The Lessons of Clairtone

April 18, 2008

Just when we expressed disappointment that a recent Globe and Mail profile on Peter Munk didn’t explore his halcyon days at Clairtone in the swinging sixties, today’s paper featured an excellent piece from Business writer Gordon Pitts on the just that very subject. More specifically (and quite interestingly)? The question: “Is there something in the Canadian psyche that militates against product development and marketing?” Are we doomed to be perpetual hewers of wood and drawers of water, timorous in any arena where design innovation is life?

Good question. And one we’ve been playing around with ever since we interviewed Munk two years ago.

Because the story of Clairtone ends rather badly, much of its history has been buried in the collective consciousness. My parents vaguely recall the company’s celebrated “Project G”, but when I show them the company’s cutting edge ads, it all comes tumbling back.

Here, you try. We’ve already shown one. Here’s another.

Pitts’ comparison to Apple may be a bit of a stretch, but when Munk and his business partner, David Gilmour, burst onto the scene, they represented an entrepreneurial vigour Canada hadn’t seen, perhaps ever. It was the ultimate coming together of technology and design, and the company’s advertising reflected this. The campaigns, designed by legendary political tactician Dalton Camp, pitched the two men as Trudeau-era saviours of corporate Canada.

As Pitt points out, though, the real star of the show was the Project G. You may remember it from such films as The Graduate (in one of the first instances of Hollywood product placement). It’s that stereo with the globe-shaped speakers in the famous seduction scene. The Ipod of its day, or almost.

sexy
The very sexy Clairtone G2

After flying high and expanding into the US, Clairtone went from being an astonishing Canadian success story to a cataclysmic failure in a matter of years. The more minor “whys” differ depending on who you ask, but its clear that Munk wasn’t the most frugal of men and that the company sought to expand even as finances were pinched. It’s main mistake: it went after easy regional development funding in Nova Scotia, setting up factories for the manufacture of radios and TV in rural Stellarton and allowing politicians and local business people onto its board in lieu of industry experts. Then it tried to get into the automobile industry and one day found itself controlled by the provincial government of Nova Scotia. A significant woops to be sure.

Pitts’ piece explores all this history, but his core thesis pushes beyond the standard ‘shouldn’t have gone east’ line adopted by most. He actually suggests that despite its marketing verve and undeniable moxie, Clairtone was too timid.

“For all its bold design”, he writes, “it never stopped turning out clunky mainstream stereos encased in period furniture. Project G was actually a small part of the product line. It could be argued that Clairtone could only survive by catering to popular tastes. Yet Apple’s Steve Jobs has prospered by leading tastes, not by bending to those of the masses.”

It’s an interesting argument, and one that Pitts then segues into a brief discussion of Clairtone’s most recent progeny: Research in Motion. RIM appears in a far safer position than Clairtone ever did, partly due to its financial management, but also due to cultural changes whereby the commercialization of technology advance has gone more mainstream. Clairtone had to live by the seat of its pants for its entire life cycle in a country that hadn’t ever really seen its like before. That is changing now. But more slowly than it should.

If we want more Clairtone’s and RIMs – and we do – then we shouldn’t let the Munk and Gilmour story be forgotten.

For more on the design evolution of Clairtone, take a look at The Art of Clairtone, The Making of a Design Icon, a book that Munk’s daughter Nina has co-authored with design curator Rachel Gotlieb.

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