Opinion

Five minutes in the future with: Joy Howard, SONOS

18 November, 2016 Share socially

A beautifully-designed, premium, connected home audio system used by the likes of music industry legends, Rick Rubin, Q-Tip and Garry Clark Jr (plus a swathe of others). Its been a brand in evolution for some time and the latest versions of the "Play" range are their best yet, partnerships with brands like Apple and Amazon mean that the brand is in rude health and delivering on its promise to 'fill every home with music' in locations all over the world.

This month we spoke to Joy Howard, CMO, Sonos to talk about the brand, its future and why 'the home' will define the next 5 years. 


Joy Howard is CMO of SONOS

FB. How would you define Sonos as a brand? (Is it a home entertainment system, a music device, a wireless hi-fi?)

JH. Who we are as a brand is defined by our company mission: to fill every home with music.  We not only believe that music is vital to our very existence as humans, we’ve done some pretty compelling research to understand its impact on our life at home.  Listening to music out loud at home leads to stronger relationships, happier families, more intimacy and quality time spent together.  And yet, a tremendous gap yawns between how people feel about music and how they’re experiencing it at home today.  To fulfill our mission we have to close that gap. Our home sound system does this, in a way that is simple, connects you to all the music on earth, sounds wonderful, and actually fits the way that you live your life.

FB. Can you talk about the journey the brand has been on over the last 5 years? There have been some changes.

JH. It’s been quite a ride. You have to remember that five years ago, Spotify was just reaching two million subscribers – they’re now over 40 million. Downloads were on fire and the CD was still the dominant format. We felt back then that the streaming wave was about to break, but it actually took a little longer. Now, with a healthy, competitive ecosystem of innovative music services, adoption of paid streaming reaching critical mass, and continued innovations such as voice, the new golden age for music has officially begun.

Sonos is the same brand as when it was founded in 2002 – the same slightly nerdy music lovers with the same vision of creating the ultimate home music experience. It’s our audience and our opportunity that has changed the most along the way.

Our first customers were looking for a way to connect their mp3 collection to their hifi. Our customer today has both feet in streaming; they’re accustomed to having all the music on earth wherever they go. They care deeply about music, but also about the design of their home.

We built Sonos with the expectation of constant, rapid change in the market, we created an agile system that we continue to improve as technology, acoustic knowledge and the music ecosystem evolves – to grow with it, and with our customers. We’re constantly improving our systems that are already in people’s homes with regular software updates and also bringing better and more exciting products to market.

Our biggest challenge remains the same – getting people to the experience. We know that most of our customers come to us after experiencing the system first-hand. Whether that’s a referral from a friend or having just experienced it in their house, our greatest opportunity is to recreate the spark that opens the gate to welcoming music back into your own home.

That’s why we opened our first flagship store in New York in July. It was a significant milestone for Sonos and it’s been a pleasure to invite customers into a space that’s as close to our home as we could create. In it, we built seven tiny homes, each of which gives you a sense of what music can be like in a home where the dimension of sound is central to it’s design.

We’re also fulfilling this mission through partnerships with brands who share our vision of the home as a center of vital cultural experiences. One example is our partnership with Airbnb, which will use the power of music to make everywhere feel even more like home. Another is West Elm, who we’re working with to bring sound into the home design experience, from a retail and experience perspective. And of course Rough Trade, who we’ve been partnering with in their NYC store to create a listening room in the store – you can even book an overnight stay there through Airbnb.

People really care about music, but the experience they get at home simply doesn’t match up to that love.

FB. What has Sonos done that others haven’t to cut through the ‘noise’ (pardon the pun) in the crowded audio market?

JH. We’ve created a new way of listening to music at home – and we’re committed to communicating about that experience in a way that’s useful and hopefully also occasionally entertaining. We believe that music can be restored to the center of life in the home, and all of our actions reflect this belief.

