Wednesday, February 24, 2016

TMFW 129 - An Audio Brand Comes Back From the Dead



Today's TMFW is a departure from our typical entries, but it is technically a true fact about music, and it is Wednesday, so we are going for it.

A few months ago, I was playing music with my friend Greg in his basement.  (Maybe our rise to fame will be the subject of a TMFW some years in the future.)  Our rehearsal space is in his rec room, where all of his 1980s and 90s tech has gone to live.  There's a 19-inch TV that is three feet deep and 200 pounds, a real live working VCR, and an impressive collection of VHS tapes (including a 30+ year-old set of the Star Wars trilogy).  And in the corner, there's a "compact stereo system" 3-disc CD player from Aiwa. 

Aiwa is the subject of today's TMFW.  Their mini bookshelf stereos, with 2 detached speakers, 2 cassette tapes, and 3 compact discs on a spinning carousel on top, were standard-issue in dorm rooms when I was in college.  This Gizmodo.com appreciation explains it perfectly: "[t]hey may not have focused on the audiophiles, or the high-end gear freaks, but for the average person, their product wasn't garbage either. Think of it as the Honda Accord of stereo systems." A 2001 USA Today review of Aiwa's then-latest system calls it a "steal" at $250.

Once I got over my nostalgia for the good old days, Greg's vintage tech museum of a rec room got me thinking: "whatever became of Aiwa?"  So I got googling and found out.  My first stop was Aiwa.com, which is still alive but suggests that the brand itself is dead.  Visitors are greeted with the one-sentence announcement that "Sony Corporation has taken over the Support and Service of AIWA products," along with a link to Sony's site.  But further down on the results page, I found Aiwa's Facebook page and a Twitter page, with active posts and the familiar logo.  So what gives?

Here's your answer - the 60+ year old Japanese brand now lives in Chicago, as a startup. 

Aiwa was founded in Japan in 1951, and made a whole host of consumer audio products like tape decks, boomboxes, CD players, and car stereos.  With their ubiquitous bookshelf stereos, they became a recognizable brand in the US in the late '80s and early '90s (with a big advertising budget to go with that).  But as technology changed with the advent of mp3 and the decline of physical media, the company suffered.  In 2002 it was forced to sell itself to Sony.  Sony tried to re-brand the company but gave up after only 3 years.  By 2006, Aiwa was dead. 

But in 2013, the Chicago company River West Brands acquired the trademark for Aiwa, and last year they partnered with a consumer audio startup called Hale Devices.  Hale Devices renamed itself Aiwa, and branded its Big New Product with the old logo that everyone knows.  The idea is that the brand automatically denotes a level of quality and reputation that a startup couldn't quickly build on its own; as the linked Chicago Tribune article notes, Hale Devices is "counting on consumers to recognize Aiwa from a previous musical and technological era. Listeners of a certain age will remember the company as a Japanese maker of stereo components, in particular the boomboxes of the '80s."  It's a clever strategy: Sony gets some free money for letting go of a trademark that was of no use to them anymore, and a brand new company gets the benefit of millions of dollars in past advertising and 50 years of "related" product experience for customers.  And so far it seems to be working: the company's $300 Bluetooth speaker has 5 stars over 134 mostly glowing reviews on Amazon.  It looks pretty cool. 

So there's your TMFW for today: the story of how a Japanese manufacturer from the 1950s died and was born again as a Chicago startup in 2015.  I hope you liked it. 

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BONUS FACT/MORE OF THE STORY:  River West Brands, the group that acquired the Aiwa trademark and partnered with Hale Devices, works exclusively in acquiring and resurrecting dead brands.  This long 2008 New York Times article profiles the business in depth; among other brands, they have brought back Eagle Snacks chips, Salon Selectives hair care products, Nuprin pain relievers, and Brim coffee.  They don't make anything; they just get rights to an old brand and then find a manufacturer who sees some value in using a mark that people will recognize.  For example, CVS took the Nuprin name and sold it as an alternative to their generic ibuprofen.  The brand recognition justified a slight markup over the no-name stuff. 

River West's whole model, which is built on nostalgia for brands that have either failed or been abandoned, is fascinating.

BONUS FACT 2:  Regular readers of TMFW know that I like commercials, and particularly ones that make good use of music.  In the early 2000s, Aiwa had a classic that used "Another One Bites the Dust" to great effect.

BONUS FACT 3:  My friend and TMFW Subscriber #1 Jinx had an Aiwa stereo in his dorm room in college.  It had a "karaoke" button on it that basically just dropped out the midrange on whatever was playing.  This resulted in terrible-sounding music, but it did the job of allowing a would-be frontman (or frontwoman, in the exceedingly rare occasions when we had women visit) to sing along with favorite tracks.  I can remember many nights of fun drinking amaretto sours, hitting "karaoke," and then singing poorly over Earth Wind & Fire (his choice) or Weezer or They Might Be Giants (everyone else's).

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