Leo Fender, father of the Stratocaster, did not play the guitar. “But he was one of the world’s best listeners,” says Andy Mooney, the chief executive of Fender Musical Instruments — a company that, true to its founder’s legacy, is more adept at hearing and understanding its audience than anything else.
When Mooney took over the company four years ago, Fender was grappling with the question of how to sell more instruments in an era of declining retail stores and guitar-based hits alike. Under Mooney’s leadership, the company found a whole new way to bolster its line of instruments: online guitar lessons. Charged on a monthly subscription basis à la Spotify, the service, called Fender Play, grew out of the findings of a survey that saw an immense untapped market in young people, particularly young women, who wanted to learn to play an instrument but hadn’t yet been offered an accessible and affordable way to do it. Mooney hired 50 people to get the new digital project off the ground, and that number has since swelled to 90. In two years, Fender Play has already notched 115,000 active users, 103,000 of whom are paying subscribers.
The success of Fender Play has come with some surprising discoveries. “It was pretty clear that Fender’s potential in digital products and services was in an online learning product,” Mooney says. “The original premise was that the audience would be predominantly young players, but in fact, half the audience has proven to be older people, empty-nesters who have maybe tried to play the guitar before and are picking it back up now that they have the time — and the money.” The growth in subscription guitar lessons has also contributed to an uptick in Fender’s guitar business, no easy feat at a time when rock has long since ceded its pop-culture dominance to hip-hop.
Mooney, who grew up in Scotland as the son of a miner, has a track record of reinvigorating iconic brands. As Disney’s head of consumer products, he pioneered the company’s Disney Princesses, a multibillion-dollar media franchise and toy line, and he spent years at Nike injecting new life into its footwear business with limited-edition drops.
That spirit has followed Mooney to Fender, where, despite some initial resistance, he doubled the company’s social media marketing budget and ushered in new, millennial-friendly products like the hybrid American Acoustasonic, which delivers both acoustic and electric tones. The guitar has been so popular that Fender had to increase the capacity of its California factory three times this year to accommodate the barrage of demand. To genre-proof its guitar lines at large, Fender is reimagining them as collectors’ items and hobbies open to everyone.