Peter Hoenisch popularised many of Sony’s innovative products in West Germany in the 1970s and 80s. During this time, as a member of the management team with responsibility for communications at Sony Germany, he was able to introduce iconic products such as the Walkman to the market – his good connections to the press and his creative ideas were invaluable. J-BIG spoke to Peter Hoenisch about how the Japanese company became aware of him, the challenges and successes he experienced during his time at Sony and what it was like working with the head office in Japan. He also reveals what made working at Sony so unique for him.
J-BIG: How did the story between you and Sony begin in the 70s of the last century?
Peter Hoenisch: After studying economics, I ended up in the communications sector by chance. After a bad experience at an agency in Frankfurt, I set up my own classic PR agency in Bonn. In 1975, out of the blue, the marketing manager of Sony Germany called me from Cologne and asked if I could organise a press conference for Akio Morita, the co-founder and president of Sony Corporation, at the International Consumer Electronics Fair IFA in Berlin, which was still on top of the consumer electronics industry at the time. We only had regular customers in the agency, but I accepted the job anyway, because a Japanese customer seemed exciting to me.
I got an appointment with Jack Schmuckli, then head of the company in Germany, who was very close to the Sony founders Ibuka and Morita and was the first non-Japanese to play a significant role in the company. Sony was no longer completely unknown, but it was uncertain whether a press conference by Morita at the IFA in Berlin would attract any interest. So I formulated a proposal overnight and dropped it in the letterbox at Sony in Cologne at five in the morning. Schmuckli called me at 9 a.m. and said: “Congratulations, you get the job.” My idea was to make Morita known, and I thought the best way to do that was with a “SPIEGEL interview”. After a few phone calls, I found Peter Boelke in the business editorial department of SPIEGEL magazine, who also found an interview with a top Japanese manager would be interesting and ended up talking to Morita. Like many others, he subsequently became a Sony and Morita fan.
“J-BIG – Japan Business in Germany” is the e-mail magazine dedicated to Japanese companies and their business activities in the German market.
J-BIG: What stage of development was Sony Germany in when you got to know the company?
Peter Hoenisch: Sony had opened its first branch in Kiel in the 1960s, which was managed by a Japanese manager. Turnover at the time was around 80 million German marks, mainly with hi-fi equipment, tape recorders and transistor radios. The first 13-inch televisions based on the PAL system were not launched until 1971 and normal large televisions with PAL technology hit the market in 1975 after the end of the PAL licence.
Sony had already moved its headquarters to Cologne in 1970 and started in Braunsfeld with 23 employees. Although many Japanese companies were based in Düsseldorf at the time, Sony made a conscious decision in favour of Cologne. The Sony founders thought that it would be better for the employees – at that time still predominantly Japanese – if they did not live in the Japanese community, but learnt German and had contact with the German society. Schmuckli then joined Sony Deutschland GmbH as Managing Director in 1975. He had previously been head of Polaroid Far East and therefore already had experience in working with Japanese people. Morita got to know him privately and chose him for the difficult German market, and therefore had deep trust in him. Thanks to this close co-operation, the German headquarters developed quickly and well.
J-BIG: What were the characteristics of the founders of Sony?
Peter Hoenisch: Sony was founded in 1946 by physicists Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita in a burnt-out department store in Nihonbashi, a district of Tokyo. The company initially produced an automatic rice cooker, but this did not sell. Influenced by the difficult war years, the two founders wanted to develop a product that people would enjoy and produced their first tape recorder. In the 1950s, the company became well-known and successful with the development of transistor technology and the development of small transistor radios. Sony was the first company to use transistor technology for non-military purposes. Both founders were outstanding and visionary technicians and also knew how to deal with people. They were geniuses with influential contacts. Morita was friends with Steve Jobs and the classical music conductor Herbert von Karajan, among many others. Ibuka, the head of technology, also wrote books on child education, such as “Kindergarten is too late”.
J-BIG: You initially worked as an agency owner for Sony. What happened next?
Peter Hoenisch: I was hooked right from the start and it was a really interesting task to position Sony in the German media. After the positive outcome of the work for Morita at the IFA, Sony became my favourite customer. I began to systematically build up contacts with the relevant editors of the important print media, especially the specialised press, and ARD and ZDF. Thanks to the intensive press work, Sony quickly became well known. I had a very good partner in the agency, but we were fundamentally different and our working methods didn’t fit. I discussed this with Schmuckli, with whom I had become close friends, and one day he said to me: “Why don’t you sell your shop and come to me? I finally agreed to this offer on the condition that I would join the company as a member of the management team. Money didn’t play a role in the decision; I was earning less than before in my agency. I started on January 1st, 1978. My new position at Sony gave me a completely different insight into the life of the company through the weekly management meetings, and I quickly realised that this perspective opened up very different opportunities for communication.
J-BIG: What were typical Sony products at that time?
