When Christopher Ian Bennett became Guitar Center’s VP of Communications and Corporate Affairs in 2013, he immediately identified challenges the brand had to overcome.
In less than two years, Christopher razed and rebuilt how the company did content marketing and flipped its media relations strategy, contributing to increases in brand awareness, share of voice and earned media.
Christopher recently sat down with Cision to discuss his work and the theories behind his strategies. See how Guitar Center has revamped its communications and how your brand could benefit by adopting a similar mindset.
Q: What challenges did you face when you took over as the VP of Communications?
A: Believe it or not, we’re the world’s largest musical instrument retailer, and most people outside of the industry trade press really didn’t know about it.
There are a lot of good reasons for that. If you don’t play music or aren’t an audiophile, you probably haven’t gone into a Guitar Center. In some ways, Guitar Center is a niche, yet music is all around us.
I had the challenge of taking an already established and healthy company to the mainstream press and telling them how we got here and showcasing our proud history, while also letting everyone know that you don’t have to be a pro player to shop at Guitar Center. It’s not a pro shop for the best of the best. It’s never too late to pick up a drum kit, keyboard or harmonica.
Q: How’d you build you communications team?
A: We hadn’t had a communications or corporate affairs department. I saw a great opportunity to go in from day one and create a modern and effective department.
In a lot of cases, you have to rebuild old systems or find talent to support that. With Guitar Center, it was kind of like a blank canvas. We set out to find the heart and soul of our employees and customers.
My view of good communications is that it’s a two-way conduit. It’s the message you put out there for your customers and what they’re saying about you.
Long before we got ready to push a message out, I traveled to a lot of cities visiting stores, acting like a customer, talking to employees who didn’t realize I was the new VP of Communications to see what they thought about our stores. I wanted to ensure we spoke to their key passion points.
Q: Why did you bring your communications team in-house?
A: For the most part, we did not have a tremendous amount of success with external agencies. The biggest challenge was the people who were going to help us on the creative. We needed people on our account that played music.
You never truly understand the customer unless you understand their passion. In-house is about being the closest we can to the heartbeat of the business. So many of our employees are in the process of learning or already play an instrument.
Q: As a store in the music industry, how important is multimedia content for you?
A: Part of my job is to remind people that we are a film and media company with a retail problem.
We have fully embraced and leveraged multimedia content. We have a hit TV show (Guitar Center Sessions) going into its ninth season with almost 100 episodes on DirectTV. We have really embraced what media can do for us.
It was really important in my communications strategy that beyond the in-store experience we can deliver to our stakeholders an incredible media experience where you can feel that brand on mobile, TV, wherever.
In our show, artists talk about the creative process and, as a byproduct, about equipment and instruments. Multimedia is definitely a big part of what we do, and I try to put it front and center.
Q: Why has Guitar Center Sessions been so successful?
A: I think the secret is that we have always wanted to put the authenticity and passion for music first. If you watch our show or consume our other content, it’s not overtly branded.
What we’ve tried to do is to interview artists who have a passion for creating music. And when they talk about that passion, they instantly become like our customers. The show doesn’t feel like advertising.
Brands should have the goal of creating true content that is standalone and successful outside of their retail offering. A lot of companies will put the brand first. We put the artists and the message first.
Q: How do you determine the platforms to use and the type of content to create?
A: We look where our customers and where audiophiles are. Are they listening to podcasts on their iPhone? On Spotify?
We’re talking about where they’re looking and consuming these things. We make it a point to look at it every month to see if anything is new.
We’re open to anything. We just want to make sure we understand what they want. If you push them all to Pinterest, for example, it may not be effective because it doesn’t fit your audience.
My advice is to resist the trends and look for insights. Don’t let the new trends be your starting point. Every demographic is different. Our industry, like many others, is evolving right now in many different ways and across platforms. As communicators, we have to be very understanding of that.
Q: Earlier you talked about taking an established brand to the press. How did you create a relationship with the press?
A: We built the first ever media day. It’s an annual event now. Every year we invite the press to see our business from the inside. I developed a policy of absolute transparency and openness with the media.
Before, we had taken the opposite stance. I don’t think our organization had a particularly positive relationship with the industry press.
At the end of the day, the press is trying to get a look at the inside of a company and what they aim to accomplish. We embraced that direction, and I think that’s a big part of the success we’ve seen in trying to tell and disseminate our story.
Q: Were there any reservations about becoming so transparent?
A: You have to give the press a lot of credit. They’re understanding, they get it. You can change your relationship with the press overnight if you respect what they do and respect what they’re trying to communicate with their readership.
In many businesses, there’s an unwillingness to get too comfy or cozy with the press because of the obvious problems of bad press. Fair reporting is what we’re trying to achieve.
I have found reporters to be incredibly fair. We never run from the tough questions. We’re not afraid of those questions even if we don’t always have the best answers. We find that what reporters really want is to share success stories.