If you look at our communications, our activations, we try to keep the message very simple, very clear – no tricks, no endorsements, no hot air. You won’t see us showing up at a big green field festival or equipping a concert hall – that’s not what our products are made for. You will see us showing up in homes and spaces where our products fit naturally into and enhance the environment. There’s no better way to learn about Sonos than to experience it first-hand in a real home environment. And that’s what we do – create meaningful experiences grounded in our product’s truth.

FB. You recently surveyed 30,000 people in partnership with Apple Music and published a study on the results, called Music Makes it Home. First of all, what was the driver behind this study?

JH. The whole project came out of a simple insight, and our firmly held belief, that listening to music out loud makes life at home better. It’s something we inherently know, but we wanted to prove this with science and better understand if playing music throughout a home can change the way we connect. We followed 30 families in eight countries over a period of two weeks – one week without music followed by one with Sonos throughout their home. We used biometrics, cameras, and self-created footage with analysis from music experts and internationally renowned psychologists to deeply understand how music affected these families’ lives and the results were stunning - there was a marked improvement in quality time spent together, communication and even happiness. I hope our study helped remind people of the value of shared listening experiences, and persuaded some of them to welcome it back into their lives.

Our current campaign takes the same inspiration, albeit with a touch of humor. We’re reminding people that their experience of music can be better – should be better. Have you ever seen someone put their phone into a cup or cupped their hand around it to get a few extra decibels? Playing the latest release though some tinny laptop speakers. Or how about when they realize that the party is suddenly listening to their incoming messages instead of their music? It happens too often - to too many people - and it makes us wonder: how did listening to music turn into a series of interruptions, pairing fails, and an endless quest for volume?

We want to remind people of the joys of listening out loud at home together. To bring back quality listening at home in a way that fits their life. 

FB. What were some of the most interesting findings?

JH. I couldn’t be happier with the results – it totally vindicated our belief and conviction in the positive influence of music in the home. Families spent over 3 hours more quality time together each week; they were more intimate, happier – there was an increase of 87% in those reporting they felt extremely loved, 67% even reported having more sex! Even the boring things became easier with 83% finding music made chores easier and 50% enjoying cooking more and 58% telling us music made their food taste better. I just loved watching the spontaneous dance parties, the moments that our families were sharing though the experience – it’s affirming; and is a great inspiration still for our team.

FB. What does this mean for the way music as a product, and devices like yours can target consumers?

JH. It means we’re on the right path. It means there’s an under-appreciated, under-served market. People really care about music, but the experience they get at home simply doesn’t match up to that love. We have a solution for that.

FB. Without giving away ‘the blueprint’ where does the future lie for Sonos and where do you see the category heading?

JH. We are constantly looking for ways to make it faster and easier for people to get to the music they want to hear in their homes. Voice is becoming a big thing and we’re committed to this path – our collaboration with Amazon is an important step down this road. Controlling our whole homes system directly form the music app of your choice is also becoming increasingly important for us. While our app is really convenient, bringing together more than 80 services worldwide, sometimes you just want to use the app you’re used to. Working with partners like Spotify to deliver unique multi-room direct control experiences is a major advance.

Supporting every music partner that is important to our customers is also crucial – allowing people to play the music they want from whatever source. And acknowledging that everyone in the home wants to contribute to the music – maybe it’s Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud, TuneIn – or, as is often the way, a combination of all of these. With Sonos, you’re never going to be tied to one experience or another, you and your whole household can enjoy them all.

We’re also leaning into the broader community of smart products addressing the home. We’re opening up our platform to partners that serve the connected home – Amazon is, again, a good example here, but also companies such as Crestron, Lutron and Savant – this is just the start of a Sonos that is deeply connected to the network of products that mean most in your home.


Rapper, Q-Tip was featured in the Sonos X Apple Music commercials

FB. We like to think the best brands create their future, rather than enter it. What have been the most important steps the brand has taken to define its own destiny?

