How Sonos plans to market its new Ace high-end headphones in a noisy category

When it comes to high-end wireless headphones, there are plenty of major players on the market. But Sonos — a longtime leader in the speaker category — has a plan for competing in the crowded category while also reaching new audiences.

Along with spatial audio and noise-canceling features, Sonos Ace headphones also offer a way to switch back and forth between the company’s home theater soundbars to let people have immersive audio even while watching movies and shows on a big screen. Early reviews have praised Ace for its design and audio quality, but the challenge will be winning over people who have been longtime listeners of competitors like Bose and Apple. The product comes after Sonos debuted its first spatial audio speaker in April 2023 with the debut of the Era 300.

The Ace, which started shipping this week, cost $450 and come in two color options: black and soft white. However, headphones are something current Sonos customers have been asking about for a while, said Sonos chief commercial officer Deirdre Findlay. Even before the Ace was announced last month, more than 50,000 people have requested Sonos make its own headphones, according to Findlay, who spent several years on the company’s board.

One way Sonos plans to market the Ace is by broadening its customer base across three categories. In addition to existing Sonos owners, it also plans to target a new demographic it’s calling “Alex,” which Findlay described as people in their mid 30s to mid 40s who are “a little bit more urban” and that care about lifestyle. A third category described by the persona of “Taylor” is more affluent, early in their career, and younger — between the mid 20s and 30s — who will be reached with marketing that focuses more on culture.

“I was a Sonos customer well before I joined the board,” Findlay told Digiday in an interview last month. “I’m a woman, a Black woman, and Sonos appealed to me. But you look at the numbers at scale, the majority is older, white and more affluent men…Maybe we just need to be a little more intentional in how we attract a broader audience, because our products truly can be for everyone, especially music lovers.”

While Sonos has historically focused more on products in its social media content, the marketing strategy for Ace will use more influencers across music, fashion and sports, including more women’s sports, as well as various areas across culture categories. Sonos also is considering new areas like Formula One — which has becoming increasingly popular for marketing emerging tech brands like crypto and AI — and existing partnerships like its sponsorship of the Liverpool men’s soccer team.

This isn’t Findlay’s first time marketing a new product in a competitive category, whose whose previous roles include global chief marketing officer roles at McAfee, Condé Nast and Stitch Fix. In a previous role as senior director of global hardware marketing for Google, Findlay helped market the Chromecast and Google Home products. Her approach includes a multi-pronged strategy of “swimming upstream” when developing and marketing products. That’s also where aspects like design come into play. (Sonos tested more than 20 different shades of white when coming up with the one it used, the company’s product team said at a press demo last month.)

The goal is to create broader cultural campaigns that are a blend of marketing the design and the audio across social media, connected TV and other platforms. After a first marketing phase for pre-orders across email and other channels, a second phase will weave in the Alex and Taylor audience types. (Before the Ace was announced, musician-actress Suki Waterhouse was spotted wearing them on a street in NYC while filming an upcoming ad campaign.)

“One of the key things I talked about with the team when I joined is reconnecting Sonos to culture,” Findlay said. “When you think about this brand, we have permission to show up in ways that we’ve kind of walked away from the last five years. So we [partnered with] the Grammys this year. And that was just the beginning of that strategy.”

Along with out-of-home ads, connected TV and social commerce, Sonos also plans change its distribution strategy with new partners like Amazon. It’s also exploring ways to integrate Ace through product placements and podcasts such as having hosts wearing the headphones in videos that accompany interviews. Another channel will be paid and organic search marketing, which Google is in the process of overhauling using generative AI. It’s both an opportunity and a challenge as a newcomer to the category when people are used to searching for other options and aren’t yet familiar with Ace.

AI is also playing a role in how Sonos thinks about its customer service strategy via chatbots. For example, it’s already using a new chatbot from Sierra, a startup co-founded by Bret Taylor, an OpenAI board member and former Salesforce co-CEO. Other AI experiments at Sonos are happening across sales, content creation and other aspects of marketing.

In the first four months of 2024, Sonos spent $7 million on advertising for a 35% increase over the same period last year across TV, print, out-of-home and digital channels, according to data provided by MediaRadar, which said Sonos spent $17 million across digital and print advertising. However, that’s just part of the $36.6 million total spent so far this year by Sonos, Apple and Bose. So far this year overall audio equipment market is spending less on advertising. so far this year. And while Apple has reduced spending by 67% year over year, MediaRadar said others like Bose, Sony and Skullcandy have increased ad spending year-over-year.

Despite the late arrival in the category, analysts say the addition makes sense. And while it’s new to high-end headphones, it’s not new to high-end audio. That brand equity will help put them on par with others. According to Dipanjan Chatterjee, Forrester vp and principal analyst, this is a “textbook case of growing the product portfolio by leveraging the core strengths of the brand.” He described the market in three separate slices: Sonos loyalists, loyalists for other ecosystems, and everyone else in the middle that might be more willing to switch. Despite the crowded and mature market, Chatterjee thinks Sonos can move in without much effort and “give itself a nice topline bump” thanks in part to the already high salience of the Sonos brand.

“It’ll be a catfight, but early reviews suggest that the Ace meets the threshold to be able to steal away a reasonable share of that market,” Chatterjee said.

The Ace is a “natural extension” of Sonos’s existing product line and could help bring in new revenue, according to IDC analyst Jitesh Ubrani, who said the headphones seem “somewhat par for the course” when compared against competitors. While existing Sonos customers will benefit from pairing the Ace with other Sonos products, Ubrani said the differentiator might be less appealing for people who already have similar headphones from other brands like Apple, Sony and Bose. One way to market the Ace might be to offer a bundle or other sort of introductory offer to reel in existing users who already own competing products. But when marketing to customers new to the category, he said focusing on premium sound and lifestyle marketing “will go a long way.”

“I think many people don’t know what they’re missing with sound these days,” said Amy Crawford, executive creative director, Music Products at Made Music Studio. “As people listen to media directly off of their tablets, phones or laptops, they’re obviously not getting a full fidelity experience, but I also think people have gotten used to that over time…When sound is done well, it makes an experience richer, more immersive and transformative.” 

Jacqueline Bošnjak, founder & CEO of Mach1, argues that as companies like Sonos and others add in new types of listening — through spatial audio and others types — creators will open up to new types of content. That will also lead to more ways people listen.

“We anticipate that consumers will gain a better understanding of immersive sensor inputs,” Bošnjak said. “As a result, more products like Sonos will be able to utilize user head tracking, orientation, and positioning to create truly unique immersive content. We anticipate that with this increasing capability of hardware, sound-driven content will make a lasting impression, similar to how Orson Welles’ legendary ‘War of the Worlds’ revolutionized radio.”

https://digiday.com/?p=547232

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