Peter Hoenisch: The most important was the range of hi-fi devices, amplifiers, tuners, cassette decks, record players, CD players after the introduction of the CD, and of course the Trinitron televisions. A second division was smaller devices such as world receivers, walkmen and cassettes. And of particular importance for the company’s image were the professional devices for industry and television. Trinitron was a picture tube developed by Sony with a significantly brighter picture than that of all other television sets, which led to the German armed forces buying their televisions from a Japanese company. The reason was that the images could also be seen in bright daylight.
J-BIG: How did you support the promotion of the products with your communications work after you joined Sony?
Peter Hoenisch: When problems arose, I always felt jointly responsible and looked for solutions.
One example: our “office products”, dictation machines, associated cassettes, etc., were not selling well. I offered to take care of the sales of these products and at the same time became the sales director for this division. I visited the most important dealers and, as a member of the management team, was always given appointments with the bosses. In my own personal way, I always asked them to take care of our products. And to the astonishment of my colleagues, I was successful. When asked how I would do that, I said that I couldn’t explain it.
With Schmuckli’s consent, I started sponsoring cultural events very intensively. We were sponsors of video art, which became increasingly important in the 1970s. We supported the art show Documenta with a very clever concept. The equipment we provided, worth millions, was offered to museums, art associations and galleries at a special price after the end of the exhibition with the help of Documenta, which meant that only our products were used in art institutions. We supported the Cologne Opera and the Bonn theatre and, because of Morita’s friendship with Herbert von Karajan, often worked with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
A second focus was sport. I contacted the sports university in Cologne and offered to sponsor sports using our products: Dictaphones for trainers, video cameras for training observation. We also supported the national hockey team. A Video 8 team was offered to clubs via a specialist for training observation. Our products were everywhere, so to speak, and the budget was actually minimal.
The German handball federation was sponsored on a large scale. After a start-up phase, we developed a mutual project for the 1982 World Championships. We took all the video material from the championship from the TV stations and developed a series of 12 training cassettes with the presenters from ARD in our studio. We made these available to the handball association, which was able to sell the cassettes to clubs nationally and internationally. In return, our name was on the jerseys.
Not everything always worked out, but there was no moaning or complaining about flops. Schmuckli was very open to ideas, which were always discussed by the management.
J-BIG: Were there any products that were not successful?
Peter Hoenisch: Yes, there was “Elcaset”, a large cassette with a magnetic tape, which was excellent but didn’t catch on. And the minidisc wasn’t a success either; it came too quickly after the CD. Our main problem child, however, was our Betamax video system: Sony was the first to launch a video recorder based on this system with a cassette the size of a paperback. A little later came JVC, a subsidiary of Panasonic, with the VHS system. The cassette was significantly larger and the quality was declaredly weaker. Sony only granted Betamax licences to companies that also produced Betamax devices, e.g. the company’s daughter brand Aiwa. JVC granted licences to everyone. As a result, there were more VHS recorders. As the recorders were used more for playing films, consumers bought films in VHS format more often. As a result, Betamax fell further and further behind. For me, this was a defeat that I was furious about.
J-BIG: Then came the Walkman. When did you first come into contact with this device?
Peter Hoenisch: In 1982, Jack Schmuckli showed me the first Walkman, a device that allowed you to listen to music without disturbing the environment. The idea for the Walkman was created by Akio Morita himself. Because Schmuckli was sceptical, we only ordered 5000 units from Tokyo, and only for Morita’s sake. I presented the device during an editorial visit to the most important German youth magazine at the time, “Bravo”, which was enthusiastic and featured it on a double-page. It was a great success and the devices sold like hot cakes. Production couldn’t keep up, everyone wanted a Walkman. This led to competitors producing similar products. A legal battle began against anyone who called their product a Walkman. In my view, the Walkman is not a product for which we deserve much credit. The Walkman was a brilliant idea, nothing more. It sold well. But the technology was simple and anyone could replicate the device. For me, Sony was a company of engineers; I was just happy about the creativity and outstanding technology in our products. From today’s perspective, the Walkman is particularly interesting because it became the nucleus for the “personal hi-fi” complex. Without the Walkman, there would later have been no iPod and no music on the smartphone.
J-BIG: Sony is often credited with the development of the CD. How do you remember this development?
Peter Hoenisch: Sony developed digital sound recording and the CD together with Philips. Philips was more involved in the development, but we had better contacts with the press and had Herbert von Karajan as our promoter. When Karajan gave concerts in Japan, he was always a guest at Morita’s house. And it was there that he first heard a digital recording of a chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Nabucco” with a huge dynamic leap. Karajan was thrilled and said: “This is the future, everything else is gaslight”. Thanks to my good contacts in the press, Sony was mentioned much more than Philips in reports about the CD and its advantages, so that to this day the impression persists that Sony developed the CD. This is a good example of the influence the media has on public perception.
J-BIG: What were the specific differences between Sony and other consumer electronics companies?
