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tech: sony’s senseless rebranding

Back at CES in January, the double-act of Sir Howard Stringer and Kaz Hirai announced something called the Sony Entertainment Network – a network service that would be the hub of the company’s efforts to serve music, movies and other content to customers online. Those who watch the gaming end of Sony’s business knew what was happening here – this is the long-expected expansion of the PlayStation Network, or PSN, to become the foundation of Sony’s online service ambitions.

It’s been long-expected, because up until this point Sony has proved completely incapable of leveraging its enviable position as both a leading consumer electronics manufacturer and one of the world’s biggest media companies, and has instead been completely outmatched by Apple’s iTunes and latterly by Amazon at every turn. Much as PlayStation is about the only successful bit of Sony’s consumer electronics business right now, PSN is the company’s only remotely successful network service. Other services, like Sony Connect and Qriocity (which technically lives on, rebranded as SEN) have been embarrassing flops.

My understanding of the SEN announcement at CES (it’s TLA bingo in here, folks) was that it meant that PSN would extend its reach across Sony’s businesses and devices, but would be rebranded as “SEN” on non-PlayStation devices (or perhaps for non-gaming content). What I didn’t expect, though, was that Sony would actually start to prefer the SEN brand to the PSN one.

Yesterday morning (GMT), 8-4’s John Ricciardi tweeted about Sony renaming PSN as SEN entirely. I responded, saying that that wasn’t my understanding (based on CES), and expressing incredulity at the idea that the company would drop the only network brand they own which has ever garnered the slightest shred of respect. A friend in Japan then sent me a copy of the email Japanese PSN subscribers received about the change – and this morning, I got a copy dropped into the inbox associated with my Japanese PSN account.

So yes, this seems to be happening – with the slightly peculiar exclusion of PSP devices from the change. PSN accounts are to be replaced by SEN accounts, pushing the PSN brand to one side – or at least, that’s the most obvious reading of the announcement.

Now, this isn’t entirely clear as yet. My personal belief is that SEN is going to be an “umbrella” brand, so you’ll have an SEN account which works on various different services, of which the PSN store on your PlayStation or Xperia Play will be one. That’s not unreasonable – it would be a bit like how your “Apple ID” serves as a store account for iTunes, the App Store and even the Apple Store and Apple hardware support services. If that’s the case (and I personally do think that it’s most likely to be the case), that’s fine.

However, the announcement does make it seem like PSN is being phased out, and in that case, it’s a foolish decision on Sony’s part. Even if not, it’s worth thinking about Sony’s branding and why this would be a terrible move. Even the simple decision to promote SEN accounts, rather than PSN accounts, could point to an unwillingness to use the PlayStation brand more widely which would, I believe, be a mistake.

I simply don’t believe that the “Sony” brand has remotely the same kind of positive connotations with the sort of consumers the company needs to chase that the “PlayStation” brand has. “Sony” used to be one of the best brands in electronics, but today it might as well be a byword for “over-priced also-ran”. The label Sony means little or nothing when applied to mobile handsets and cameras; it’s done nothing for sales of personal music players; and even in televisions, the company’s traditional home market, the Sony name has done nothing to reverse the flow of sales to cheaper (and technologically equal or better) South Korean manufacturers.

Contrast that with the PlayStation brand, which kept the PS3 afloat while Sony got its act together for a couple of years at the start of this generation. Sure, the team at Sony have done an amazing job in the past five years – and all credit is due to the work of executives like Kaz Hirai, Andrew House and Shuhei Yoshida on that front – but the sheer strength of that brand is the reason why those execs had anything left to salvage after the disastrous launch of PS3. Consumers trusted the brand, and many were willing to wait for it to get back on its feet and offer something worthwhile, rather than abandoning it and buying an Xbox. That’s extraordinary loyalty – loyalty which the PlayStation brand can claim, and the Sony brand absolutely cannot.

Of course, the real irony is that this happens as Kaz Hirai takes over at Sony - I wrote about that a bit this week on GamesIndustry.biz (free registration required to read). The former boss of PlayStation is about to become the overall boss of Sony. That succession should be about applying the success of the PlayStation brand to the rest of the company – not seeking to homogenise PlayStation with the old, tired and uninspiring Sony name.

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