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PHOTOS: Chad Cogdill
The Silent Treatment
Polk Audio makes a big noise with a quiet booth and live music, compiling a 36-percent spike in product demos, a 32-percent jump in email addresses collected, and nearly 58 million media impressions generated. By Charles Pappas
Exhibitor: Polk Audio (a division of Sound United LLC)
Creative: BareSkull Innovation Inc., Lake Ozark, MO, 816-898-0728, www.bareskull.com
Production: Exposition Productions LLC, Las Vegas, 702-617-2732, www.expopros.net
Show: International Consumer Electronics Show, 2013
Budget: $150,000 – $199,000
Demonstrate its new headphones to at least 50 percent of current business partners.
Draw an average of 75 attendees per hour to test its headphones.
Secure 2,000 confirmed email addresses.
Exhibited its new headphone technology to 68 percent of current business partners.
Attracted an average of 110 attendees per hour to test its headphones.
Collected 2,643 confirmed email addresses.
n the nearly 60 years since they were introduced at the Milwaukee Hi-Fi show in 1958, stereo headphones have traveled the cultural gamut from being as dorky as a barbershop quartet to becoming as cool as rapper Dr. Dre. In fact, Dre's Beats brand – recently acquired by Apple Inc. – commands a 23-percent share of a headphones market now worth more than $8.2 billion worldwide, according to Futuresource Consulting Ltd. After Beats, the market is owned by established names: Bose Corp., Koss Corp., and Sony Corp. Those headphone heavyweights, in turn, are trailed by celebrity-name offerings, including Ludacris' Soul Electronics USA LLC, and the Bob Marley estate's House of Marley LLC.

So when Polk Audio (a division of Sound United LLC in Vista, CA), best known for manufacturing high-quality home and automobile speakers and amps, wanted to demonstrate its new UltraFocus 8000 Noise Cancelling Headphones at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the company knew it needed a strategy that would strike the right chord with its target audience of discerning consumer-electronics buyers, dealers, distributors, and media reps. A newcomer in the headphones market (the company launched its first set in 2011), the Baltimore-based Polk was now, with the UltraFocus 8000, entering the lucrative premium end of the market for headphones that cost $100 or more. The move into this new market segment represented significant potential for Polk. Sales of these lux accessories accounted for 95 percent of revenue growth in headphones over the last several years, and 43 percent of headphone revenue overall for 2013, according to the NPD Group Inc.'s Retail Tracking Service. But edging its way into this new niche wasn't going to be easy, as a pair of behemoth brands – Beats and Bose – gobble up about 84 percent of every $100 spent on premium headphones.

Composing a Masterpiece
Battling both established household names and celebrity upstarts at CES would make anyone sweat like Keith Richards during a drug test. Facing competitors on those two fronts, Polk partnered with BareSkull Innovation Inc., a design and branding agency in Lake Ozark, MO, to help it compose a stereophonic strategy for CES. First, prove it carries the same longstanding technical competence and quality as brands such as Koss and Bose. Second, and most importantly, demonstrate that its products possess the same Arctic levels of cool as, say, House of Marley. If it accomplished the former, it would own a competitive edge the newer-to-the-game celebrity-branded headphone makers would be unable to match. And if it achieved the latter, it would possess that bling-like glamor that older companies find hard to imitate.

To implement the dual strategy, Polk tossed around ideas such as loading iPods with music attendees could listen to through the upscale $300 headphones. But that low-key concept was dissonant with proving the sophisticated products could erase ambient noise while making the music sound as melodious as angelic choirs. In the end, the company decided that to accomplish that ambition, it had to demonstrate the headphones using live music, whose unprocessed sound can be a challenge for even high-end headphones to channel smoothly. Moreover, it was a risky choice in a show where the typical din – about 85 to 90 decibels – approaches that of freeway traffic.

While its strategy and tactics were ambitious, Polk's goals were as basic as "Chopsticks": display its headphone technology to 50 percent of its current business partners (a group comprising salespeople, dealers, and distributors), draw an average of 75 attendees per hour to test its headphones during the show's duration, and collect 2,000 confirmed email contacts from visitors it could add to its database to promote new products and upcoming events. "The challenge was steep, but Polk has a rich heritage going back more than 40 years," says Greg O'Rourke, the company's event marketing manager. "We've taken that signature Polk sound and put it into our headphones. And this was a great opportunity to get those headphones on the ears of distributors, buyers, and the press."

Two months before CES opened, Polk began prepping its audience for what would be its own masterpiece. The company fired off a round of emails to several thousand dealers, customers, and registered attendees, alerting them about its upcoming appearance at the show and its new products, including the UltraFocus 8000 headphones, which would be on display. At the same time, Polk issued similar announcements on its main website, Twitter account, and Facebook page, while touting the headphones on a microsite. The pre-show promotions included photos and videos of a sound room Polk was arranging for the live music. It might have seemed about as sexy as an Ikea bookcase, but the sound room would play a much more intriguing role than anyone viewing the pre-show promos could have guessed.

Hear, Here
When CES opened its doors in January 2013, Polk's exhibit stood out on the show floor like Lena Horne at a Courtney Love concert. Turning down the volume on the standard CES architecture of stark white boxes with halogen-bright lighting, Polk's 30-by-30-foot booth offered a welcoming exterior made of a cedar laminate topped in parts by red velvet curtains. Several decorative pendant lights that hung from an overhead truss glowed in sunset-like orange and red. The fragrant wood, lush velvet, and lava-lamp-like lights echoed a musical golden age of vinyl albums with their rich, voluptuous sound, and stereo consoles that looked like Louis XIV furniture, but played Louis Armstrong.