JH. I couldn’t agree more. Our mission is clear and we remain sharply focused. Sonos was founded on a future that wasn’t certain but the big bets of the past 10 years – on the future of music consumption and the importance of the connected home – have paid off. We have invested deeply in the listening experience, on our customer and how they want to experience music at home, and that puts us in a fantastic position for the future.

I’d also add that the best brands know when to change course. We recently took two major steps to define our future – aligning firmly with the paid streaming service customer and betting on voice. We’re also connecting our platform to 3rd party developers to continue to expand the experience for years to come and help shape the future of listening out loud at home.

FB. What single thing has moved the needle most for your brand in the last year?

JH. Partnerships.  For example, we continue to receive incredible support from the creative partners with whom we work.  Whether it’s Rush pushing our ad campaign on social, or Kanye and Frank Ocean choosing us as sound partners for their pop-up retail experiences, these kinds of partnerships allow us to connect deeply with others who love music as much as we do.  Similarly, support from brand partners who share our vision of a culturally rich and creatively inspiring home—like AirBnb & West Elm—allow us to share the Sonos experience at scale.  Last but most importantly partners like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Soundcloud – we are a powerful platform for their innovation.

Stay focused and make the right choices. Not every opportunity is one you should chase.

FB. What are the biggest challenges you face as a brand in a rapidly changing category?

JH. Stay focused and make the right choices. Not every opportunity is one you should chase. Sonos’ success has come out of a singular focus to create the ultimate home sound system. We don’t do headphones or boom boxes for the park, but we do make exceptional speakers for the home and that’s where a huge part of our advantage lies. By keeping it ruthlessly simple. If it doesn’t improve the listening experience in the home for our customer, then we don’t do it.

FB. How important will 'the home' be for brands, considering the rise of IoT devices?

JH. I joined Sonos about a year ago because I felt the transformation that Sonos had in my own home on my life and my family’s life. We’re in the early days of a domestic revolution, built on the belief that home can and should be a place where you truly connect with the people you love, where you can be most creative and most free. We look to technology as a way to supercharge our passions; as an enabler of a richer more satisfying life at home. For brands, it’s a huge opportunity, but also a responsibility – entering a family’s home isn’t something that should be taken lightly – you have to earn your place in the home.  Brands need to rethink the way we build technology for the home – break the mould of planned obsolescence, integrate with the way people live their lives today, and, in the end, find ways to make life at home that little bit better. Our Sonos system is built to last – 10 years or more – these things are furniture, not disposable gadgets, they grow with our customers and evolve alongside this rapidly evolving music market and all of its associated behaviours. It’s truly a privilege to make something that can be such an integral part of the moments you remember, the ones filled with music and life at home.

You could compare it to the rise of mobile internet – it took a long time to reach critical mass but now it’s ubiquitous. This is going to be a similar case, where in the coming 3-5 years, it’s really going to grow. We work with many partners in this space – from Amazon to Deustche Telecom and traditional home installers such as Crestron, Lutron and Savant. Google, and no doubt Apple are coming. There are many different standards but it’s likely the market will shake out and correct to a few big players and we will be sure to work with all of them.

FB. How important is bringing consumers a seamless, connected brand experience?  

JH. To experience Sonos is to understand it. And to understand it without the experience is a gap we have to bridge when we meet those new to the Sonos world. We approach our marketing in the same way we approach our product design and our customer service- with a commitment to putting the experience first, to treating others as we want to be treated, and to being relentlessly progressive.

FB. What do brands have to do to differentiate in an increasingly-connected world?

JH. Matter.  They have to actually matter.  

And finally, the quick-fire round:

FB. What’s the best brand of yesterday?

JH. Always Coca-Cola.  It’s the real thing.

FB. What’s your favorite brand that isn’t Sonos?

JH. Patagonia.  They and their mission matters. 

FB.  What's the one word that will define the next 5 years?

JH. Home


Many thanks to Joy Howard and Sonos for their time and participation with this interview.