Walkman’s an also-ran in MP3 foot-race

WHEN SONY and Apple unveiled their latest portable music players last week, all the elements were in place for a good old-fashioned marketing war. Only it wasn’t a war. It was a rout.

Sony’s new digital Walkman, a sleek, oval-shaped device with a luminous digital screen and storage capacity of 13,000 songs, was introduced at a press event in Tokyo, followed by a party at a nightclub featuring Sony recording artist Franz Ferdinand.

How do I know all this? Pure luck. The new Walkman is available only in Japan. You’ll find no reference to the launch party on Sony’s English-language Web site. But it was covered by a single English-language blogger, who happens to be a Franz Ferdinand fan and accidentally stumbled onto the event.

Sound like a missed marketing opportunity? Consider this: The event also came a few hours too late.

Earlier in the day, Apple unveiled the new iPod nano, the latest variation on the portable music player that’s taken the Walkman’s place as the defining icon of the portable music industry. Three and half inches long and slimmer than a box of Chicklets, the iPod nano is the focus of a global media blitz as tightly scripted as a tentpole movie release. Virtually overnight, the iPod nano is everywhere.

FOR SONY, the iPod campaign can only serve as a painful reminder that the Walkman, a feat of Japanese engineering once as familiar to American consumers as sushi or tofu, is now an also-ran.

Even in Japan, the Apple outsells Sony’s MP3 players and controls more than a third of the digital music market. Sony, which has opted not to jettison the Walkman name, clearly thinks that trend is reversible. But is it?

In a clear indication that marketing is one of Sony’s biggest problems, Howard Stringer on Tuesday named Andy House to a newly invented job: chief marketing officer.

Hiring a chief marketing officer is a surprising gambit for a media conglom. Viacom, News Corp. and Time Warner don’t have chief marketing officers. It’s a title you’re more apt to find at a company like GM or Coca-Cola — a fact that may not sit well with Columbia Pictures executives who remember the problems that roiled the studio when it was bought by Coke.

House, the architect of Sony’s successful PlayStation campaigns, and an Oxford graduate who’s worked at Sony since joining its Tokyo press office 15 years ago, has pledged to integrate the company’s marketing efforts across all its divisions.

It’s a worthy goal for a bilingual company whose biggest business is still hardware, not content.

But judging from its misbegotten Walkman launch, House has his work cut out for him. In fact, he may want to borrow a few ideas from Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

APPLE EXECUTIVES are loathe to discuss their marketing strategies, but here’s a quick primer on the iPod nano campaign.

It began with a show-stopping personal sales pitch at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., by the company’s foremost evangelist — Jobs himself (among the highlights, a conversation on the iTunes Music Store with Madonna, who appeared on a live videolink from London).

Jobs offered some formidable statistics about iPod’s global domination (6 million iPods sold in the last quarter, compared with 2 million Sony portable music players). Then he slipped the iPod nano from the change pocket of his jeans.

Turning to the audience — a group that included Al Gore, Yo Yo Ma and Kanye West — Jobs asked, “You ever wonder what this pocket is for? Well, now we know.”

I wasn’t at the presentation. Didn’t have to be. Unlike the Sony launch, it received wall-to-wall press coverage and can be downloaded from the homepage of the Apple Web site. It’s all part of a tightly synchronized, global communications strategy engineered in concert with Apple’s two outside ad agencies, Chiat/Day and OMD.

The materials come from Chiat/Day: the incandescent image of the iPod nano, clasped like a communion wafer between the fingers of an outstretched hand, and the tagline “1,000 songs. Impossibly small.”

OMD was responsible for the worldwide media buy, all of it orchestrated so that the day the device hit the streets, the old iPod ads could be switched with new ones. Gone are the cartoonish, multi-colored billboards touting the iPod shuffle. In their place is a brand new ad campaign.

Why does all this matter to Hollywood?

Forget for a moment that the future of the portable music industry may hold clues to the future of the portable movie industry.

With the campaign for the iPod nano, which follows similar campaigns for the original iPod, the iPod mini and iPod shuffle, Apple has persuaded consumers to buy multiple versions of the same device. Think of it as the fourth iteration of a special edition DVD. How has Apple achieved this competitive advantage? Cutting-edge design and engineering — and perhaps more important, brilliant marketing.

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