By on March 27, 2013

Detroit is a funny market when it comes to advertising. In addition to the ads, commercials and billboards that you might see or hear in other markets from national and regional advertisers, there is some advertising that is specific to the automotive industry, usually from tier 1 vendors trying to make a sale to one of the domestic automakers. As a result, there might be a billboard on I-75 about, for example, exhaust systems, suspension components or audio equipment that is targeted at a relatively small audience, the people at Chrysler, GM and Ford who make the final engineering and purchasing decisions.

Driving home from an errand I heard the announcer on WJR, “the great voice of the Great Lakes broadcasting from the golden tower of the Fisher Building”, start talking about the synergy when two musicians first meet, discuss common influences, then get together, plug in their instruments and start to write songs. I thought he was going to discuss when Lennon met McCartney or when Richards met Jagger but in fact it was a live commercial announcement for how Panasonic and Fender have partnered to sell Fender Premium Audio branded stereos to the OEMs. Apparently the deal that VW has to sell Panasonic made components labeled with Fender’s brand is not an exclusive one.

1959 - 1960 Fender Bassman Photo:

It’s interesting that Panasonic thinks that Fender is a brand name that has more cachet with consumers when it comes to premium audio equipment than the Panasonic brand name itself. It’s doubly interesting because Fender has, until now, not been a brand for consumer audio equipment, premium or otherwise. This deal should make it clear that just because your car may be branded with the name of a particular audio company doesn’t mean that specific company actually made or even sold what’s installed in your car. The fact that your car comes with Fender Premium Audio doesn’t mean that Fender made the stuff any more than buying a Bill Blass Edition Lincoln meant that you were getting upholstery that came out Mr. Blass’ workshops, if he had them. A brand is a brand, just a mark.

Actually it’s triply interesting since the announcer in the commercial touted “Fender’s distinctive sound”. Now I don’t play guitar but I do make a little bit of noise in key on the harmonica, and if there is something  distinctive about the sound of Fender amps and loudspeaker cabinets it is their distinctive distortion. As you can see from that link, Jack Baruth discussed this back when the deal with VW was first announced, and we shared a laugh about this, but I never thought they’d actually use “Fender’s distinctive sound” to sell high fidelity audio systems.

The ideal amplifier, electronically speaking, adds no distinctive audio signature. What goes in comes out, only with more gain. There’s no such thing as the ideal amplifier, but makers of audio equipment used to reproduce music generally design and test equipment to have as little distortion as possible. Sometime in the history of rock and roll or the blues, though, someone figured out that if you turned the amps up loud enough so that the preamp would overdrive the output tubes to distortion levels (this was before transistors and other solid state components), you could end up with some very cool sounding music. Not all distortion is unpleasing. While odd order harmonics are what makes fingernails on a blackboard so grating, the ear tends to like even order harmonics. Guitar players and players of other electric instruments, like harmonica players digging through a box of half-century or older ceramic microphone cartridges, are going for the right combination of distortion. Also, if you chose the right sized drivers for your loudspeaker, you could get them to break up and distort in a pleasing and artistic manner as well. The net result is what players call “tone”.

That’s the reason why guitar players love the sound of amps like the Fender Bassman, and others derived from Fender’s 1950s classics like Marshalls. They love the distinctive distortion

That’s not the case with home audio equipment and likewise the stuff you want in your car. That gear is intended to be as much like the theoretical  ideal amplifier as possible. I’m quite sure that the Fender branded audio equipment that is being sold to OEM’s by Panasonic has fine distortion specs. CNET ranked the stereo in the VW Beetle Turbo as their personal favorite for 2011, saying it competed well with audiophile home equipment. I’m sure that Fender Premium Audio equipment very accurately reproduces “Fender’s distinctive sound” well. It may not make my ears bleed but it does make my head hurt.

The last election cycle in the United States brought forth the term “low information voter”. That’s made me think about low information consumers. There is, after all, a reason why Panasonic has hooked up with Fender. The Fender brand has recognition well beyond the relatively small community of electric guitar players and other folks familiar with guitar amps. I don’t begrudge Fender and Panasonic and VW and whoever else decides to spec Fender Premium Audio in their cars the right to exploit that brand identification. I just think that they’re treating people like low information consumers and that most of Fender’s existing customers must laugh in derision when they hear about “Fender’s distinctive sound” when it comes to car audio. The fact that Panasonic and Fender think that the folks who make engineering and purchasing decisions at car companies are also low information consumers is noteworthy as well.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks – RJS

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44 Comments on “Adventures in Automotive Branding: That “Distinctive Fender Sound”...”

