October 15, 2019

How Crutchfield Made Consumer Electronics Personal

Crutchfield has been a different kind of electronics retailer ever since Bill Crutchfield started selling car stereos and speakers out of catalogs he wrote and printed at home.

It’s hands-on.

It’s personal.

And it has spent the last 40+ years building relationships with its customers.

As the company writes: “When Crutchfield started selling car stereos and speakers in the 1970s, there wasn’t much to it. We carried a handful of models of each in a limited number of sizes or configurations. And in those days of the ’70s and early ’80s, selling car audio gear through the mail wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Well, not if you wanted to be able to give the customer everything they needed for a DIY installation project. But that was how we wanted to do it.

“Any retailer could sell you a car stereo. Crutchfield wanted you to also have the wiring harness, adapter kit, and basic knowledge that you’d need to get the job done right.

“As the Crutchfield catalog evolved, readers could count on articles that illuminated the murky endeavor of cutting into their car dash and doors and wiring new gear for power. At first, it was Bill’s first-hand account of upgrading the audio in his ’60s-era Porsche and then his ’70s model Mercury. And it continues today.”

Read the full history of Crutchfield’s DIY car audio support. 

The point is… Crutchfield the company had a problem in the 1970s. It was selling a DIY product, through the mail, to a lot of customers who probably didn’t have much experience working on their own car audio systems up until that point. At least into the 80s, most car stereos were just that – stereos – with limited options and add-ons. The amplifiers, and subwoofers, and CD changers and all the rest came later.

How could the company educate its buyers while giving them a reason to come back for more?

How could it connect with people they would likely never meet?

And how could it deliver value that was more than just a voice on the phone?

It did it through the then-unusual medium of content.

Bill Crutchfield created the mold at the very beginning when he shared the story of his Porsche audio upgrade with catalog readers in an early issue. There was no internet in those days, no YouTube, so this was the only exposure most readers had to the inner workings of a car audio system. Just as Apple did a few years later, the company’s communications strategy started out as simply a resource for hobbyists.

And this approach was what the company became – hands-on, personal, relatable. 

He did it again later on with a newer car. And then again. And again. (We were still doing install walk-throughs on a regular basis when I worked there in the 2000s.)

By then, the template – and the company’s voice – was established. Despite the inherent distance of the catalog business, Crutchfield was positioning itself as a trusted partner, an educator in a niche that few knew much about in those days. If you were into car audio in the 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond, Crutchfield was your information source, your friend in the business, your community.

Get down in the trenches

Nothing says more about Crutchfield’s approach to content and customer relations than this photo…

You don’t become the trusted expert in your niche – whether it’s selling car stereos, marketing a B2B SaaS platform, or communicating the value of your financial services product – without being a True. Expert. In. Your. Niche.

I’ll say it again. Expertise matters.

In the digital world these days, there is no shortage

so-called “experts” and “gurus,” most of whom know far about marketing and sales than whatever topic they claim to have mastered. It’s time to be better than that, and backing up your talk is how it’s done.

Connect with people 

The number-one limitation of catalog businesses, as well as today’s digital storefronts, is the lack of that personal touch. You’re not standing across the counter from the person you’re selling to. You’re standing across the country, across an ocean or more.

At Crutchfield, the solution was putting a face on an otherwise faceless brand…

Content got bylines. Photos of actual staffers appeared throughout every catalog. Stories were shared from a personal point of view. 

“Then something happened that seems like a natural in retrospect, but was a game-changer at the time. When a customer opened their box of newly purchased car audio gear, they found a handy booklet accompanying it. It was called “The Installation Doctor.” Combining personal stories, tips, and detailed instructions, the Doctor – Dave Schaefer, in fact – walked customers through the finer points of installing car speakers, a radio, and more in their vehicle.”

And it’s as simple as that…

Questions? Comments? More old Crutchfield stories to share? Hit me up: tim@wearelayup.com.

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