Peter Hoenisch: We were often technically one step ahead of the competition. And we certainly had better PR, also thanks to our intensive sponsorship in culture and sport. This often gave our sales people the opportunity to open sales talks elegantly. At that time, there were still German producers in the consumer electronics sector such as Grundig, Saba, Nordmende and Telefunken, but they were not real rivals. Our booth was always the most interesting at the IFA in Berlin. Almost everything new and pioneering came from Sony, often in the so-called black box, e.g. the first digital camera.
J-BIG: How did the collaboration with your Japanese colleagues work?
Peter Hoenisch: The good relationship with the headquarters in Tokyo was not least thanks to Jack Schmuckli, who had a close relationship with the founders. This gave Sony Germany a lot of freedom. Schmuckli wrote a short monthly report for Akio Morita every month. That was all that was necessary. And there was a very friendly exchange between the German and Japanese technicians.
As Schmuckli spoke Japanese well, he was able to understand everything in board meetings when his Japanese colleagues exchanged ideas. In 1986, after eleven years, Schmuckli became President of Sony Europe and Ron Sommer, who later became head of Telekom, was his successor. I also worked very well with him.
I have often been to Japan myself, mostly with journalists. Sony was very open to the media and made all areas of development accessible. This made a very positive impression, especially on the specialised industry press.
I remember one particular example of Sony’s corporate spirit: when I visited a television factory, I found a “notice board” in the canteen with a column for each department. For the department with the best weekly performance, an orange, made of paper of course, was pinned in the department’s column. The department that filled their column first was the winner. When I asked what the prize for the winner was, my question was not understood at all. It wasn’t about money, just honour. The employees felt like part of the family and were proud to add to the company. Morita contributed a lot to this atmosphere. He was very close to his employees and went to the canteen every day wearing his Sony coat.
J-BIG: The 1980s are considered the high point of Japanese economic expansion in the 20th century. What was your impression of Japan back then?
Peter Hoenisch: I was in Japan for the first time in 1976 at the invitation of Sony and Toyota with four journalists. Toyota was also a client of my agency at the time. Almost 50 years ago, everything was much more foreign, but I was impressed by the cities, the technical innovations and, above all, the famous Shinkansen. The companies looked after us perfectly and we stayed in the best hotels. Business travellers from Germany were still something special back then. When we arrived at the Nagoya Castle Hotel in Nagoya, the headquarters of Toyota, a large banner above the entrance read “Welcome to German Journalists” for the five of us. We were also impressed by the company’s technology. We visited a practically deserted engine factory and every 45 seconds a bell rang and an engine fell off the production line. And in the evening, we were invited to a bar by the management and were allowed to sing German songs.
J-BIG: Why did you later quit Sony?
Peter Hoenisch: I left eleven years after I joined Sony and 13 years after I started working for them. During these years, I myself became known for my intensive work. The famous media entrepreneur Helmut Thoma asked me one day on what terms I would be prepared to move to the RTL media group. The entire supervisory board, which I knew from my agency days, had recommended me. As I didn’t want to leave Sony, I gave the following condition: Double my salary. One day Thoma called and said that the Supervisory Board would agree to my condition. The then enormous salary of 350,000 marks was too tempting and I agreed. My sudden decision to change caused a few conflicts. I had a heated argument with Ron Sommer at one point. But as we got on well, the dispute was resolved and I moved to RTL in August 1988.
J-BIG: In your opinion, what were the success factors of Sony in Germany 40 years ago?
Peter Hoenisch: The basis was the high-quality and innovative products from Japan. It was fun to build and maintain Sony’s image. And all our communication work was very intensive. In addition, although the founders Ibuka and Morita were actually technicians, they were very interested in culture. Culture was firmly anchored in Sony’s DNA, so our cultural and sponsorship work was appreciated a lot.
The good contact within the company and with the head office in Tokyo was certainly decisive. The corporate culture has shaped us. We always felt like a Sony family. We had a good working atmosphere in all areas and also trusted each other completely in the management. There was no intrigue.
J-BIG: What was so special about the corporate culture?
Peter Hoenisch: The corporate culture at Sony has always been characterised by family cohesion. “Sony family” was not an empty term. Dealing with each other was relaxed and friendly. The employees had confidence in the management and vice versa. And internationally, English was the corporate language. Success was based on performance. Ibuka once told me that you had to give technicians tasks that seemed unsolvable. That was the only way to achieve top performance. Personally, I was always required to finance my ideas myself. I got advertising money from my marketing colleagues, worked a lot with products and looked for good partners. The old saying always applied: money must be replaced by ideas or creativity.
Later at RTL, I was granted large sums of money to realise my ideas; money was no longer an issue. That made it easy to develop and realise exciting projects. But it was nicer at Son; money was never in the foreground, always the idea, the target group, the potential success. Schmuckli later told me that we should actually have had to pay to be allowed to work for Sony back then.