  • avatar

    I dont know whether to laugh or cry. Or maybe just throw up in my mouth a little.

    Which is worse? The utter lack of information and common sense inside most folks heads, or the craven exploitation of that void? I guess these types belong to each other. Truly a sad statement on the reality of brand-obsessed vapid consumerism.

  • avatar

    Specially-branded automotive speakers have never made much sense to me, of course I wouldn’t be one to tick the $10000 speaker option on a luxury vehicle. The best “regular” speakers I’ve heard thus far are the non-branded Pioneer speakers in our Accord, but the road noise ruins that experience. The non-branded Alpine in my old Acura was decent as well, better than the branded Bose system in other Acuras (and way better than the Bose system in my folk’s E430 4matic).

    I find it interesting that Ford chooses Sony and several companies choose Bose, nothing special about their home or portable equipment. I guess Ford hopes folks associate the quality of their 1987 Trinitron and want the Sony stereo in their new vehicle.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Wow, just have to comment on that wonderful “thermionic valve” schematic you provided.

    Things were indeed much simpler then. And – were anyone to actually construct that amp – one would find the sound quite pleasing…albeit with not much power output capability.

    I do note that the pic you had of that old amp/spkr cabinet has a push-pull set of outputs…not single ended as in the schematic.

    But, back to cars.

    Cars with which one could work without having a grad degree in computer science.

    • 0 avatar

      They’re two different amps. The schematic is for the 5 watt Fender Champ. The photo is the back of a Fender 5D6 (I think) Bassman, which is a much more sophisticated circuit that put out 40 watts. Both are highly valued by players and collectors.

    • 0 avatar

      I didn’t look at the schematic too close other than noticing the 12AX7s. And then thought wouldn’t it be nice if the Fender car stereos actually had 12ax7s in the pre amp section.

      Then I read in the article the Fender stereos were actually Panasonic and thought I to myself, “say what??”

      I did think it was odd Fender had gotten into the car stereo business though.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Da Coyote;
    you are right, the photo looks more like a very early version of Fender’s Twin….the Champ Amp was more like a small practice amplifier, the one that a youngster could have in his bedroom without driving everyone raving crazy……

    Back to cars. I remember that 1950s and well into the 1970s German vehicles mostly came with Blaupunkt radios, which were actually pretty good and well built.

    And to comment on the ludicrous “Fender” branding…it never ceases to amaze me the hoops auto marketers will jump to make their vehicle distinctive. What comes next? Mazda licencing from Mars chocolate, the M&M’s colors and logo?

    • 0 avatar

      Hey now, don’t steal my idea – I’ve long wanted to buy a 1976 Pacer and paint it lime green, with a chocolate brown velour interior, with a white ‘m&m’ painted on the roof. The vanity plate, of course, would read: GRN MNM. I’d be the nut inside, behind the wheel.

  • avatar

    I’ve noticed these billboards too. A while back on I-94 near Oakwood blvd (Ford Kingdom) I saw a Bosch billboard proclaiming the virtues of supercharging. Clever placement, but I’m not sure how effective.

  • avatar

    I don’t see any difference between this and the notion that you could get the opportunity to service 5 knockout ladies at once if you wear Axe body spray. We’re in a post-marketing age in which ads can only work in a subliminal or meta way. That “Distinctive Fender Sound” conjures pleasant associations but is not designed to impart objective information (credible or not).

    • 0 avatar

      The difference is the Axe commercials are obviously humorous, while VW is implying that the Fender sound system has some value above a non-branded system, which is apparently doesn’t.

    • 0 avatar

      Gotta agree. The distinctive sound I last heard at the VW dealership the other day wasn’t a guitar wailing or amplifier distortion, but a wail of disbelief from my friend as a service writer tried to distort the warranty terms in relation to her VW’s transmission failure. That New Fender Sound goes “ka-chugga-da-dachugga.”

