Coopers Column: ‘What’s in a name? Is Gibson getting silly with signatures?’

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An instalment of Coopers Column; theories and rants from the one and only Gary Cooper!

Some while ago, circling in the tank along with my fellow piranhas as we eyed the collapse of Gibson Guitars, I wrote that I had my doubts that things would change as much under its new leadership as many of us hoped. It seemed to me that the retail model the company had adopted under Henry Juszkiewicz’s reign was not so very different from that being employed by several other companies in our industry and that I couldn’t see a successor being in a rush to change it – not least because it placed the manufacturer very much in the driving seat..

The only thing that would force Gibson to change its ways, I felt, was if there was a rebellion among its dealers and, as they were reputedly doing quite well out of the arrangement, that seemed unlikely. True, there were seditious stirrings. The late Jeff Pumfrett, the owner of World Guitars, wrote an open letter which was quite widely circulated in the trade, berating the guitar maker for, among other things, its dictatorial policies and what he said were quality control issues, but for the most part the bigger retailers, who were the only ones involved, seemed willing to grin and bear it.

Well, here we are under new ownership and with a new management team which is starting to show us what it has in store, or, rather, what retailers are expected to have in their stores. In recent weeks, this has seen the launch of two signature guitars. One is a ‘Lee Roy Parnell 59 Les Paul Standard’, the other a ‘Michael Clifford Signature Melody Maker’. Will they cause queues to form outside Gibson dealers in the UK?

No doubt the company would accuse me or parochialism and insist that I really should know that Lee Roy Parnell has released nine albums and is a noted country and blues player. Similarly, the fact that Australian guitarist Michael Clifford plays with a band called 5 Seconds of Summer, who have topped the US Billboard charts three times, shouldn’t have passed me by – and they would possibly be right. In my defence, a quick straw poll among UK MI trade people revealed that I’m not alone in my woeful ignorance and even on Gibson’s own forum, a reader commented: ‘Yeah sig models are nice but when they are paying homage to some guy only 25 fourteen year old (s) know, what the point. If you have to look up the gunslingers name to find out he is in a band called 5 Seconds Of Summer.

‘Hendrix, Trower, King, Howe, Page, Moore, Schencker ect. Yep deserving. Michael Clifford? WTF’

It’s hard not to agree. And, in any case, isn’t a Les Paul already a signature guitar? Where will all this end? In twenty years time will we be be seeing the ‘Les Paul Michael Clifford Billy Bogiss Betty Boothroyd’ signature’ model?

Does any of this matter matter? Well, yes it does – if only because of the way retailers are expected to stock signature products and what that says about the company’s overall attitude.

According to my spies, at least two UK retailers (who have to remain anonymous for obvious reasons) were reportedly underwhelmed by Gibson’s latest choice of endorsee, though one imagines they will they will be still expected to stock them and ‘get behind’ the products. But why? As one veteran industry observer said to me; ‘If your brand is all about leverage then there’s something wrong with the brand’, which is pretty hard to disagree with, surely?

In Gibson’s defence, in some respects it is caught between the proverbial rock and the metaphorical hard place. Recent humiliations when it has tried to innovate (its unloved Robot to name just one) can’t encourage it to try anything really new just yet, and even the most diehard Gibson lover must eventually get tired of yet more Les Paul reissues, so what is it supposed to do? Perhaps that is the reasoning behind this latest move – to freshen-up yet more reissues with a few new names? As a strategy that might possibly even work in its homeland, but will it in the UK, Holland or Germany?

It’s not only guitar manufacturers who have these problems, of course. The most notoriously endorsement driven segment in the MI industry is drums and percussion but even given the willingness of drummers to be open minded and pretty catholic in their musical tastes (far more so than guitarists in my experience), most percussion brands have learned not to automatically expect huge sales of a product endorsed by someone very few have heard of outside their home territory.

As one of the industry’s most important brands – one of the very few that has recognition beyond the musicians market – it’s important that Gibson gets its relaunch right but it needs to offer the sort of products overseas markets need – not just try to sell us what it thinks will play well on its home turf. OK, we’re all bored to tears by the interminable Gibson I-heart-Slash love affair, but surely the company’s marketing gurus can do better than a Gibson WTFocaster?