Steinway & Sons can no longer rely on its products to do the talking. As brand recognition levels slip, the piano maker is looking to strike a chord with a younger generation by investing in influencer marketing and platforms such as WeChat.
Steinway & Sons, piano-maker to everyone from Rachmaninov to Randy Newman, lives with a blessing and curse: it’s really old.
At the age of 166 the brand is revered. This reliable classic brand constantly appearing as a lacquered logo on stage, in recording studios and in Hollywood movies. And with prices that spiral up to $2.5m for one instrument, it certainly falls into the bracket of luxury. But it’s also a niche brand.
And this wouldn’t be a problem, explained senior director of marketing, Anthony Gilroy, had that always been the case.
“In the 1920s, Steinway was a household name and its owners were celebrities,” he said. “Everyone had a piano in their home and they aspired to own a Steinway. But today, at least in [the US], a piano isn't in every home anymore. That creates a challenge for us.”
Its once-grand brand awareness has diminished. In studies, Steinway learned that recognition dropped in correlation with age. Consumers in their 50s and 60s – alive before TVs replaced pianos – knew the brand best, while those in their 20s knew it least.
Steinway’s sales managers can live with this trend; the prohibitive cost of its products mean most people don’t buy from the company until they’re in their 50s.
But Gilroy’s job is one of futurepoofing. As he puts it: “In 20 years from now, we don’t want to be saying: ‘Where have all our customers gone?' And we don't want that to be because Steinway – as a brand name – has disappeared from the mainstream.”
The brand shifted away from traditional media buys more than a decade ago. Since then it’s mainly been funneling spend into search and Facebook advertising in order to precisely target potential customers.
But in the last year, Gilroy has invested more in brand, eager to get the Steinway name back into the vernacular of his 2040 customer. And like many marketers, he’s now using influencers as a vehicle.
“Once upon a time, we would have done a lot of print advertising,” said Gilroy. “Now, that money is spent on things like ... influencers, and having a PR agency. We definitely see the benefit in third party coverage and third-party endorsement of our business.”
Steinway’s roster of influencers has, so far, been pooled from the classical music industry. Deals have been struck with the likes of Tiffany Poon, a 23-year-old Hong Kong-born pianist, and the so-called Lord Vinheteiro, a more eccentric YouTube musician who publishes videos such as ‘The best 8-bit music played in the synthesizer!’
Recently, however, Steinway has begun working with more mainstream, luxury influencers, rather than those that come with a ready-made audience of pianists and the piano-curious. A deal inked with Rosewood Hotels saw the fashion influencer Jessica Wang travel to the Steinway factory in Astoria, where she posed for her followers atop the brand's most expensive piano.
‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, a Model D concert grand piano hand-painted by the artist Paul Wyse, is housed in the factory’s Vault – a VIP area where the company’s most exclusive pianos are kept. Gilroy is earmarking the room as a big draw for media and influencer opportunities in 2020 and beyond.
“It’s not necessarily for serious pianists ,” said Gilroy. “They might not be pianists at all. They might be collectors. They might be wealthy people who want something very nice for an important room in their house.
“Someone like Jessica makes a lot of sense for [that audience]. It’s about getting other people talking about it and making it feel... like an aspiration.”
Steinway can also tap into the audience of the enormous number of established musicians it counts as brand partners. A number, such as Madonna's current pianist Ric'key Pageot, blur the boundaries between influencer and celebrity, while others, such as the virtuoso Lang Lang, evoke the stardom of mid-century US pianists in China specifically.
Like any luxury heritage brand, Steinway is finding the Chinese market to be critical to its commercial success. So Gilroy, who has witnessed the influx of wealthy, China-born consumers buying pianos in North America, has adapted his media plan to capitalize on the trend.
His team recently launched a WeChat channel in the US, which is run by Chinese-speaking consultants and aimed at this newer, often younger audience that has a penchant for brand new Steinways.
“The consultants are coming up with new material that’s so good we've taken some of what they've done, translated it and used it on the English platforms,” said Gilroy. “They’re focusing on the factory, musicians ... and our history.
“Their intent is to get leads for a sales event, but we also know that people are the same no matter where you go: if you're going to hit them with sales message after sales message, they're going to stop paying attention. So, we mix it up and try not to be about all sales.”
Gilroy is unlikely to see much payoff from this strategy in the immediate future; he might even be waiting decades before Steinway's investments in this younger demographic bring in a return. Most marketers would bank on having exited the business long before then.
But Gilroy's already made it 10 years as lead marketer. And while that's impressive in a time when high-profile chief marketers last just 11 months in a job, at Steinway it's nothing impressive at all.
"[In the factory] they measure their time in decades," he said. "People have been working there for 30 years, 40 years."
If Steinway can apply the same approach to staff retention at the exec level, and buck the months-long CMO tenure trend in the industry, Gilroy may be around to not only witness his long game play out, but learn from the results, too.