Pioneer has returned to the TV business… sort of.
The Pioneer Elite brand has a very long history in the US TV business as a high-performance, well-engineered, exclusive brand, first in the rear projection category and later as a line of high-end plasma TVs. Before Pioneer exited the TV business a few years ago, Elite-branded plasma TVs using Pioneer’s Kuro technology were widely regarded as having the best picture quality in the industry.
Now Elite has returned as a Sharp TV brand. In a press release today, Sharp announced that it will be licensing the Elite brand from Pioneer to be distributed through Pioneer’s authorized dealer network that still sells Elite-branded A/V gear. When Pioneer exited the TV business, it sold an equity stake to Sharp, so the deal is not as strange as it seems. For Sharp, the deal opens up a third brand it can use (in addition to Sharp and Aquos), and one that offers higher channel margins. It is also well-suited to the larger displays that Sharp is now focusing on in the US market.
It is not clear whether the Elite brand will appear with the Sharp brand on sets, or alone. It is likely that some video purists will take a while to accept the Elite as an LCD technology rather than the plasma technology for which it became so well known.
TV brands have been trying to figure out how to market to what is becoming a bifurcated retail market for TVs: high-end specialty retailers offering deep margins but small volumes, and large national (or semi-national in the case of hhgregg) retailers that deliver large volumes but have slim margins and place intense pressure on brands for price concessions.
It can be difficult for a brand, like Samsung, to sell to national retailers and simultaneously offer the same product to a small specialty retailer that is cross-shopped with Best Buy. However, small specialty retailers usually have limited selections of sheltered brands, allowing them to avoid cross-shopping. At the same time, sub-branding has become less effective as Walmart and Best Buy continue to account for a larger percentage of sales and can impose stronger control or influence on product strategy.
So, can Sharp’s Elite brand strategy work? Will specialty retailers embrace it like they did when it was a Pioneer product? Stay tuned.