Heritage Guitars has been around since Gibson Guitar pulled up stakes and headed down south in 1985. But in the past few years, they have had three sets of owners, and we’ve had experience with all of them. There was the “original” Heritage owners, a “transitional” local ownership that purchased the company in 2016, and ultimately a sales and marketing agreement with BandLab in 2017. Today, Heritage guitars is effectively operated by BandLab.
The acquisition by BandLab sparked significant controversy amongst Heritage fans, and even some of their employees. This type of blow-back is not unusual when an iconic brand — even if the iconic brand is the “other” brand — is taken over and changes are made. Just think back to “Pre-CBS” and how that evokes the good old days before the big bad conglomerate took over.
At first we were worried ourselves, and the early communications from the BandLab management team had us concerned relative to our potential long term prospects as a dealer. But now that we are a couple years down the road, we’ve been very impressed with the BandLab management of the Heritage brand. And here’s why:
Without launching into a bunch of marketing mumbo-jumbo. BandLab understands brand equity, and the power of a properly managed brand. They understand and appreciate the history and emotions behind Heritage name, and what it means to players and fans. But they are also realists, and for Heritage to survive they have to deliver consistent high quality product at a price point that is competitive with similar products. The “old” Heritage had an expansive catalog of product, of which probably 4-5 models made up 80% of the sales. BandLab took the classic “80/20” rule (80% of sales comes from 20% of the products) and slashed the number of models and variations available to dealers. While at first this seems reckless, it makes perfect sense. It allowed the factory to focus and optimize the processes around their most popular products, and deliver them quickly at a high level of quality. Where the “old” Heritage would take 4+ months to make a guitar, the “BandLab” Heritage will typically ship us one in a few days, and it’s good right out of the box. Most of models that are no longer available to us we would not have ordered anyway. And you can still get them, but you have to go through the Heritage Custom Shop, which is rightfully where they belong.
Around the time of the BandLab involvement, there was also internet chatter about the loss of traditional manual processes and the introduction of increased process automation. While we have no particular insight into the manufacturing processes at Heritage, what on earth is the problem with using a CNC machine to cut the rough profile of a body or neck? Cutting out a body by hand does not make it better, it just makes it more expensive and potentially less consistent. Have people do what people do best — like polishing, binding…detail work — and let machines do what they do best. Case in point: Every Heritage guitar is processed through a PLEK machine, and people seem perfectly OK with that. If “authenticity” means that a guitar company cannot evolve and advance their technology, sooner or later the guitar company will cease to exist, or decline into irrelevance.
We are personally comfortable with the BandLab stewardship of the Heritage brand, and they understand the needs of independent dealers, and the importance of maintaining brand equity. In the past year BandLab also reintroduced the Teisco and Harmony brands, with a similar degree of sensitivity towards respecting history without being shackled to the past. The world is littered with brands and companies that have been mishandled, mangled and destroyed. Heaven knows Gibson Brands had their fair share of brand acquisition flops along to the road to bankruptcy. Successful brands are those that blend a respect for history while simultaneously adapting to change. We think that BandLab understands this better than most companies, and that Heritage is in good hands.