  • avatar

    There was a time, long ago, when I owned a roomful of blackface and tweed Fenders. I don’t play much anymore, and when I do play now it’s mostly acoustic, but I still have a couple of those amps, along with an old Strat and an old Jazzmaster (and a deep and profound attachment to the *real* Distinctive Fender Sound).

    I say that to establish my bona fides for saying this: Nothing about this deal makes me want to buy a new VW OR a new Fender product.

  • avatar

    If this grinds your gears, then half the luxury market claiming “German Quality” must drive you insane.

    An I think most non-muscians think of Fender for the guitars, not the amps, and associate those with music that they like, thus the positive association Panasonic is going for.

  • avatar

    I thought “That Distinctive Fender Sound” was “Crunch!! Oops!”

  • avatar

    Nice piece, Ronnie. I never understood the supposed cachet of a Fender-branded audio system, either. Now if you could plug your Strat into the dash…

    • 0 avatar

      The original Fender Beetle concept did have a guitar jack, but that didn’t make the cut to production, though apparently if you have a 1/4″ to 1/8″ jack adapter you can use the auxiliary input for the car stereo.

      • 0 avatar

        My wife leased a 2006 New Beetle that came with an electric guitar that could be plugged into the dash and played through the stereo. The promotion was called V-dubs Rock:

        Dumbest promotion ever.

        If you were enough of a guitar lover to want to play your guitar in your new car, you probably already had a guitar that was better than the free one you got with the car. If you were not a guitar lover (like most people) you just ended up with a guitar that you had no use for.

        How that promotion every saw the light of day amazes me. It would have been much better to offer something most consumers actually wanted, like 2 years of XM radio or a couple free oil changes.

        Ended up selling the guitar on craigslist for $100.

  • avatar

    The whole thing smacks of badge engineering, but if CNET is to be believed the result is quite good. Unfortunately I am not in a position to ink a deal on any kind of new car. If I were, a VW would not be on my list – Fender sound system or not. The long term reliability issues of modern German cars have put me off the idea.

    At least I can fire up LTspice and simulate the circuit pictured above. That should keep my mind off the dismal four-wheeled realities in my life. Once again, TTAC delivers non-automotive goodness in a relevant way. Keep up the good work!

  • avatar

    There is so much low frequency background noise in a moving automobile that a flat frequency response that works well in the home would not sound good in a car. Remember the “graphic equalizer” so popular in the ’80’s? Bass has to be boosted substantially in a car system to sound “natural”, yet there is little room for large speakers that can accomplish this efficiently.

    Having said that, if the branding tie-in works, so what? Brands get bought and sold today so much that the consumer cant know who actually makes electronics anyway. GE sold the RCA and GE electronics lines long ago to Thompson, a French company, and now I think its Chinese. Phillips did the same thing with Magnavox. I see old premium names like Fisher and Dual show up on low end junk today.

    • 0 avatar

      I think you’ve hit on it, the major factor of “branding” with audio systems seems to be the tuning because car audio systems need tweaking to sound good. If you have ever seen any testing of car audio systems you know just turning the volume knob is changing the sound. Obviously you have to start with some decent stuff, in the OEM range I think that means they spend $100 on the components rather than the typical $10 of a base system.

      With say Panasonic’s other branding venture the Acura ELS audio system you figure some Elliott Scheiner or one of his peeps specified some EQ and signed off on the system. In this case I wonder has someone from Fender signed off on this or is it purely a name play.

      The “Fender” move seems to me marketing differentiation…any automaker could just go with a Bose branded system which is the most common, but they choose an alternative name maybe to one up their competition, even if only in the mind of the low information consumer…

      The branded audio systems are interesting stuff…there is really no need they could just throw a couple hundered $$$ at a car and have stellar sound, but it is a marketing opportunity to charge a silly profit margin on carefully chosen bottom of the barrel equipment, to get people to buy into that extra option package.

    • 0 avatar

      The speakers in most cars are plenty big for producing bass. At least in sedans, you’ve often got a pair of 5×7 or 6×9 speakers in the back deck — more surface area than an 8″ subwoofer. The major problem is the enclosure, or frequent lack thereof. Front speaker placement is often terrible for imaging, too.

    • 0 avatar

      I have a restored Fisher tube amp in my living room. Its pretty sad what that brand turned into when the name was sold.