The sensation of tradition and history continued when attendees strolled into the booth through heart-shaped entrances that were carved out of wooden slats forming part of the booth's 18-foot-high exterior wall. Several more heart-shaped wooden cutouts were placed on the interior and exterior walls, while another, 60 inches in diameter, hung from an overhead truss. More than just a decorative touch, the hearts harkened back to the company's original cardio-themed logo, symbolizing the founders' passion for audio when they launched Polk in the 1970s.

"We've taken that signature Polk sound and put it into our headphones. And this was a great opportunity to get those headphones on the ears of distributors, buyers, and the press."

If the hearts suggested the owners' aural fixation, seven 30-by-40-inch Plexiglas cases, flanking the sound room that had been featured in pre-show promotions, further cemented the company's background and legitimacy as a sound expert. Inside one of the cases, for example, was a harpejji, an electric stringed musical instrument bridging the gap between the guitar and the piano. Invented by Tim Meeks, a longtime Polk employee and musician, the hybrid instrument had won the raves of no less than Stevie Wonder, who played his hit song "Superstition" on it at the Billboard Music Awards in 2012. Another attention grabber was a custom-painted 1989 Kramer Sustainer electric guitar. A legend among guitar aficionados, the musical apparatus generates a magnetic force that allows it to hold a note as long as its batteries last. Balancing these audio artifacts in adjacent cases were new Polk products such as bookshelf loudspeakers, sound bars, and subwoofers.

The Silence of the Jams
As engrossing as the memorabilia and merchandise were to visitors, the main attraction was the diamond-shaped sound room that Polk had touted before CES. Inspired by the Web-based show "Live from Daryl's House," in which singer/songwriter Daryl Hall invites friends into his home to play, Polk wanted the exhibit to mimic the intimate vibe of the show at CES, which can feel as crowded and impersonal as a rave. Its solution was to purchase a noise-dampening sound room for the booth, then invite a variety of up-and-coming musicians to play inside it. Instead of plucking bands from, say, Austin, TX, or Nashville, TN, however, Polk chose to recruit them from its home base of Baltimore. The traffic-building tactic would come with a clever catch, though: The only way to hear the music would be to try out the UltraFocus 8000 headphones.

Purchased from VocalBooth.com Inc., a manufacturer of recording-studio products in Bend, OR, the sound room weighed 3,000 pounds, and required two days to assemble in Baltimore before it could be shipped to Las Vegas for the show. Polk chose this particular make because its 10-by-9-foot size allowed for seven windows, which afforded views from multiple angles inside the booth.

Once set up, the sound room became a mesmerizing focal point. This was especially vital for drawing in Polk's existing business partners, upon whom the company wanted to impress that its headphones played in the same league as other high-end options. Their enthusiasm for the new products would ultimately determine how well Polk could compete against the other brands.

When those partners, along with all other attendees, glanced through any of the sound room's windows, what they glimpsed had the intensity of Marilyn Manson but the sound level of Marcel Marceau: musicians jamming, strumming, and singing, but no sound, not a peep, emanated from them. Thanks to the sound room's construction – its sides were made of 4-inch-thick, double-wall construction with acoustic foam, while the windows were built with laminated acoustic glass – a jackhammer going full blast in the room would have been no louder than a casual conversation to someone standing outside it. It was as if God had turned down the volume on real life.

To hear the musicians inside the room, attendees simply made their way to a bank of six benches, with two seats per bench, placed directly in front of the sound room. Once the visitors relaxed on the bordello-red, velvet-upholstered seat cushions, one of eight Polk staffers approached and helped them input their contact information into an iPad attached to vertical, pinewood-like posts in front of each bench. After they'd finished, the guests grabbed a set of the new midnight-black UltraFocus 8000 headphones off the branded posts and listened to the musicians make a joyful noise. Every day, visitors could watch three different bands performing two 60-minute sets each in the booth. When the musicians rested between sets, visitors browsed information about the rubberized plastic and brushed-metal headphones courtesy of the iPads, as well as flipped a switch on the post that let them listen to recorded music. As a way of extending the experience, Polk staffers handed each visitor a branded CD sampler with two songs from each of the featured bands on it.

By turning down the hurricane of sound at CES to a hush (at least in the booth), Polk allowed attendees to experience the headphones' quality unimpeded, thereby addressing the main driver of premium headphone sales: sound excellence.

Hundreds of attendees who might have zoomed by in the typical Olympic-sprint gait of CES registrants screeched to a halt at the singular sight: Musicians, sometimes playing loud enough to compete with jets taking off, were as silent as statues. Spread before them were rows of people sitting just as quietly, nodding their heads in synch with the inaudible beat like monks deep in the throes of prayer.

By turning down the hurricane of sound at CES to a hush (at least in its booth), Polk allowed attendees to experience the headphones' quality unimpeded, thereby addressing the main driver of premium headphone sales: sound excellence. Furthermore, Polk won the raves of Sizzle Awards judges. "This demonstration was perfectly on target for the audience," one judge said, while another exclaimed, "This stopped people in their tracks without a single word ... or sound."

Ending on a High Note
Polk's metrics were as loud as a Keith Moon drum solo. The company had wanted to demo its UltraFocus 8000 headphones to at least 50 percent of its current business partners, and ended up showing them to 68 percent, exceeding its ambition – and past CES metrics. When it came to its second objective of drawing an average of 75 attendees every hour to test its headphones, Polk eclipsed its goal by more than 46 percent, attracting 110 per hour. And the hits just kept coming. Wanting to collect 2,000 confirmed email addresses from visitors, Polk stockpiled 2,643 of them.

Polk also amassed media impressions the way U2 racks up Grammy Awards, compiling more than 57 million via 32 media outlets within a few weeks after CES closed. It was the very absence of noise in a show renowned for being a bedlam of blare that made Polk's headphones stand out, proving that even when you're marketing sound, silence can be golden.

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