Rockman - Marketing

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1. Foreword 2. Property 3. Manufacturing 4. Electronics 5. Versioning 6. Marketing 7. Distribution 8. Support

The first key marketing argument for the Rockman line was, of course, Boston. A lot of people have purchased Rockman gear because they loved Boston’s music, and the sound of these records. Rockman "by Tom Scholz" was a sufficient argument in the eighties, and that's a unique situation: would you buy a "Pignose by Kath" ? Probably not, cause the name Kath was not famous enough, while "Pignose by a member of Chicago" would have been too long to write on a portable amp.

But Rockman is not Boston only, of course. You can even become a Rockman-addict without being interested by Boston! So let's review SR&D's marketing and sales strategy without this Boston aspect, as if the tag "by Tom Scholz" had never been here.

Rockman: the name

For the young people born in the eighties or the nineties, the name Walkman is just another word, and Rockman is more likely a video game than a guitar device.

For the older ones (basically, the parents of these young persons!), the "Walkman by Sony" has changed the place of music in the daily life. Before the creation of this "portable K7 stereo player with headphones", what did we have?

  • Crappy radios, always mono, usually AM - the FM was still a luxury.
  • Record players. Most of the time mono, sometimes stereo, always crappy.
  • Portable K7 players: probably the most popular music support amongst the young generations. Mono, crappy sound.
  • Expensive hifi sets: something that everyone couldn't afford.

Some of these devices were portable, but they were not devices that you could both carry and use at the same time. You could listen to a K7 with friends, or annoy people around you with your radio on the beach. But you couldn't travel by train, go shopping or run in Central Park and listen to your music with what we had.

Headphones: that's what the Walkman has introduced in our lives. In other terms, the first brick of Roger Water's Wall, these Walls of collective individualism that people started building at the end of the seventies: maybe a reaction after too much community life during the hippy period?

The sound quality of the Walkman was amazing for the time: almost hifi. It was a huge success, and the legacy is still here today: the Ipod for example.

How, why and when did Tom Scholz match his amp sim concept with the Walkman headphones stereo concept? That's the real question. Cause after all, 25 years after, the Rockman has little interest as a headphones device, but one thing is clear: it was the first compact device that would allow a guitar player play without an amp. And that's all that really counts.

Without an amp... If you took a little French during you highschool years, you may remember that the french word for "without" is "sans". Got it? Without Amp, "Sans ampli" in french, "Sansamp" back in the US...

Does it mean that Tom Scholz should have named his concept with a similar name (something meaning "no amp" or "amp simulator")? No, not in 1982. The concept was from far too revolutionary, and there was no request from the market for an amp simulation: people were happy with their big amps. Moreover, names that start with "No" or that say "I'm not the real stuff" have little chance to succeed at a large scale.

When Andrew Barta introduced the Sansamp in 1989, things were different. The eighties were the decade of hi-tech rigs, and the Rockman products had made the market more familiar with the DI, no amp concept. The talent of Barta was double: first, an outstanding level of quality, second, the right name for the DI concept. NoAmp wouldn't have worked, but Sansamp did: the market was ready (though the financial winners were the digital gear manufacturers...).

In 1982, the name Sansamp wouldn't have worked. But surfing on the headphones wave was a brilliant idea: it was answering this need of movement and personal (not to say selfish) dynamics that has stamped the eighties. Hence the name Rockman!

Some of you may wonder why others can use the same name for a video game, or why the web domain doesn't belong to Dunlop. Well, a trademark is associated to an activity domain, and from a legal standpoint, there is no real law enfrigement if one uses a similar name for something different. Fender had to rename the Broadcaster because the name was already used for a drumset by Gretsch, but had it been the name of a car, the renaming wouldn't have been necessary.


You will find an almost complete collection of the ads placed by SR&D in the guitar magazines here.

These ads can be classified in five groups, corresponding to the five periods of SR&D’s history:

  • 1981-1982: SR&D is a start-up that has created the Power-Soak. The ads are black&white and aim at explaining what the product is.
  • 1982-1986: The Rockman headphone amp ads are focused on the sound, more than on the concept itself (amp simulation)
  • 1986-1990: Ads for the Rockmodules insist on the products quality. One more time, the DI, amp simulation concept is not pushed in front of the communication
  • 1990-1991: The Midi programmable XPR is presented as the “monster”, the unit without “sound barrier”.
  • 1991-1994: SR&D has clearly reduced the communication and marketing budget: the end is close.

So what? If your refer to the ads only, SR&D’s communication was centered on one thing: the product, its sound, and its technical qualities. It makes sense for a gear manufacturer, after all, but there’s nothing about the musician, nothing about his rig, nothing about the needs of the potential customer.

A product-oriented marketing seems logical, in a first approach. After all, if someone is interested in what you sell, all he wants to hear about is the product itself.

“If someone is interested”…

In a second approach, a product-oriented communication is absurd. You cannot develop the sales if you assume in advance that people are interested by your products!

You need to get them interested, and you need to understand what their needs are. You need to understand what they have played with before, you need to understand what they have in mind when they think about their musical future, and selling your product will depend on your capacity to know in detail who your customer is.

When you can do that, you are ready to develop your sales: instead of claiming “my product is good” (everybody says that), you can propose some solutions and some answers to the potential customers’ expectations.

