Mounted on the long white wall of the dining hall at the headquarters of the oldest consumer electronics company in the world is a growing collection of portraits. The rural setting is Struer in Jutland, northwest Denmark, and this is the Bang & Olufsen ”Wall of Fame.” Admittance into this expanding society requires employment at the company for at least 25 years. Many of the people honoured have been there for 50.
Take Ronny Kaas — he followed his grandfather, father, mother, and uncle into the company. All three generations combined have racked up over 130 years of service. Ronny is retired now but he volunteers as a History Specialist and is one of the main people in charge of selecting, categorising, repairing and preserving a wealth of Bang & Olufsen products that span the company’s 93-year history. There are more than 3,000 items in the collection, and counting. The fact that Ronny and his former colleagues — BeoNists as they are affectionately known — maintain this Bang & Olufsen museum as volunteers, speaks volumes about the care and dedication the company inspires in its employees. There is widespread respect for Bang & Olufsen in Denmark in general, but for those that have worked for the company, it’s something greater. Ronny says,
—The spirit that was created during the first 25 years of Bang & Olufsen’s life has endured. You could talk about it like an organism that has carried the spirit with it. Those might sound like big words, but there really is a Bang & Olufsen spirit.
The support and commitment to the company is evident in the present-day employees and the BeoNist’s fellowship, it is crucially manifest in Bang & Olufsen’s products, and it is revealed in past actions. It was the company’s own workforce that rebuilt the factory in 1945 after it was burned down by Nazis just before the end of World War II. Bang & Olufsen were targeted because they had refused to co-operate with the Nazis and Svend Olufsen was linked to the resistance movement helping Jews to escape from Denmark.
Today’s factory is on the same site as that first factory built in 1925 to produce high-quality radios, expanding later into gramophones, cinema systems, loudspeakers and more. Recalling that remarkable wall of fame, the first face is the smiling and bespectacled Peter Bang, but his university friend and lifelong business partner Svend Olufsen is a notable absence. He is not pictured because he died just a few months before his 25th anniversary. It’s not until I’m guided by host Jette Nygaard into Factory 5 that I see the two faces behind those world-famous names.
The black and white portrait shows the two men standing together in the early days of launching the business. Peter Bang looks every bit the mad scientist, whilst Svend Olufsen looks the part as a suave and savvy salesman. Jette comments,
— They had different personalities, in many ways complete opposites. But they were each other’s best friends. They had studied together in engineering school. Peter Bang came from Copenhagen and Svend Olufsen came from here in Struer.
Bang was fervently driven by scientific inquiry and solving problems, while Olufsen was the charismatic marketing man who saw the bigger picture. Bang would devise a new innovation and Olufsen would secure the patent and alert an audience. Their alliance of contrasting qualities is mirrored in the company itself, which embodies the unison of design and science, the artist and the engineer.
Innovation has been a brand hall-mark since day one. The company’s first product, the Eliminator radio, was groundbreaking in that it broke away from the norm of battery operation and could run on electric current from the mains. Bang & Olufsen was also the first ever company to interconnect its products with the BeoLink system of the 1980s. Today, there is practically no limit to what can be integrated and controlled by one of their inimitable remote controls.
It’s no secret that the co-founders of Apple, Steve Wozniack and Steve Jobs, were both product owners and ardent admirers of Bang & Olufsen. The trailblazing attention to design from 1958 onwards was a huge influence on Apple Inc.
Indeed, the revolutionary iPod took major inspiration for its click-wheel from Bang & Olufsen. A wheel had been used in various B&O products for volume and tuning purposes since the early 70s but it was the BeoCom 6000 cordless telephone from 1998, designed by Henrik Sørig Thomsen, that featured an intuitive centre wheel for navigational purposes. B&O’s ingenious use of sound to echo the turning of the navigation wheel was also incorporated into the classic iPod.
