Bang & Olufsen in the Digital Age

In the wake of the spiritual liberation at the dawn of jazz and the blossom of art deco, the pursuit of liberty and rebellion took various shapes in the 1920s.

While fashionistas were dazzled by simplicity, richness in colour and exotic prints, and interior designers embraced geometric patterns, sharp angles and symmetry, two young passionate Denmark engineers, Peter Bang and Svend Olufsen, fascinated by the booming radio industry in the 1920s, were poised to make a big statement in the acoustic realm.

The founders of Bang & Olufsen hit it off immediately when they were introduced by a common friend in 1925, and soon set up their own venture in a small town named Struer, with the iconic B&O logo later designed by a 16-year-old artist.

Since then, the brand has been redefining the beauty of audio-visual systems for almost a century: from the creation of the BeoSound 9000 in 1996; a CD player/radio that the company calls a “kinetic sculpture”; the Beogram 6000 in 1974; the BeoLab 5 in 2003; the BeoPlay A9 in 2012 to the BeoLab 90 speaker last year.

Known for its cutting-edge designs, elegant simplicity and bold use of silhouettes, its designs have always been one step ahead of the style that the era represents. Some products from the last century, such as the BeoSound 9000 or Beogram 6000, still offer a window into the future, even by today’s standards.

Now the job to push the envelope of both design and technology has passed into the hands of Marie Kristine Schmidt, corporate vice-president and head of brand, design and marketing at Bang & Olufsen.

“Our core design philosophy is about putting people before technology,” she says in a determined voice.

“In practical terms it means our design process always starts with human beings, and how they live with technology. That’s what we design against.”

Joining the company in 2012 as senior manager and head of the creative centre, Schmidt stepped up as corporate VP in 2014, helming the global brand strategy, consumer research, UX design, marketing and public relations.

“We strive hard to remove rather than to add through our design. This is the way we ensure our design clearly communicates the products. Every given thing on our products serves a purpose. Then we work towards the synthesis of design and technology in order to deliver a holistic and magical experience.”

Categorising B&O as an electronics manufacturer would be unfair because each B&O product doesn’t only excel in function, but also stands out in design.

If you were searching for an electronic product, be it a television or a speaker, you would navigate around and compare different brands, but if you’re looking to buy a B&O television or speaker, you’d skip comparing because you know you are buying more than a device, but rather a piece of furniture that reflects your tastes.
“B&O is an emotional brand,” she says.

“We target people who are curious about new technology, fashion and interior, who care about science, who love music and who appreciate quality. We are not targeting people who take price as a standalone parameter.”
This kind of stubbornness on beautiful design is perhaps why B&O has survived and thrived for almost a century.

This year the manufacturer posted robust revenue growth of 12%, strongly driven by B&O PLAY with 58% growth, a fairly new, but fast growing unit in the B&O portfolio marked by its noise-cancelling headphones, both wired and wireless, designed for the smartphone generation.

But this success doesn’t come easy. As a “design-led” company, B&O, long accustomed to pursuing its own path, learned the importance of following consumer trends the hard way.

Its first sticky patch came in 2008 with the arrival of the global financial crisis. Banking on compact disk players and large screen televisions, B&O’s products seemed out of sync with the trends at a time when music consumption was tilting towards mobile phones and portable devices. The company suffered from lagging sales for years.

“We learn from the past,” she says. “Human beings change all the time, and the way people live with technology has changed so we have to adapt to that change as well, which means portability and flexibility. All these have an impact on the way that you express yourself through design.”

It was not only declining sales, but also its promise to put humans before technology that prompted the manufacturer to rethink its approach to its products’ functionality and relevancy to the market.
“We live in a world of wireless so all our products now include wireless. We have a good range of Bluetooth speakers, and what we call connected audio speakers.”

With an eye to the future, B&O is continuing its devotion to its heritage on aesthetic cues, with an enduring obsession from the roaring 1920s.

Its newly launched brass colour toned collection “Cool Modern”, for example, is clothed in bold temperamental colours with a stringent architectural form, inspired by both contemporary interior trends and the art deco movement.

The collection comprises the wireless music system BeoSound 35 with the BeoLab 18 speakers, along with the wireless speakers BeoSound 1, BeoSound 2 as well as the new BeoVision 14 television.

“We are a design-led company with state-of-the-art technology, and it’s the way that we make acoustic and inspiring designs come together that sets us apart,” she says.

“When you buy B&O you buy much more than just consumer electronics; you buy products that are 100% designed to cater for special occasions, designs that are domesticated so they can fit into your home; and you buy products that make your living space more beautiful.”

This aesthetic edge is guarded by a prolific design team of 25 people, overseeing the user experience design and service design, closely linked with innovative and prototyping workshops which provide engineering skills and competencies.

Collaboration with designers from outside B&O is also highlighted as “we want to ensure they steer clear of the organisation, we make sure they continue to push us, challenge us, and come in with a fresh mind”.

Earlier in August, the brand joined forces with fashion label Supreme for a portable speaker range, injecting a youthful enthusiasm to its product with a louder hue in bright red.

“It’s important to have the guts to lead in design.”

In the enduring fight for good quality, much effort has also been invested in what the company calls the “torture test”, which includes a transportation test, drop test, bump test and cold storage test to make sure all loopholes are found before the new products leave the lab.

Operating 650 stores globally, B&O has embarked on a digital journey with a heavy focus on enhancing its digital presence and customer engagement via an omni-channel approach.

“In the old days we used liner progression in approaching customers, whereas today, customers are all over the place. How to listen and react to what customers are talking about us in the digital realm, and how do we seamlessly drive customers from different platforms into our stores is our focus.”

To maintain its growing sales momentum, the audio giant needed to earn more accurate sales insights by better monitoring buyers behaviours online. B&O’s answer was to turn to data mining a few years ago targeting most forcefully on its bestselling line B&O Play.

“To fully understand the customer journey, we need to understand the ways people are looking into our new products online in order to drive that traffic to either social media or our websites,” says the marketer.

“Also we need to understand how we leverage CRM to measure customer relationships, for example how to get customers’ permission to get their emails.”

With high standard systems, watching videos or listening to music is indeed a magical experience that offers users an emotional sanctuary to disconnect from the world. Such an experience is beyond what money can buy particularly for products that are made better, look fancier and aim to last longer.