In other terms, SR&D’s ads were not customer oriented. Instead of involving the potential customer in a story where Rockman gear is a must, this communication was basically saying “hey you, see what I make, and believe me, it sounds good!”.

I’m not saying that SR&D's communication strategy was not the right one: after all, SR&D did fairly well! But it’s a communication strategy which is based on the fact that the buyer is already convinced that he needs your gear, instead of aiming at convincing more people to buy your products.

As a matter of fact, if one wanted more information about what the Rockman products can do, he had to buy the product first, in order to get the owner’s manuals that were excellent documents, probably the best ads that the products have had…

We are speaking about the ads only. We'll see below how SR&D actually managed to use a customer oriented marketing strategy: it was not through the conventional ads.

Listen to what people have to say. Understand what their concerns are. Make sure that they had the possibility to express their concern, and confirm that your understanding of their concern is correct. Then show them that you have an answer to this concern. Make them believe in what you do, not by claiming “my gear is the best gear”, but by proving that your product is the best solution to their concern. When this is done, you can also go to the next step: convince them that you will always be here for them, when their needs have grown and their requirements have evolved.

Instead of considering the customer as a static entity ("a customer is someone who buys my product"), you consider the customer as someone who has a past (i.e. requirements that need a solution) and a future (what will he/she need after he buys a first product): that's a dynamic vision of what a customer is.

That’s what industrial manufacturers can do, with huge marketing and communication budgets. Not because their products are better (they can be crappy, it doesn’t change anything): they convince people that they have the solution to their concern, usually by proposing a wide offer that says “no matter what you need, we have it”.

To a certain extent, the simple Power Soak commercial ads were closer to this customer approach. The rationale is “You know what the problem with a loud amp is. The Power Soak is the solution to this problem”.

Other ads were, from time to time, also presenting the product as a solution to a concern:

  • “How do you turn eight effects at once?” for the Octopus
  • “I want that sound”, for the XPR.
  • "No other amp can do it" for the Autoclean

But the strength of SR&D’s marketing was not the ads. The strength was in fact the concept itself.

Once you have purchased a first Rockman module, a half-rack, you will certainly feel like buying another half, especially if you have purchased a Rockman rack-tray that accepts Rockman modules.

Let’s say you have bought a Sustainor and a Chorus/Delay. You will want to refine your sound, and buy two EQ’s, cause you have read in the manuals that in the Rockman concept is based, the EQ’s have a key role. Then you realize that the Sustainor has two channels only, and you buy a Distortion Generator to have a third sound. Of course, these modules become tricky to control with all these footswitches, you will finally buy a Midi Octopus.

You have now six modules and three rack-trays, just because you have, one day, purchased a Rockman Sustainor. Not bad!

That's where the marketing SR&D was dynamic: the product itself places the customer in a story that has a past (before Rockman), a present (buy a module) then a future (buy other modules). The product's concept was itself the basis of this dynamic strategy, while the ads completed the approach via a classic product-oriented communication. The product-oriented communication assumes that the customer is interested by the product. With the Rockman line, you are interested by the next module you will buy, and this new requirement is caused by the modules you have purchased before.

I'm not sure that this strategy was designed on purpose. But all in all, it was brilliant, and it worked!


A user will naturally always consider that what he buys should be cheaper. That’s a natural reflex. But we all know that pricing is a complex subject for a company:

  • High prices allow focusing on quality products rather than mass production.
  • A real high price usually allows better margins, provided the sales are here.
  • Selling too high reduces the opportunities to sell
  • Selling too low will of course cause a production cost issue.
  • Selling low is a good way to attract more customers, but selling too low can damage the product image.

Determining the right “Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price” is not an easy subject. We have information about the list price proposed by SR&D, via various documents and ads.

The first difficulty is to convert these old list prices into today’s prices. The official inflation is one thing, but some prices have actually tripled in 20 years (gas has raised from $1/gallon to nearly $3), while others have diminished, basically because some products, still new and “hi-tech” in 1987, are now mass products made at no cost somewhere on the planet.

On an average basis, one can though consider that the basic prices of the daily life have doubled in 20 years. A Rockman X100 was sold $350, i.e. $700 if we want to compare it with prices of 2007. The Rockman Sustainor was sold at the same price. OK, the manufacturing methods have evolved, and one could probably sell the same products for $500 or $600. Rockman gear was expensive, no matter how you calculate: just a confirmation that SR&D was positioned in the high-end domain, as opposed to the mass-market consumer products.

Different strategies were used by SR&D in terms of prices. For most of the products, the list price was basically a direct consequence of their manufacturing cost. The prices of the Rockmodules are thus coarsely proportional to their complexity and to their number of components:

  • $149 for the Guitar Compressor
  • $199 for the Distortion Generator and the Instrument EQ
  • $249 for the Midi Octopus
  • $349 for the Rockman Sustainor

For some items, the price was raised, either to make it consistent with the rest of the range, either because the sales were not as high as expected. The Smart Gate, which is now a reference in its domain, was produced in a limited number: only 1940 items. The initial price of the Smart Gate was $129, just like the Guitar Compressor. A few years later, the GC was at $149, while the SG was at $189…

Then the “market-driven” products: the Rockman-Ultralight was made in a design-to-cost approach: a "Rockman for $198.95". Ten years later, the Guitar Ace, “A real Rockman for $99”...

Copyright 2008