It’s fascinating to walk through the many corridors and peer into the various labs and studios where so many seminal products were conceived and created. In the basement below the R&D department is the environmental laboratory more commonly known as the torture chamber. This is where such beautiful products are severely maltreated. Televisions are literally frozen — subjected to a temperature swing from—25°C to 40°C within three minutes. Soft drinks, soup, and water are spilled over remote controls and no signs of malfunction are tolerated.
On the tour, I meet Finn Nørgaard Klint, or ’Polishing Finn’ as he’s nicknamed.
— I’ve been here almost 43 years, I was 15 years old when I joined. My dad was here for 25 years, Finn tells me.
Finn explains that the BeoRemote, which is first milled out of one block of aluminium, takes eight minutes to polish. In those eight minutes, another brand’s machines could have spat out hundreds of plastic remote controls. In this one small example you can see the whole. Bang & Olufsen has always been at a premium price point because quality is paramount.
In a world of calculated obsolescence Bang & Olufsen remain an essential counterpoint — a creator of products that have invested within them, not only the best possible standards of the design and engineering disciplines, but also with uncompromising human care. The employees from every department — from the sound engineers and conceptual designers through to the polishing experts and the top-level executives — are passionate about the final result. As unlikely as that may seem in a capitalist system where profit is the ultimate goal, irrespective of consequence, it reigns true here.
Finn also tells me that when he joined the firm there were around 3,500 employees and Bang & Olufsen had its own printing press for its magazines, a fleet of trucks for distribution and so on. Today the global workforce stands at around 1000. The company has endured several ups and downs and the most recent came in the last decade. The previous day I visited the Sales & Marketing department in the leafy Copenhagen suburb of Lyngby and spoke about the recent challenges with Anders Buchmann, Senior Go-To-Market Manager.
— There was a change in our industry: new technologies, a change in consumer behaviour and a financial crisis. Those three things were big factors that changed our business a lot in a handful of years. We saw a massive boom in headphones and portable speakers and the introduction of new platforms enabling people to easily create multi-room listening. And our transition to this new reality did not happen as quickly as we would have liked. But we have adapted without compromising on the quality and DNA of Bang & Olufsen. We did that by launching portable speakers and headphones under the B&O PLAY brand and revamping our multi-room offering based on an open platform strategy where you can use Google Chromecast and Apple Airplay etc. to connect your speakers. And we got new leadership just over two years ago — Henrik Clausen stepped in as our CEO and really defined our new direction, Anders states.
The creation of the B&O PLAY business unit in 2012 was a hit and played a vital role in turning the company’s fortunes around. While Bang & Olufsen had acquired the image of a parental generation product — a statement piece of sound furniture that lived indoors — younger generations using mobile technology were being overlooked. With this new and more mobile product portfolio, the company could offer the superior design and sound qualities of Bang & Olufsen for customers looking for on-the-go products.
— Introducing the B&O PLAY business unit has been an amazing success. Building on the Bang & Olufsen core capabilities of sound, design, and craft we were able to tap in to the market for on-the-go products that was growing almost exponentially, especially among younger consumers, Anders says.
With a background in Silicon Valley start-ups, Jakob Kristoffersen, Concept and Design Manager, joined a small team of around 15 people in 2012 to launch B&O PLAY. Watching it expand to around 150 people and then be successfully brought back into the fold in June 2018. This was a perfect example of a major global brand expanding its customer base with a savvy sub-brand. There was never actually a brand divide in customer’s minds and now fully merged, the company moves forward unified as one to ensure a consistent consumer experience. Reflecting on the importance of design to the whirlwind success Jakob says,
— Our approach to design is exactly what sets us apart in the industry. We dream about experiences and conceptual ideas — not objects. Our products are not design-wrapped technology or some vanity design project that’s impossible to manufacture and not delivering on its purpose. Clearly conceptualised ideas drive all our decision making, making sure that design and technology unite and complement each other, rather than conflict — which then, in turn, becomes a beautiful piece of design.
