Joel Sietsema of Marantz: Brand Makeovers: “Reduce your assortment”

Make a better product and be confident in raising your suggested retail prices. Price is absolutely an indicator of performance, and if your product can back it up, why shouldn’t you receive the requisite value for your offering? This is an obvious way to upgrade a brand, but is often one of the last actions […]

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Make a better product and be confident in raising your suggested retail prices. Price is absolutely an indicator of performance, and if your product can back it up, why shouldn’t you receive the requisite value for your offering? This is an obvious way to upgrade a brand, but is often one of the last actions brand leaders take. I’ve witnessed many brands achieve success by raising prices after each successive launch, so long as they are creating incremental consumer value in the new version.

As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Joel Sietsema.

Joel Sietsema is the President of high-end audio brands Marantz and Classé at Sound United. As a lifelong technology enthusiast, Joel joined Sound United in 2013 as the Director of New Business Development, where he led new initiatives in brand and product development and consumer insights. Since then, Joel has held various roles at Sound United, including the SVP of Brand Management for Sound United brands and Director of Brand Management for Definitive Technology. In these roles, Joel established and led all brand strategy and positioning development, go-to-market planning and marketing strategy development for 7 premium consumer durable brands. Prior to joining Sound United, Joel held a variety of merchandising roles at Best Buy and Magnolia (2005–2013), including the Senior Merchant for audio categories. There, he achieved double-digit revenue growth in a declining category by focusing on new brand introductions, high-growth category development and long-term promotional planning. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Spanish from the University of Michigan, and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Minnesota.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Growing up in Minnesota, I developed a neighborhood reputation as a ‘techy-kid’ who could fix VCRs, TVs, A/V Systems, etc. I was always interested in the intersection of technology with music and movies. Like a lot of young kids growing up, I found myself frequently dropping by a Best Buy store to shop for CDs or to check out car audio systems.

Years later, I was fortunate to work in a few roles managing luxury audio at Magnolia, a Best Buy Co. subsidiary. Being simultaneously and constantly surrounded by dozens of luxury brands, I found it fascinating how each brand uniquely appealed to their consumer, and how the best brands could command meaningfully higher willingness-to-pay than more functional ones. It boils down to precise communications, relevant brand expression, and fanatical product quality. I ultimately aspired to create that level of brand affinity, and am fortunate to now be able to do so for high-end audio brands Marantz and Classé Audio at Sound United.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing or branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was anticipating my first week as a Merchant Analyst at Best Buy to be smooth, but it was far from it. On my first day, my new boss was busy relocating to Minneapolis, and was unavailable to speak in our weekly business review meeting. When the Director running the meeting called on our business unit, he scoured the room for a leader who could speak to the business results. We all sat silently until he stopped his gaze on me. “Joel, can you take us through your results for the week and what you’re expecting for the rest of the month?” I thought, he had to be asking a different Joel in the room. Nope, in the first hour of my first day on the job, the Director wanted me to own my business. Unrealistic, maybe… but an embarrassing moment, nonetheless. Two good personal branding lessons: 1) Always be prepared for the job above you, and 2) Own your results, good or bad. The world needs more people who are okay being held accountable.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?

I’ve always tried to maintain a balanced perspective on any success I’ve had, but I do vividly remember a moment early in my career when I felt that I was on the right track. As a business analyst, I’d often arrive to work early in the morning, and leave after most had gone home. After several consecutive mornings arriving before anyone, the President of Best Buy stopped by my desk to chat me up and find out what I was working on so diligently. He then invited me into his office to discuss my career path. It sounds old-fashioned, but any career-minded person needs to put in the hours. Great work requires great effort.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m extremely energized by some early product concepts that we’re working on for Marantz that I believe will make streaming music more gratifying. As a music lover, I frequently pivot from passive music listening while I work, to more intentional music enjoyment at night or on weekends. I have eight different digital music services that I’ll listen to on my Mac or iPhone, but I take much more listening pleasure from the two dozen ‘staple’ records I have in my collection. There’s something about streaming music that has become too transactional for me and for many consumers today, and I’m excited to see that evolve.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Get out and away from your devices, if only for an hour! So much fresh inspiration can come from a visit to a high-end boutique, a fun restaurant, or even a random walk outdoors. A fresh dose of inspiration or new perspective can quell any semblance of burnout.

Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Brand marketing is about expressing the story and value proposition of your brand and the underlying reasons for your existence (i.e., Why should I buy into your brand?), whereas product marketing is focused on communicating product features and benefits in a compelling way (i.e., Why should I buy this product vs. others?). Branding is an ‘always on’ ingredient to creating brand loyalists, whereas product marketing is critical to driving tactical purchase intent.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Building a brand is creating an identity with your consumer. You can’t be everything to everyone — it takes consistency of expression, emphasis of differentiators, and repetition of the benefits you offer.

Without a solidly built brand image, advertising efforts are, at best, less productive because consumer messaging is built on a brand that lacks substance and credibility. General marketing and advertising efforts drive awareness and consideration, and so are necessary no matter how well-constructed the brand identity is in the market.

Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?

Like homes, cars, and even people, brands need constant love, and sometimes that means rebranding. Here are at least four reasons to consider rebranding:

1) a brand is losing or has lost touch with its future consumers (versus brand diehards)

2) a brand is stagnant or in decline (i.e., competition is beating you)

3) a brand has been leapfrogged by new technology, and is at a crossroads for where to go next

4) a brand needs to shed historical baggage

Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?

