations were identical, but it was obvious which one was built with pride.

Since that time, I’ve been careful with Sony products to ensure the ones I was buying were manufactured in Japan, and that technique worked well until the launch of the PlayStation 3.

My first-generation PlayStation 3 was manufactured in China, and by all accounts, the PS3 has not had a high failure rate. I’m hopeful this means Sony has put quality control measures in for the PS3, but I can’t help but wonder.

Having said that, it’s not like Microsoft or Nintendo are any better. Both of their consoles are also manufactured in the place where the lowest costs reign supreme; thus is the price we pay for convenience.

Still, it seems that Sony has slowly sacrificed the strength of their brand and the implied quality that comes with that brand in the interest of lower manufacturing costs.

If the products coming off the assembly lines aren’t of the same quality as what Sony manufactures in Japan, though, why are consumers being asked to pay a premium?

Other companies like Samsung and LG (both of which, ironically, manufacture their products in the same “cheap” places as Sony) have stepped into the quality zone once held by Sony, but have done it without the premium in price.

It’s time for Sony to understand their strength in the marketplace. It’s not about having the biggest television, or the loudest stereo, or even the most powerful game console. It’s about manufacturing a product which is of a significantly higher quality than the competition. It’s about a 43″ Sony television being worth the same price as a 50″ competing brand because of the build quality and the picture quality.

As Sony continues their restructuring efforts in an attempt to return to their former greatness, perhaps they should learn some lessons from the past. Build great products consumers want and they will come – regardless of the price.

One Response to “How to Build, Then Destroy, a Brand – The Sony Story”

  1. gt350

    I sold Sony Esprit, I still have a 19” Profeel tv and a super beta max. A cf320 radio, tell me what they make that has the same Quality. Some company is going to stop chasing COStco and make some money. It well cost more because of Quality and U WILL KNOW it! And people will pay, But not if all your tvs end up at wholesale. Sony has 25% of there Brand left and when thats gone they are now a well anyone . Go to your roots– and thats not movies.

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