Being 24 years old when he joined, upwardly mobile, with discerning tastes and firm values, Jakob embodied the audience traits that B&O PLAY was created for. It was the ideal one to one proposition. While the success he helped create was crucial, he displays admirable Scandinavian modesty and now has his sights set on continued success as a single business.
— B&O PLAY has been standing on the shoulders of one of the most iconic brands in the world. It was a start-up within the Bang & Olufsen organisation that set a new agenda and attracted a new crowd. It made the brand relevant to a wider group of people and brought new ways of thinking and operating to the company. Today, it is natural that we work together as one company and one brand, he explains.
If Jakob joined the company as one of the new young gunslingers, then Kresten Bjørn Krab-Bjerre is part of the old guard — in the best sense. Presently Senior Concept Manager, he has been with Bang & Olufsen for the last 24 years and he has a forensic knowledge of the brand and its products. Reflecting on some of the reasons why this relatively small company in a secluded part of Denmark has managed to send design shockwaves that still reverberate around the world and through time, he explains,
— We don’t have designers actually employed at Bang & Olufsen. The reason is that, if you’re working together as colleagues within a company, you have a tendency to be strong at certain areas and weak in other areas. If our designers were hired inside Bang & Olufsen they would be entangled in all these boundaries. We want them to look at Bang & Olufsen from the outside, and say, ”If you want to survive or if you want to be the best in the business, this is where you need to be,” without caring about our current competencies.
Another key factor in the company’s success, according to Kresten, is that Bang & Olufsen is a Scandinavian company. He expands saying,
— If you look at Scandinavia and Denmark, we’re not very competitive in the way we’re brought up. It’s very much a social thing. It’s about helping each other, making everybody feel success. We don’t have really rich people. We don’t have really poor people. It’s all about making a safe environment. We are feeling so safe that there are no stupid questions. You’re allowed to make mistakes. This actually creates this very inspirational environment where we are willing to take risks and dare to do things differently… I’m sure that it’s a great part of our success.
Bang & Olufsen has long since transcended the boundaries of being a consumer electronics company. They are a global luxury and lifestyle brand on par with the finer things in life, be it yachts, cars, exotic escapes or precious timepieces. The passion of the employees, the Scandinavian sensibilities, the uncompromising dedication to the utmost quality — all the ingredients together creates a potent alchemy of emotional attraction.
In a final conversation with Jens Jermiin, Vice President, Global Marketing, he responds to the crucial question of why people buy Bang & Olufsen.
— Our products can enable a moment of beauty. You’re together with people you like in nice surroundings. You have a product from Bang & Olufsen, you turn on the music, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. It’s an experience of beauty. It’s the goosebump moment. They are the moments we remember and the moments we want more of. It’s those moments that we learn from. It’s those moments we talk about and share — the goosebump moments. Everything else in life is just transportation from that moment to another. If we can have a meaningful role in those moments then we become a brand with cultural force.
It’s a formidable challenge. To strike a yin yang balance of meeting consumer demand for the very latest in technology, no matter the pace of development, and at the same time creating objects that will become a part of the consumer’s life, enhancing it and manifesting emotional connections.
It’s a challenge but the company is up to the task. From the On-The-Go portfolio to the icon-in-the-making Edge speaker launching today, to the exultant Beo-Lab 90 — the pinnacle statement of the company — design and quality are allied and strikingly evident in every aspect of a Bang & Olufsen product. With portfolios perfected, Bang & Olufsen engage in the capricious art of making people feel them. Jens concludes,
— We believe that we need to connect with people emotionally. Emotions totally override rationality when it comes always to purchasing behaviour. Emotion is what makes you fall in love and what makes you loyal. That’s how we want to connect.
The origins of the company — the unlikely but extremely effective partnership and combined vision of Peter Bang and Svend Olufsen — continues to serve as the firm foundation of the company and its evolution as a leading global luxury-lifestyle brand marches on.