  • avatar

    It’s interesting that VW & Panasonic had to involve a third party, in this case Fender, because Panasonic lacked sufficient respect in audio. They’ve sort of become “a big Japanese company that makes lot of things”, from TVs to vacuum cleaners, without mastery in anything. Isn’t that why the parent company Matsushita created the Technics brand?

  • avatar

    Branding is just marketing so I am not surprised that someone latched on to the Fender brand to make Panasonic audio brand a little bit cooler for the younger generation.

    As to the Fender signature sound, I would argue that it isn’t any type of crunch or distortion. If you want that get a Marshall Plexi. Classic Fenders like the Vibrolux are chime amps known for their bright clean sound – particularly when paired with single coil pickup guitars like the Telecaster.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Classically, a brand was an indication of origin. Of course, even the value of brands has been eroded by deals like this. I’m not sure what “sound quality” I would associate with a Fender audio system (and yeah, I know about their guitar and bass amps). The other branded car audio system out there — the Beats Audio in the Chrysler 300S — I would associate with a bass-heavy sound appropriate to hip-hop music. That’s what you hear through their headphones anyway.

    While I’m not a Bose fan, Bose, from its beginnings in the late 1960s was a fan of equalization of the output to generate a sound that “sounded good” to naive focus groups (audiophiles usually disagreed). So, what Bose pioneered in the 1980s with branded audio systems in cars was a system that was equalized for that particular car to “sound good” and, compared to a lot of factory systems available at the time, it did “sound good.”

    There seems to be general agreement that branded car audio systems from two companies associated with high-end audio — Mark Levinson and Dynaudio — do, in fact, sound quite good, even by audiophile standards. Interestingly, Mark Levinson is an electronics company, not a speaker company; and Dynaudio is a loudspeaker company, not an electronics company.

    Given that equalization can be more easily accomplished in the digital, rather than the analog, world, I would expect that the Dynaudio and Levinson system employ pretty sophisticated equalization techniques with phase compensation, as well as low-frequency cancellation of car noise.

    • 0 avatar

      I worked at Delco Electronics when the Delco/Bose systems first came out. A human dummy was placed in the driver’s seat with microphones in the head, and this auto feedback was utilized to adjust the frequency response of the system for optimal sound. I have a high-end home auto system equalizer that can be adjusted in the same way, using a small microphone. Considering that Delco was still using the 1940s-era speaker-manufacturing machines in the mid-1980s (resulting in speakers that sounded like they did in 1948), this was a revolutionary step forward.

      These audio systems were, to the best of my knowledge, the first time that tuned speaker enclosures were used in an automobile – you should have seen the complicated injection-molded plastic enclosures (with the built-in amplifiers unique to the Bose speakers) that went into the front doors – they had a deep channel cut into them so the window could go all the way down.

    • 0 avatar

      Back in the day, Mark “I never met a preamp that was too expensive” Levinson (the man) hacked together a pair of stacked Quads, bolted on a modified Decca tweeter, and crossed it all over to a larger than nature intended Hartley woofer to make “his own” HQD speaker. At Cello he modified some AR designs. The sound was on the higher side of really good. But if you had to ask, you probably couldn’t afford them.

  • avatar
    cRacK hEaD aLLeY

    Never underestimate the power of brand name and name association.

    One boat owner told me – straight faced – that Yanmar marine engines were crap because they were made in Myanmar.

    I myself have a problem purchasing a Kia Forte over a Honda Civic. Because I grew up with the Honda Red Logo stamped in my dad’s motorcycle and developed a sentimental attachment to the brand. Silly, I know, but it’s there.
    Had it been a Kyungsung logo I probably would be thinking the other way around.
    We are all suckers.

  • avatar
    George B

    I don’t get it. Volkswagen has their own history of making fun practical small cars, but most of their new cars have nothing in common with their past. There’s nothing “vintage” about a Volkswagen Jetta or Passat. Fender has made some great guitars and guitar amplifiers, but they have no need for a “what’s new” page on their website. Everything at Fender is connected to their past.

    Nicole Atkins, her guitarist Irina Yalkowsky with Fender gear

  • avatar

    I tinker around with old tube-electronics, building guitar amps and what not, and play around a bit with a guitar.

    I heard the commercial, and couldn’t figure it out. Fender didn’t make their speakers, I knew the cars didn’t have vacuum tubes in it. Maybe a built in 1/4-inch input jack to play a guitar through the stereo (actually can be done with a cheap adapter).

