The Real Innovation Rules: Fender, Danelectro, and the Big Mac

The Detroit Free Press recently ran a piece on rules for innovation, based on Fender’s design of the Acoustasonic Telecaster. Good piece and a nice innovative guitar, but they make two claims that I’ll take issue with. The first claim is that the Acoustasonic is “profoundly different than anything the world has ever seen.” The second claim is that, by deconstructing how it was created, we can establish best-practices rules for innovation.

To which I reply, “Nope. And nope.”

Let’s take the first claim. Is the Acoustasonic Telecaster profoundly different? At core, it is a thin-bodied acoustic guitar with an electric guitar pickup in it. That does make it different than most plugged-in acoustic guitars, which use piezoelectric (vibration-based) pickups. The Acoustasonic includes a true electric pickup, creating current by induction. It also is designed to play more like an electric guitar, to answer the electric guitarist’s complaint that acoustics are typically harder to play.

It’s different from what most guitarists have ever seen or played, and it looks like a great instrument. However, it is a very similar concept to the Danelectro Convertible. Introduced in 1959, the Danelectro Convertible was a thin-bodied acoustic guitar that played like an electric guitar and used a true electric pickup. (I had a 1967 one for a time, picture above). They were re-issued in the late 1990’s as a Korean-made guitar.

There are important differences. Like other Danelectros, the Convertible is built out of Masonite, not the lovely spruce top and mahogany back and sides one sees on the Acoustasonic. The Acoustasonic has a piezo pickup as well as the electric one, so you can blend between acoustic and electric tones. (Although that’s different from the Convertible, I can point to solid-body electrics that include both piezo and electric pickups). Fender’s marketing mojo is strong these days, and they’ve done a great job merchandising concepts like SIRS (Stringed Instrument Resonance Systems) and the Acoustic Engine (the onboard electronics). Doubtless a far superior guitar to the Danelectro Convertible if one is looking for a serious musician’s workhorse rather than an obscure collector’s item.

But the Acoustasonic, while profoundly different from virtually all modern guitars, is not profoundly different — in concept — from the Danelectro Convertible. It’s a lot better by most objective standards, but that’s an entirely different claim.

Reading the Free Press piece with Fender’s well-thought-out but somewhat non-scrappy rules for innovation, I’m reminded of McDonald’s Arch Deluxe. An investment of over $300 million in research, development, and marketing — including over a year of careful product testing under the watchful eye of superstar chef Andrew Selvaggio, formerly of Chicago’s Pump Room — failed. Seventy-three variants of pickle were tested and focus-grouped (OK, I made that up, but it may not be far from the truth) and everything was iteratively tested. In the end, it didn’t matter.

Contrast that with the innovation process that led to the Big Mac. Franchisee Jim Delligatti was losing business to Bob’s Big Boy, because the construction-worker clientele at his Pittsburgh franchise had hearty appetites and wanted a big burger. Rather than $300M of research and testing, he started working with available ingredients — the smaller McDonald’s patties, creating a sauce of mayonnaise, pickle relish, yellow mustard, and the spices in the kitchen — and testing it on his customers. He knew he had a winner when they ordered more.

So from there, let’s move to the second claim: what are the rules for innovation? I’d propose the following:

  1. You are not your customer. Leo Fender didn’t play guitar, and Jim Delligatti was not a construction worker. What you think of your product doesn’t matter much. But…
  2. You have to be CLOSE to your customer, and design for them. The immediate feedback Delligatti got from real customers was invaluable and far superior to the curated tests and focus groups that informed the Arch Deluxe product development.
  3. Break free from restrictive beliefs. OK, this is one of Fender’s, and I agree with it. Dan Armstrong of Danelectro was the poster child for this — who says a guitar can’t be made out of Masonite? Who says a pickup can’t be built around a bar magnet instead of polepieces? You can see this in early Fender designs as well, continuing with many failed-but-important experiments (I still love my 1970’s Strat with the three-bolt, “micro-tilt” neck so many players scorn).
  4. Use what’s at hand. Delligatti grabbed the first three condiments he saw to create the “special sauce.” (Every tech marketer talks about “what’s our special sauce” as they seek elusive product differentiation — what burger kitchen doesn’t have mayo, mustard, and pickle relish?) Dan Armstrong is reputed to have used surplus lipstick tubes to create the original “lipstick tube” pickups. Some, including his son, disagree, but having broken down a number of early Danos, I think it may be true. Leo Fender, as a radio repairman, used easily available potentiometers, tubes, and wire gauges in his workshop — accidentally setting standards that still define how we build guitars and amplifiers today.
  5. Refine til it hurts…but not in isolation. Again, agreeing with one of Fender’s, but tagging something on. “The first versions of anything are rarely the ones that make history”, as they say, which is why the Convertible is an obscure footnote and the obsessively-iterated Stratocaster is the shape even non-musicians associate with “electric guitar.” The Arch Deluxe development process had to be painful, but it was also far from the market and the customer. Leo Fender constantly took feedback and refined his designs.
  6. Design for the intersection of humans, success, and scale. This adds an important caveat to the crowd-pleasing “design for humans” rule that modern-day Fender cites. Had Leo Fender strictly designed for humans, he’d have been no different than Adolph Rickenbacker, Paul Bigsby, Orville Gibson, George Beauchamp, Les Paul, and the other electric guitar pioneers .They all built bespoke instruments or small batches. Fender moved the market by designing for humans and also for mass production. I love my Telecaster, but cradling it is like cradling a baby with bony elbows, because the body design is optimized for rapid production by bandsaw. Leo made a conscious decision to keep it that way and save the contouring for later designs…the Telecaster is still an iconic guitar.
  7. Ignore these, and all other, rules. If Deligatti had simply made a bigger patty, like Bob’s Big Boy served, the Big Mac would be just another burger…and his customers were not asking for “special sauce”, but he added it and used it to differentiate anyway. If Dan Armstrong had listened to his customers…well, nobody was asking for masonite guitars.

Originally published at russsomers.com on February 10, 2019.