The UN-Martin guitar
Okay, here’s the deal. I’ve just returned from a music store today, where I had an experience that I can only describe as unreal. I saw a brand commit suicide, right before my very eyes. Allow me to explain.

In addition to being a marketing guy, I’m also a professional musician. One of the instruments I play is the acoustic guitar. My brand of choice is C.F. Martin. Now, understand, I grew up in the music business. I took up guitar in my early 20s – well after I turned pro, as a drummer. I quickly grew to love the guitar, and went from a pretty nice “starter” instrument (a Yairi) to a Guild (which turned out to be a complete piece of crap) to what became my “ultimate” guitar – a C.F. Martin. I’ve owned several Martins, in the time I’ve been playing. My current instrument is a beautiful HD-35, with herringbone trim, and a three-piece, bookmatched rosewood back. It is a truly wonderful instrument. In those days, Martin made guitars so well, that they used a fixed truss rod in the neck. It couldn’t be adjusted, because you never needed to adjust it. It just worked. Years later, Martin bowed to pressure from those that valued user control over craftsmanship, and began selling instruments with adjustable truss rods. I was sad to hear it, because it took away the edge that made Martin a brand apart.

If you’re not a guitar player, you probably know nothing of the Martin mystique. Allow me to put it in terms that you might understand. Martin is to guitars what Mercedes was to automobiles, what Rolex is to watches, what Waterman is to fountain pens. They are the Curtis Mathes of guitars – expensive, but damn well worth it.

In the 70’s, when labor costs went through the roof, Japan, Inc. became a major player in the guitar manufacturing business. You saw lots of American manufacturers come out with second lines that were made there – I owned a couple of Fenders that were Japanese-made. Not bad instruments, but not quite as good as their American-made cousins. C. F. Martin chose a different path. They created a second brand – Sigma – that became their second line – Japanese instruments that were made with Martin designs, Martin parts, but Japanese craftsmen. I own a couple of Sigmas. Nice instruments. They’ll never be mistaken for Martins, but they were a good, solid value.

Today I walked into a friendly neighborhood music emporium and saw an unusual-looking Martin on the wall. It had no purfling around the spruce top. In fact, it had no purfling at all. When I flipped the instrument over, I was amazed to see that it sold for under $1000. Then I was amazed to learn why. The neck was laminated, with a dozen or so layers of wood, glued together. The neck is essentially PLYWOOD. The top was solid spruce – a nice touch. But the back and sides were made of what they called “Mahogany Pattern HPL Textured Finish.” In street language, there’s another name for that. It’s called “laminate.” The trade name is Formica®. That’s right. You can now buy a C. F. Martin guitar that has laminated plastic for its back and sides.

As you might expect, this instrument sounded every bit like a Martin – if your idea of “sounded every bit” means that a cement mixer sounds every bit like a Ferrari. I held in my hands a synthetic, plastic, piece of crap that would single-handedly be responsible for destroying a brand.

Why do we have brands? Brands are shorthand for an image, a reputation, and a level of quality. One word – the manufacturer’s name – is enough to conjure up an instant image of a product and how you feel about it. For years, Mecedes was the very image of fine German engineering. Rolex was the epitome of Swiss precision watches. C. F. Martin was the absolute best acoustic guitar that money could buy.

Not any more.

Once, if you saw a musician playing a Martin, you could assume a couple of things. If he was any good, you knew he’d dreamt of owning a Martin for a long time. He’d probably scraped and saved every penny to afford it. (I know I did.) If he wasn’t any good, you knew instantly that he was a poseur – someone who thought that by spending a lot of money on a guitar, he could con everyone into thinking that he was a musician.

What does the C. F. Martin brand mean now? Nothing. It’s just another brand of guitar. It is no different from the crappiest, fly-by-night Asian import. Now, when you say “I play a Martin,” it no longer means you were serious enough about your music to spend money on a beautiful, well-made instrument. Now it means you bought a name, without regard to quality, sound, or purpose.

C. F. Martin has been around since 1833. Up until this year, they’ve always specialized in making the best instruments possible. As of now, they’re just one of the herd. Will I sell my Martin? Probably not. It’s still the great instrument it was before. But like many other devalued brands (Mercedes, and virtually anything GM makes), you can no longer see that name on the headstock and presume that the instrument is going to sound great.

What does this mean for your brand? It means that cutting corners and trading your brand’s value for a “quick-fix” mentality is sucide. Martin will never again be able to claim that they only make great instruments. They don’t. How about you? Is your brand great? Will you always be able to say that, or are you willing to make something cheap, to “expand your brand” at the expense of your reputation.

It’s a sad day for guitarists. It’s a sad day for marketing. And it’s a sad day for American quality and tradition.

C. F. Martin & Co. 1833 – 2006. Rest in Peace.

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