I joined Victrola as CEO in October 2019. As a lifelong music lover, the brand is at the center of some of my earliest and most vivid music memories. I can still see and hold the blue Victrola suitcase turntable gifted to me when I was a child. On it, I wore out the Beatles 45rpm record of “Hey Jude” with “Revolution” on the flip side.
But I knew nostalgia alone shouldn’t drive my decision to lead a company. I did a lot of research to answer two key questions: “Is there a clear path forward for the 100-plus-year-old brand?” and, “Can I positively influence that path forward?”
The answer to both questions was yes. Since then, my team and I have embarked on a massive transformation to re-center Victrola as a music-first, memory-building brand, delivering quality products to fans in collaboration with partners.
We are nowhere near done, but we have learned some things about evolving a legacy company along the way.
Without a ‘why,’ there is no anchor.
When I arrived, the company had passionate employees but no mission statement. It was clear that Victrola was a music brand, but what we didn’t have defined was our underlying promise to consumers.
Some may think mission statements are superficial. I think they should capture a brand’s reason for being. Our approach was to build our mission up in a way that grounds company strategy and serves as a lighthouse for future product development, internal and external communications, partnerships, and more.
After much research and discussion, we agreed on a mission statement: We create lifelong music memories for everyone. Almost every word in it is meaningful.
Lifelong stands for quality, trust, and timelessness. As a brand, Victrola first emerged as a product of the Victor Talking Machine Company, which was founded in Camden, N.J. in 1901. Its iconic original logo — a dog sticking its snout into the horn of a phonograph — remains synonymous with the idea of the record player. Lifelong is about living in people’s homes across generations — I first experienced records on a many-decades-old crank-up Victrola at my grandmother’s house. The technology and design may have originated more than a century ago, but except for the horn speaker, record players pretty much work the same way.
As for music, it’s our craft and our passion. If a Victrola product is not delivering music, we’re not creating it. Similarly, if you’re working at Victrola, you’re a music lover (or a failed musician, like me).
The word memories ensures our products help consumers create special moments on which they can reflect — the first time they play their favorite album for their son or daughter, for example. And everyone is about accessibility. There are music lovers of all shapes and sizes out there, and we want to be their brand of choice.
The mission statement became our why, and we make every decision with it in mind.
Consult with customers and partners.
To get to our why, we looked internally. Looking externally was also critical to arriving at the truth.Here’s what we learned from our customers. Awareness levels for Victrola were 56 percent higher than our closest competitor, but a significant number of people thought the brand was obsolete. Those who did buy were not fully satisfied with the overall experience. A common thread was: “It doesn’t quite sound as good as it looks.” Still, those consumers were attached to the brand and looking for more opportunities to engage. Customers also told us they were willing to spend more for better sound quality, but they wanted simplicity. This led us to immediately addressing our current assortment, improving the acoustics, electronics, and materials.
For our factories and reseller partners, we took a consultative approach. Our goal was to understand what was working, and what we could do better. We learned there were too many products in our line and not enough focus on quality and differentiation. Because of that, it was hard for partners to understand what Victrola stood for, the clear benefits for end consumers, and what products to put on shelves. Some of our partners had gaps in their assortment that, if filled, could increase their profitability.
At the same time, we understood more people were listening to records than we ever imagined, and music continued to be a lifelong passion point. We did a survey and asked people if they had a vinyl record player in the home. Sixty percent said yes. Of those, more than 60 percent said they used it more than once a month, and nearly half of them stated they were interested in purchasing another record player.
The potential was undeniable. And, starting a new online record store, which we launched at the end of 2020, became an obvious strategy.
Our store is an important tool for us. It teaches us about customer preference, builds lifelong relationships, and helps drive a complete solution for consumers. The added online retail experience means that today, customers come to our website to browse, purchase, and tell us what they think more regularly. We’ll be listening (and also, ready to sell them a new record player).
Don’t skimp on product development.
It seems counterintuitive, but the first thing we did to elevate product development was to dramatically decrease the number of products we created.
We went from about 340 active SKUs per year to 50. This move eliminated distractions in our product offerings — retro refrigerators, lava lamps with speakers — that didn’t align completely with our mission. It allowed us to refocus on music products that not only look and sound great, but are also easy to use.
We also invested in engineering, acoustics, and design talent — people equipped to build products with soul.
But it wasn’t a straight path. We had to zig and zag a bit to meet market demand. When our new Head of Product and Brand, Don Inmon, joined in January 2020, his Number One charge focused on our holiday products. Don squeezed a product development process that typically spans a year and a half into just three months. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend such an accelerated overhaul, but we were fortunate to have the immense talent of Don and his team to create some solid interim products with improved audio quality.
Moving forward, we will afford product development the space it deserves and approach it from a position of quality and building trust.
Build operations around the strategic plan.
For many years, Victrola operated like a successful entrepreneurial, founder-led organization. However, few processes existed to allow for sustainable practices or an ongoing global business rhythm. This wasn’t a big deal…until it came time to scale. When a company moves to meet the masses, the need for structure becomes imperative.
We had so much to tackle on the product side that we pushed off truly operationalizing our business rhythms, structures, and practices until recently.
In hindsight, I’d build an operating rhythm around the strategic plan out of the gate instead of forcing a strategic plan into current and limited processes. Processes ensure you achieve the critical outcomes to complete a strategic plan; they are not meant to make life easier for one person or group. The moment a process gets in the way of serving the grand mission, it’s wrong. It needs to be fixed or even blown up.
So, where are we on our transformation mission? I’d say about three-fourths there.
We are months away from completing our operational transformation, and from a product and customer perspective, we are well down the path of delivering the future of Victrola. For example, we added a new product development team that in less than one year filled the gaps our customers told us exist in the record player category. This includes an all-in-one system that looks beautiful, is easy to use, and sounds like a premium audio system, as well as a more portable suitcase turntable. The products will be in the market starting late summer.
Next, we want to explore how technology and vinyl complement each other. Playing records over Bluetooth resulted in a customer wow factor. You will see us continue to use our understanding of acoustics and technology to improve sound even more on our players.
I get jazzed when we see signs of positive evangelism. Partners are responding to the differentiated line by carrying more of our products in-store. We are increasing our share-of-shelf.
We started addressing consumers more proactively via different media channels and achieved one billion impressions in under 60 days as a result of a strategic campaign and our PR agency’s partnership. Consumers are also finding the connection they sought. One customer told us: “I can’t believe how great it is to listen to my old records again. It feels like home.” Moments like these, when you see the mission come to life, cause a collective employee rush.
If I’m honest, I’d probably say we are always three-fourths there. The funny thing about potential is the more of it you achieve, the more it expands. Some may consider that a tease, but I see it as an opportunity to become even better, every day.