Two years ago Sennheiser’s gaming division became EPOS and a new audio brand was born. Then the pandemic hit and everything changed. Richie Shoemaker listens in as Maja Sand-Grimnitz tells the story of how EPOS broke through the noise.
To some within the industry, the creation of the EPOS audio brand just over two years ago was a curious development, chiefly for two reasons:
One was that EPOS was effectively a continuation of old Sennheiser Communications, a brand built up over more than 15 years that more than most in the game audio space – and certainly outside it – was very much synonymous with quality. In addition, despite the circumstances that lead to audio healthcare specialist Demant acquiring Sennheiser Communications in 2019 (since 2003 it had been a joint venture between Demant and Sennheiser), there was a degree of expectation that the brand would remain intact, since the separation was deemed amicable and the two companies pledged to continue their cooperation.
As it turns out, Demant saw fit to capitalise as much on its own knowledge as that it had acquired from its long standing partnership, which, as a company known for its hearing aid technology, was a perfect fit – pun intended – for the emerging in-ear technologies that EPOS was soon to launch against. As an example of its expertise, as well as its quest to miniaturise without compromising quality, Denant could call on its database containing thousands upon thousands of ear scans, enabling EPOS to develop a fit for its products that it claims others have a hard time matching.
That’s all very well of course, but then there was the timing of launching a major hardware brand just as the world was going into lockdown. To put it mildly it was not an ideal situation, as EPOS’ head of global gaming marketing Maja Sand-Grimnitz readily admits. Yet in spite of the darkness into which the world was soon plunged, the light offered by games and gaming provided something of a unique opportunity – to create a level of online awareness that could rival that of any in-store campaign. Two years on, it’s an opportunity that EPOS appears to have reaped the benefits of.
What were the challenges in trying to establish EPOS when you did?
We saw that there was a space in the market for a quality brand that had even more focus on engineering and also a slightly different take of what audio can do for the gaming experience.
We saw that there was an audience out there who was using their lifestyle products for gaming, because maybe the existing traditional gaming brands didn’t quite match their needs anymore. So we believed there was room for a brand like ours in the market, but without kidding ourselves that it’s a competitive market with a demanding consumer.
And then we launched just before the pandemic, which gave us the time to get the brand out there before the world got consumed in all the craziness. For all the bad things that the pandemic brought, it did also bring a lot of people being at home engaging via gaming.
We like to get people out into stores to touch and feel our product, but it just hit a time when that wasn’t possible. Luckily, our audience is used to consuming information and media online. So we just had to focus on how we tell the story of what to expect from our products. In that sense we didn’t lose the opportunity to talk about our products and get them in front of the consumer.
“Who would have thought that suddenly the world would shut down and you couldn’t go to a store? That was really strange for us all.”
There’s obviously been a lot of supply issues for hardware manufacturers. Have they impacted EPOS?
Yeah. I don’t think any brand who’s in any kind of tech has gone without feeling the consequences of supply chain issues, be it on the transportation side or the chip supply side. So I think like any other company that has affected us a bit and we have had to adjust timings of product launches and our focus.
eSports continued to be popular during the pandemic, but at the expense of in-person events. Did that affect your strategy in terms of sponsorships and the like?
We didn’t have to change much because we play in the online space, primarily. But our partners had to adapt a lot, be it the teams or the tournaments. Suddenly they couldn’t gather their teams and had to put all the events online. So we had a lot of talks on how we could support that and how we could still make it exciting for the fans who didn’t get the opportunity to go out and experience the atmosphere.
But I think the big benefit for gaming is that it’s an industry that’s used to being innovative in the online space, so we went with our partners on adapting where needed. It was more about just staying in close dialogue with them and understanding what changes and challenges they met and how we then fit into that.
We’re now facing a cost of living crisis. Will gamers be seeking value products and will that be a challenge?
I think what you’ll see is they’ll probably just wait a little longer before they go out and get their new purchase. Gamers are one of the groups of consumers I’ve worked with in my career that are the most demanding. They are the most certain in what they want and have a lot of requirements, too, from the quality, the tech, the look and everything. I’m not certain they’re going to compromise on that. I think they’re probably going to postpone it a bit before they go out and make a purchase for the next peripheral they’re looking for. That would be my guess, just looking at the mentality of gamers and how they consume brands.
What is your focus and what audio trends will you be looking to capitalise on?
Wireless is definitely a big focus for us. We see it as a high growth market within gaming audio. For us that’s about how we can optimise on the audio, low latency, and then multi connectivity in our wireless portfolio.
So that’s a trend we’re tapping into, and where we’re really looking at how we can continue to improve, and then with in-ear… especially out in APAC, mobile gaming is huge, but also the versatility of product use. If I’m sitting here talking to you, and then I’m moving on to gaming, and then I’m jumping into some transportation, do I want to have to shift my headset for every single use case, or are there options out there that give me versatility but that still give me the best gaming and entertainment experience? So that’s also an area we definitely believe needs a big focus and that we’re constantly looking at: those multi-connectivity products and products that you can kind of bring with you during your day.
What’s been the most unexpected challenge you’ve had to face over the last couple of years?
The pandemic! Who would have thought that suddenly the world would shut down and you couldn’t go to a store? That was really strange for us all and there was a close collaboration between marketing and sales in talking about how we do meetings with retail with a new brand, when you can’t go and sit down with the people in Best Buy or Argos or wherever you’re trying to sell your products.
Also, I don’t know if it was unexpected, but gaming is a crazy market. It’s moving fast. It’s a place everyone wants to get into. Whether luxury clothing or tech or whatever, they want to get in there, because they’ve all heard about this group of consumers that have a lot of money to spend. Navigating that and making sure that we stay true to our story by making sure that we continue to build on why we are here in the eyes of the gamer, because it is a little bit ‘wild west’ and gamers tolerate no bullshit.
What was the most unexpected highlight?
The really highly competitive markets. And that we’ve gotten really positive feedback on coming out as a new brand and saying that with quality audio you can truly change your gaming experience. It was worth engaging in that conversation. We believe in that, and we believed the market was ready for that. But you never know until you go out there and do it, right. That’s been really exciting to see that there are people out there that want to engage in that dialogue.
Where do you hope EPOS will be at for its third anniversary?
You know, I like big visions. I would really love to see that EPOS has given the market a new perspective of audio, what quality audio can do and what quality audio is. Audio is a very subjective thing as it very much depends on what you’re used to in your daily life. But you know, really getting that dialogue around audio in games and peripherals to another level – we’ve been talking a lot about graphics in gaming for many years – that’s exciting to have the opportunity to go out and impact the market.
We’re launching BrainAdapt, which is at the core of our audio philosophy and expertise due to our ownership within the Demant group, about how the human brain processes audio. So how do you take audio that comes through some kind of device and make sure it gets as natural and as real and as easy for the brain to process as possible? And how does that impact your competitive edge in CS:GO, for example; reaction time, these kinds of things. How does that expertise impact how immersed you can get into a game? A year from now, I really want to celebrate that we got that story out and we started to talk to the market about that specifically.