    Shame to see Fender sell out like this. Personally, I like and own Gretsch guitars, which I know is under the Fender conglomerate, but they’re very different products.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, it is a form of Fender selling out but also a way to keep Leo Fender’s name in front of the public. How about the Chet Atkins/Gretsch sound, or the Les Paul/Gibson sound?

      Fender has been dying a long time. Modern musical instrument amplifier systems can mimic the Fender sound and the Hammond/Leslie sound better than the originals. I retired my Hammond M3 and Leslie 147RV decades ago in favor of a Yamaha Pro twin-keyboard that does it ALL!

      As a teen back in the late fifties and early sixties I started with Fender Amps and Guitars and have owned a Twin Reverb 2×12 JBL, Dual Showman 2×15 JBL and Bassman 4×12 CTS. I wore them out! I loved the sound of each and they performed well on stage, especially with an original Jaguar or Precision. That sound was unique! For its time.

      But as I grew older and migrated to solid-state Kustom and later Peavey amps, I found them to be much better, more powerful and cleaner sounding than Fender, and I didn’t have to replace any 6L6GT, 12AX7 and 12AU7 tubes. That in itself saved me a bunch of bucks. I kept the same instruments but upgraded amplifiers to better.

      But the “Distinctive Fender Sound” in a car? What a crock! The sound systems that came with each of my vehicles, rock! And they’re not Fender.

      Like Bose, it’s a gimmick and some people are gullible enough to fall for it. I hate to see Leo Fender’s name used in vain. Leo Fender, Les Paul and Chet Atkins were very influential in my development.

  • avatar

    I laughed s I read this thread, then looked behind me at my ’65 Blackface Champ, ’65 Blackface Twin Reverb, ’65 Deluxe Reverb, and my ’59 Bassman 4 X 10. And yes..THESE amps all have “That Fender Sound”.
    When vehicles come out with Marshall or Mesa Boogie sound systems, let us know!

  • avatar

    While it is true that Panasonic has never had much brand cachet beyond being just a vanilla maker of generic electronics, I think the real issue here is the mindset of VW and their customers. Here in the US, VW’s are marketed as the antidote to the ubiquitous asian cars. It simply won’t do for VW to be seen partnering with a japanese corporation. That would hurt its snob appeal among its customers. That’s why they have to look around for a non-japanese frontman in order to disguise that relationship.

    • 0 avatar

      What about Alpine or *snicker* Blaupunkt.

      • 0 avatar

        whatever happened to blaupunkt? They disappeared before the current non-DIN sized holes came in, so that’s no excuse.

      • 0 avatar

        Good point. Just as there are as many Republican “low information voters” as there are Democratic “LIV’s”, there are lots of people that make arbitrary associations with brands; in this case audio brands. Panasonic** does not register at all with audiophiles, with the exeption of Technics for a few items. Fender may resonate with musicians, but the interests of musicians and audiophiles are very different. Average folks know names like Bose, but reality is that Bose products are more marketing driven that quality driven. Brands that truly represented real audio like Nakamichi, Mark Levinson, etc probably don’t mean anything to people who are not into real audio.

        **Anybody recall the Panasonic Cockpit overhead stereo that was part of an overhead console. It was high on the cool factor, but with a tape frequency response that rolled off at 12KHz, it was not exactly high fidelity….

  • avatar

    Many moons ago when I was working for this computer manufacturer based in northwest Houston we started shipping “JBL” speakers with the computers and advertising this point – heavily.

    On paper I was very impressed, being young and dumb and full of…never mind…I digress, but my engineering mind wanted to know what was behind the marketing. Surely we were buying our speaker from JBL. Boy, what an eye opener. Nope, we designed and built the speakers, out of pretty much lowest common denominator parts and the good folks at JBL ehem, “certified,” them.

    I’m pretty sure “certification” did not include actually listening to anything through the speakers, or inspecting the build quality. It was very eye opening for me – and I hold little weight in any co-marketing provided on stereo components in cars, boats, computers, all-in-one electronics, etc. etc. etc.

  • avatar

    Panasonic has its own high end audio brand – “Technics”. While it is basically defunct it is no more so than the Fender name.

  • avatar

    there’s a little meat to the story.

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