Walkman strolls into future

Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — The Walkman has legs again.

Twenty-one years after introducing its "personal stereo" and seeing it become the epitome of cool, Sony Electronics found that in this digital era, younger music lovers tended to view the Walkman with the same sort of disdain that baby boomers have for eight-track tape decks.

Now in hopes of reversing the trend, Sony is stamping the hallowed Walkman brand on all 60 of its portable music devices, from the CD players once called Discman to the latest portable products that download digital music files from the Internet.

To create a new buzz, the company engaged in a summer-long marketing onslaught aimed at the trend-setting "Generation Y": the age bracket ranging from 14 to 24 years old.

"They associated the name with analog tapes and clunky yellow tape players," said John D. Hambrick, the Sony executive in charge of restoring the Walkman brand. "Part of it was our fault. We hadn’t really protected or worked the franchise as well as we might have. The brand was frozen in time."

Al Ries, a marketing strategist who runs his own firm in Roswell, Ga., thinks Sony should have kept the Walkman brand under wraps.

"Brands have a cycle, especially in technology. They live for a while and then they die," he said. "When you are working with something that is perceived as yesterday’s technology, you aren’t going to change peoples’ minds, no matter how much money you spend."

Sony’s strategy makes sense to Randall Ringer, director of technology and communications for FutureBrand, a brand consultant.

"They let the Walkman sort of become your father’s stereo, but this is a smart move," Ringer said. "There is too much heritage and equity tied up in the brand to just let it go now."

Jennifer Schmelzer, a member of Generation Y from Pleasanton, Calif., disagreed.

Schmelzer, 19, said Sony should just concentrate on making good products. "What I care about is that a CD player isn’t going to skip on me or just fall apart on me," she said.

Sony hired Young &amp Rubicam to develop an advertising campaign called "The Walkman Has Landed," featuring a hip, music-loving space alien named Plato. Sony has spent heavily to place the Plato ads in youth-oriented media vehicles, such as MTV and Rolling Stone.

When Sony introduced its first 14-ounce "personal stereo" in 1979, the product revolutionized the way people listened to music and quickly became a ubiquitous symbol of a mobile society. Sony won’t say how many Walkmans it sells annually, but estimates that it has sold about 100 million personal stereos in 21 years.

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