Building trajectory from a powerful legacy - Coley Porter Bell

Building trajectory from a powerful legacy – positioning Martin Guitar for the next 200 years

Many brands aspire to legendary status, but only a select few can truly lay claim to the accolade.

Martin Guitar is one such brand. Founded in 1833, Martin Guitar is America’s oldest guitar manufacturer beloved by some of the world’s favourite artists including Elvis, Jonny Cash, Joan Baez, John Mayer, Ed Sheeran and many more.

A sixth-generation family-owned business, Martin Guitar has been responsible for some of the biggest breakthroughs in guitar design. From the pioneering Dreadnought – what is now known as the modern acoustic guitar – to more recently, the SC series featuring an ingenious new design allows guitarists to play an acoustic guitar more like an electric.

Quite simply, Martin Guitar is historic and innovative in equal measure.

It was time to refresh a legend

But despite the ongoing innovations, a changing market and increased competition resulted in Martin losing its spot as the number one acoustic guitar manufacturer.

At the recent ANA Brand Activation and Creativity Conference, Jenn Szekely, President USA of Coley Porter Bell and Mike Nelson, Vice President of Marketing at Martin Guitar, spoke about the brand’s incredible legacy, and their journey to refresh this unique brand.

With the recent appointment of the first non-family CEO Thomas Ripsam coinciding with the business’s strategic planning process, Martin Guitar realised it was time for change. Martin Guitar and Coley Porter Bell began a year-long process to unlock the next phase of the company’s life.

Coley Porter Bell dug deep into the DNA of Martin Guitar, spending time at the factory, museum and headquarters in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, getting close to the whole organisation. There, the team conducted trend analyses, audited competitors, and performed a deep dive into the brand and what makes it unique. It found that the competitive space was a sea of sameness, meaning there was room to stand out.

Industry shifts informed the brand refresh; namely, the large shift in demographics – expanding from a predominantly male audience to a more diverse, younger demographic – as well as the influence that new platforms like Twitch, TikTok and Fortnite have had on how consumers discover music. It was time for Martin Guitar to create an emotional connection with established and future players and guide them on their journeys to artists.

Diving into the past, present, and future to determine a new brand purpose

At Martin, anyone who picks up a Martin Guitar is an artist and this idea was encapsulated in the new brand purpose: to unleash the artist within.

“We were told that the logo is sacred; it cannot change and it’s not going anywhere”
-Jenn Szekely, President of Coley Porter Bell.

Originally hand-drawn with a brush, the nearly 200-year-old Martin Guitar logo was deemed untouchable by both the Martin family and Coley Porter Bell. However, Jenn explained that it wasn’t fit for digital platforms and didn’t convey the craftsmanship that goes into the products. Coley Porter Bell took on the challenge of optimising the logo by sharpening the font, opening the counterpoints and making the whitespace clearer, bringing it closer to the original mark designed.

“The irony is that we went back more than 100 years to get to a design that feels very modern”
-Mike Nelson, Vice President Marketing, Martin Guitar

Jenn shared a detailed account of the new visual identity system Coley Porter Bell created for Martin Guitar with the guitar manufacturer’s iconic brand elements front of mind. It included expanding the colour palette around the iconic green hue to include fresh coral and white; revamping the photography to unrestrained lifestyle images; creating secondary graphics inspired by the frets and strings of a guitar; and introducing new typefaces to highlight the juxtaposition of heritage and modernity.

Playing with personalisation

Martin Guitar has a custom shop that provides fans with the opportunity to create their own personalised guitars. Coley Porter Bell wanted the offer to feel different from the core brand, and so it focused on leaning into the craftsmanship of the products and the personalised experience created by Martin Guitar. By introducing brown and gold and designing a secondary graphic exclusive to the custom shop, it showcased the precision it takes to create each guitar.

Jenn and Mike also discussed how the Martin Guitar board had approved a whole new experience for its custom shop and that it will be building a separate brand experience for artists embarking on this exciting endeavour.

Things we learned along on the journey to refresh a legend
  1. The past should not overpower the future.

With so many incredible artists in its repertoire, it would be easy for Martin Guitar to rely on its history, but that would mean missing out on the future. Martin Guitar soon realised in the process that if it didn’t embrace the future, new up-and-coming artists and how they are experienced music, it was going to be left behind.

  1. New and existing customers can co-exist.

Brands often worry about neglecting existing customers in trying to reach a new audience. But for Martin Guitar, the brand is just as relevant for young people as it is for its lifelong fans. Curating a flexible visual identity can negate fears of exclusion and allow a broader audience to experience a brand relevant to them.

  1. Engage and inspire the internal organisation and make it easy for the whole organisation to embrace.

If it’s just the marketing department championing a brand repositioning, it won’t have as much of an impact. It’s vital to have buy-in from the top of the organisation and champion the new messaging to everyone including factory teams, retailers, and distributors.

  1. Make implementation a top priority – live the brand.

Sometimes when companies embark on a brand exercise, it can end up becoming little more than words on a boardroom wall. Businesses must live the new brand. So, Martin Guitar expanded its activity to focus on helping and inspiring artists to foster lifelong relationships. This included partnering with Crayola’s Creativity Week, sponsoring events like Musikfest and the World of Bluegrass festival and partnering with online lessons programmes to help artists unlock their creativity.

Check out the full session here.

To view the work check out the case study here.