Rebranding should be done judiciously, and really only when necessary. I don’t know if there are companies that should avoid rebranding altogether, but I’d advise any brand that enjoys a premium positioning versus their core competition to be especially careful. It’s natural for any brand leader entering a new company to want to put their mark on the business, but understand and appreciate your hard-earned brand equities before rebranding.

Rebranding introduces myriad risks to well-established and global brands that must be thoroughly considered. Rebranding can isolate your brand’s advocates unnecessarily if you don’t respect what created your business or reputation in the first place. For example, the Marantz brand was founded in 1953, and we have passionate fans in every corner of the world. With that in mind, we’ve been very careful on making updates to our brand identity including what retains value as is, what is important to evolve, and what is lower-risk to shed.

Marketers can also underestimate how much effort, planning, and expense goes into rebranding. Many people think rebranding can be done over the weekend and is really just updating your website, social media platforms, business cards, and office signage. But there’s a ton to consider, especially for global brands — namely key customers and existing distribution relationships, roll-out timing and speed, key business cycles, regional translations, regional perceptions, product life cycles, and more.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.

  1. Make a better product and be confident in raising your suggested retail prices. Price is absolutely an indicator of performance, and if your product can back it up, why shouldn’t you receive the requisite value for your offering? This is an obvious way to upgrade a brand, but is often one of the last actions brand leaders take. I’ve witnessed many brands achieve success by raising prices after each successive launch, so long as they are creating incremental consumer value in the new version.
  2. Edit your messaging to emphasize your value. Oftentimes, marketers become paranoid about what features their competitors are offering. As a result, they are constantly expanding their communication points to ensure they compete, but they end up ultimately adding more noise for their customers to find their way through. Don’t be everything to everyone; just land your single value proposition. If you aren’t sure what that is, find the key weaknesses in your competition’s offering and singularly focus on how to be the best at that one thing. Whether important or not, it will raise consumer awareness of the issue, thereby passing along incremental value to your brand. It may be a bit cliche to use Apple as an example, but it’s smart how they are focusing on consumer security with their devices and platforms as this has been a lower priority for other mobile and home device makers. This was not a primary feature in the last few years, but the brand is now highlighting the importance of security.
  3. Reduce your assortment. A brand with a broad assortment covering every price point and use case is a brand with low confidence. Consumers want to buy from confident brands, not paranoid ones. Paring down your assortment feels uncomfortable at first, but if your brand has any consumer loyalty, you’ll be just fine. When I worked for Best Buy, we strategically reduced the number of brands we merchandised by over 40 percent. This decision made a more cohesive and complete shopping experience, focused on the strongest brands in our assortment, and ultimately improved our conversion rates.
  4. Identify and invest in like-minded brand partnerships. So many companies are looking for partners outside of their industry; it’s an easy way to bring new consumers into your funnel, and it also helps to quickly frame your brand values for these new customers who are familiar with your partner brand but perhaps not yours. For example, Marantz recently partnered with Vinyl Me Please, a direct-to-consumer record subscription company, to create a special edition demo record. They are fanatical about their high-quality pressings, the amazing stories behind all forms of music, and the true enjoyment of listening. We share these values.
  5. Do fewer things, better. I see it so frequently: brands fall down in the first 10 percent or the last 10 percent of the product experience. Unfortunately, the beginning and the end are usually all that a consumer remembers and values. Brands can command more value by reducing the quantity of initiatives by 20 percent, and instead invest that time in the adjacent experiences that surround your core offering. For example, Marantz amplifiers have been trusted and well-reviewed for decades. We’ve made it a higher priority to invest in constantly improving our amplifiers over other areas like presentation of our product packaging. Now, as we modernize and launch a new era for the brand, we are making new investments in the presentation, the feel and usability of the remote control or our mobile apps, the intuitiveness and presentation of our online shopping experience, and the availability of our customer service experts. Marantz is more committed than ever to be a complete luxury experience that just happens to make legendary amplifiers.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Delta Airlines has done an amazing job in my view. It wasn’t long ago that Delta was considered a miserable flying experience suffering from poor customer service, poor on-time departure records, unpleasant food & beverage offerings, poor booking and baggage claim experiences, and more. I admire how Delta has updated their brand identity while meaningfully upgrading their product offering. This is ultimately the most important update a brand can make before considering identity updates. Marketers and brand leaders need to determine what the core issue is before making changes — is it a brand expression issue, a product/service offering issue, or the combination.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I worry greatly about how engaged people are with their devices these days versus with one another. This has been especially exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Human beings need REAL social engagement to be effective in life, and being inside our devices all day makes for transactional, shallow relationships. I’d love to see more social movement around the necessary human experiences, and I find that music is an outlet for people at times like this, which inspires me every day at Marantz.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

How you do anything is how you do everything.” This quote inspires me on a daily basis, both personally and professionally. It speaks to going the extra mile, to try a little harder, and to get the details right.

How can our readers follow you online?

Connect with me on LinkedIn! You can also follow Marantz on Instagram and Twitter at @MarantzOfficial, and on Facebook and YouTube at @MarantzAmerica.

Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work.

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