Guitar Maker Fender Steps Into the Future While Remaining Steeped in Its Past
One look inside Fender’s de facto Los Angeles headquarters and it’s apparent this isn’t your regular office. Conference rooms and hallways are plastered with portraits and murals of guitar icons of the past, office doors are decorated with the bodies of the instrument, and many desks are complemented with amps for employee jam sessions. On the second floor, the brand’s charismatic CEO, Andy Mooney, has the entirety of his personal collection on display -- including rare artifacts like a guitar with a body made out of a wooden seat from the former Hollywood Bowl -- all seemingly begging to be played.
“I’ll never understand these guys who have wine collections that are so large they’ll never be able to drink it all,” Mooney explains from his sleek, glass-walled office. “It’s great to have these guitars all out here for people to pick up and play instead of them just gathering dust. That’s what they’re made for.”
Such is life inside the historic brand’s new West Coast confines, one that does not exist simply to churn out the instrument as it has since the company’s founding 72 years ago, but to celebrate it. And if there are indeed guitar gods, these Los Angeles digs -- built from scratch and opened for business last July 4th -- function as the faithful’s church.
“We specifically picked out this location because of the proximity to everything,” says Mooney of Fender’s neighbors, which include recording studios Sunset Sound and United Recording, not to mention the tourist mecca of Hollywood Boulevard. Having moved from its longtime office in Scottsdale, Arizona, the company's fresh home in the middle of the City of Angels allows for additional outreach. “Not only because of the nearby studios or visits from artists," Mooney explains, "but also because of our ability to attract fresh talent to the digital organization as well.”
For a brand that began during the Truman administration and is thriving during the current one -- Mooney notes they’re currently No. 1 in the market in terms of guitars and amps -- it’s the digital component of Fender that’s been the centerpiece of the company’s recent crossroads and subsequent growth. In the past decade, the brand has gone through one of the biggest transitions in its history -- second only to its acquisition by the CBS television network in the 1960s which led to mismanagement through the late 1980s -- one that Mooney and his team have threaded very carefully.
Fortunately, Mooney has the experience from previous roles as head of Nike’s Global Apparel organization and chairman of Disney’s Consumer Products Worldwide. It was during his time at the latter behemoth that Steve Jobs (yes, that Steve Jobs) gave him a valuable piece of advice. “One thing he said that really resonated was that every single product a brand creates is either a deposit or a withdrawal in the bank of brand equity," Mooney recalls. "My belief has always been that great brands are the cumulative effects of great products. And at the end of the day, it’s all about the product.”
That’s a philosophy easier said than executed. Just ask Gibson, the equally-historic guitar brand, which just this week filed for bankruptcy after finding itself a whopping $500 million in debt. “What created their financial problem is in all of the ancillary electronics businesses,” Mooney explains. “If you were to look at their guitar brand trajectory, it would have been pretty steady and pretty profitable.” Fender, meanwhile, has managed to walk a fine line of stepping into the future while staying steeped in the past, its most important attribute being an eye towards creating the next generation of guitar players in an atmosphere where, as the company’s senior vp of product Justin Norvell eloquently noted, “Kids went from from garage bands to Garageband.”
Norvell, whose office is complemented with everything from a Supreme-branded Fender guitar to awards like the 2017 Electric Guitar of the Year from the MMR (Musical Merchandise Review), has had a front row seat to Fender’s recent metamorphosis. Since joining the company in 1995, Norvell has worked his way up from fielding complaints to running product lines, and chalks up Fender's successful navigation to what he calls “care and feeding.”
“You have to have your ear to the ground and listen to the market,” he explains. For example: “There’s no little league for guitar like [there is] for sports, so we launched Fender Play.” A subscription service that offers online guitar lessons, it’s become an important factor in the company’s evolution; the office even has monitors updated in real time with stats about current use, akin to a sort-of guitar lesson stock market.) “Fender Play is supposed to be that tool that will foster future players and lets people learn at their own pace and time,” Norvell says, also pointing towards the Fender Foundation, which supports music in schools. “We’re really being 360 in terms of our business.” Another concerted effort is to specifically market to women after the company discovered that 50 percent of its newest customers were female. Fender has since made sure to keep that demo front and center when it comes to the company’s imagery and web presence.
Fender's famous fans also help keep the company at the top of consumers' minds and thus vibrantly relevant. “At Nike we used to do shoe counts; we looked at how many participants in road races were wearing Nikes, because usually the percentage of athletes who were using the product became your market share," Mooney says. "So with Fender, we went to all of the big music festivals and counted how many guitars were on stage compared to the competition. It was a big surprise that 80 to 90 percent of the players were using Fender.”
With that in mind, the company has always been eager to cater to its most prominent fans, mostly when it comes to their custom shop which Norvell dubs a “dream factory.” Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien, for example, had a literal dream about a guitar that Fender promptly made for him which included nifty features such as infinite sustain. Available as part of its Signature Series, it will soon retail for a cool $1,099. Brad Paisley paid a visit and the company asked what he liked about his favorite guitars, “So we created a greatest-hits package out of one,” Norvell says. Prince played a custom Fender during his iconic halftime performance at Super Bowl XLI, while the company outfitted Fall Out Boy with a guitar with LED lights.
It’s all a far cry from the days when the company’s founder and namesake, Leo Fender, fell into guitarmaking by shear happenstance while operating an electronics repair shop in Fullerton, Calif. “If you think about what an electric guitar looks like now, at the time it didn’t look like that," Norvell explains. "They all had big, hollow bodies and it was akin to violin making.” Cue the now-legendary customer Bill Carson who complained to Fender that the corners of the old instrument hurt his arm and ribs. “So Leo came up with the Stratocaster and had the corners rounded off.” From there, the Stratocaster alone became the favored tool for everyone for guitar heros including Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton and John Mayer. Most impressive, while most baby boomer-era technology has changed multitudes over the years, Fender’s anchor products -- including the Strat's twangier cousin, the Telecaster -- have remained how they were from their respective initial rollouts.
“There’s so much technology in music, but with the guitar there’s an elegant simplicity and a purity,” muses Norvell of the company’s continuing appeal. “The design was nailed the first time. A lot of people play with technology when the cord goes out, but the piece itself has endured. It’s an American icon and a symbol for something greater than just the music that can be made on it.”