Does the Walkman brand still hit the right notes with consumers?

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stu.jpgStuart Dredge writes…

Once upon a time, Sony’s Walkman was the most powerful music technology brand in the world. Everyone knew what a Walkman was, it was one of the most desirable and fashionable devices around, and it arguably changed the way we listen to music while it was at it.

Well, it saved millions of music fans from debilitating ghettoblaster-related shoulder pains in later life, anyway.

But isn’t the Walkman old hat now? Apple’s iPod is surely the biggest music brand of the 21st century, after all, having successfully fended off Napster, MySpace and The Cheeky Girls to secure its vaunted status.

Nevertheless, Sony thinks the Walkman still punches its weight, having just announced its new Walkman NW-A800 Video MP3 player, while Sony Ericsson has been pushing its brand of Walkman music phones.

Is Walkman still a powerful brand in the post-iPod world? I’d argue yes: here’s why.

Let’s start with those mobile phones. If you want evidence that Sony has successfully rehabilitated the Walkman, how does more than 20 million handset sales strike you? What’s important is that many of those will be to people too young to have ever owned an original Walkman – or even remember the days when you could buy music on tape cassettes.

Sony_Walkman_Logo.pngAnd that’s the thing. If Walkman’s going to mean anything to consumers today, it’s got to be for what it is NOW, rather than what it was back in the 1980s. You can certainly argue that Sony Ericsson has succeeded in that goal, associating the Walkman brand with ‘mobile music’ in a way that no other manufacturer has yet managed.

Sony’s efforts in other consumer electronics areas haven’t been as successful. Sony has been branding various MP3 players as Walkmans for a while now, but a quick straw poll of gadgety friends brought the common responses of ‘they’re overpriced’ and ‘they’re not easy to use’ – the latter most likely because of Sony’s earlier strategy of forcing people to convert their MP3s into the proprietary ATRAC format before they could be transferred to the firm’s digital music players.

In that respect, the Walkman brand ended up looking like an embarrassing dad on the dancefloor – trying to get down to this new-fangled MP3 lark, but getting it wrong. Thankfully, Sony has since shifted its strategy to something more sensible, with recent Walkman devices much more desirable as a result. But it proved that a once-all-conquering brand is no use if the modern products badged with it aren’t much cop.

So to the new NW-A800 Video MP3 player. Is the Walkman brand a help, or a hindrance? The sort of people buying video players may have warm memories of Walkmans the first time round, but does this make them any more likely to buy a handheld video player now?

To make Walkman truly relevant in this particular field, Sony’ll have to convince people that the NW-A800 is better than similar devices from Archos and Creative. So rather than its brand, the NW-A800’s success will rest on features like its battery life (eight hours for video), the quality of its screen, less than 1cm-thickness, and whether people really want to buy stuff from the Sony Connect music download store.

As strong as the Walkman brand was back in the day, you can’t live on past glories alone in the modern gadget world. Sony’s first MP3 players proved that, while Sony Ericsson’s music phones have shown that you can reinvent yourself for a new market. We’ll have to wait and see which category Sony’s new video player falls into.

Stuart Dredge