Phonak USA representatives prepare for the day when the discriminating Baby Boomer population will demand hearing aids with superior technology en masse.

it01.JPG (15617 bytes) Marketing Director Laura Voll, MS (left), and President Cathy Henderson Jones, MS, have implemented a successful business-to-business marketing strategy at Phonak USA headquarters in Warrenville, Ill.

Earlier in their lives, many Baby Boomers enjoyed rock ‘n’ roll music played at often deafening volume—meaning that the ears of that generation have withstood abuse like perhaps those of no other age group in history. As a result, large numbers of them will eventually require hearing aids, believe officials at Phonak USA. When that day arrives—and, demographically speaking, it is just around the corner for adults born between the years 1946 and 1964—the Warrenville, Ill, company will be ready.

“The Boomers are soon going to be big users of hearing aids; we want to let them know today that we have the technology available to meet their needs tomorrow,” says Cathy Henderson Jones, MS, president of Phonak USA, whose firm has over the last 3 years conducted one of the largest business-to-consumer advertising campaigns ever mounted by the hearing-aid industry.

The ad campaign emphasizes that Phonak was the first hearing-aid manufacturer to obtain clinical proof of its products’ efficacy in reducing background noise and that the company is tops in customer satisfaction. Additionally, the ads play up the fact that Phonak has won recognition from Popular Science magazine for technologic innovation and that Good Housekeeping magazine has given Phonak products its famed Seal of Approval.

Clearly, the campaign is helping Phonak gain ground. According to Marketing Director Laura Voll, MS, as many as 40,000 consumers a year now request information from Phonak in response to ads they have seen in publications like Good Housekeeping, Prevention, and even Modern Maturity.

The Second Front
However, consumer advertising is only part of Phonak’s marketing plan. Mainly, the company is concerned with outreach to its primary target audience—audiologists and other hearing care providers, including instrument specialists and physicians.

“Our business-to-business marketing strategy is essentially to make sure the hearing care providers see us as a partner in their success,” says Jones.

The primary channel of communication linking Phonak with those hearing care providers is a customer service and technical support team staffed by upward of 50 hearing health care professionals.

it02.JPG (12698 bytes) From left are Pat Henry, product manager of Phonak’s FM communications, Cathy Henderson Jones, MS, Laura Voll, MS, and Dave Fabrey, Phonak’s director of clinical research.

“More and more hearing-aid manufacturers are searching for audiologists to serve this industry, and we’re pleased that we are attracting some of the best,” says Jones. “We also have a higher-than-usual percentage of audiologists in upper management. The point is that you can call us and talk at any time to someone who has experience in the field, and get the support you need from someone who is intimately familiar with how practices grow.”

Phonak in the course of a year also sponsors about 75 product training seminars at various locales around the country for hearing care providers. This is supplemented by a dozen or so seminars held in Phonak’s US-based manufacturing facility, where attendees have an opportunity to see how the products are made and refined.

“We host more than 1,000 visitors at our headquarters throughout the course of a year in order that hearing care providers can have face-to-face contact with our staff,” says Jones.

Above and beyond that, Phonak’s business-to-business marketing strategy includes direct mailings and having a company presence at the many state association meetings of audiologists and other practitioners in the hearing field.

“We also offer to hearing care providers extensive marketing services such as co-op advertising and collateral materials to help them develop their practices,” says Voll. “The message we’re attempting to convey through everything we do is that we want to help audiologists and others have successful practices. Whether they’re just starting out, growing and expanding, or looking for an exit strategy, we’re here to help them make the right choices and plan for the future.”

In Communications Biz
Phonak USA is a subsidiary of The Phonak Group, headquartered in Stafa, Switzerland. The Phonak Group started in 1966 and was initially focused on the manufacture of hearing aids for children. Although it continues to cater to the pediatric market, the company since those days has branched into all other sectors of the hearing-aid business.

The Phonak Group maintains offices in 16 countries and a distribution presence in 60 others. The company set up shop in the United States in 1989, attracted to these shores by its desire to establish a stronghold in the country with the world’s largest market for hearing instruments. Ten years later, according to Voll, Phonak USA emerged as one of the five top-ranked hearing-aid companies in America—the position it continues to hold to this day, she says.

“In the last 4 years, our sales have nearly quadrupled despite slow growth industry-wide,” adds Jones. “We started our US operation with 60 employees and today have a staff of more than 300. Our growth has been one of the few bright spots in the industry, and we are on track to continue at the same pace or faster with our aggressive expansion of products, accelerated schedule of professional seminars, and the high level of support we give to the hearing professionals who perform fittings of our hearing instruments.”

Jones says Phonak USA’s goal is not to be known as a hearing-aid company but, rather, as a communications company.

“We’re trying to help people in all environments by giving them a significantly improved ability to communicate,” she explains.

Underlying Phonak’s success in that regard is a variety of technological innovations. The breakthrough that put Phonak on the audiological map was AudioZoom™, a directional multi-microphone technology incorporating two miniature microphones into a single hearing instrument so as to separate speech sounds from background noise.

“An independent survey of hearing-aid wearers ranked AudioZoom instruments ‘Number 1’ in user satisfaction in situations ranging from one-on-one conversations to restaurants, movies, and TV watching,” says Jones.

A second major innovation came in 1998 with Phonak’s introduction of MicroLink™, a radio-based cordless communication system designed to overcome distance, poor room acoustics, and other hearing difficulties in noisy environments such as classrooms and auditoriums.

“MicroLink eliminated the conspicuous receiver box, box-to-hearing-aid cable connection, and antenna of conventional FM solutions, creating an unobtrusive system that not only allows wearers to move freely, but also reduces self-consciousness,” says Voll. “Best of all, the MicroLink receiver is compatible with all leading behind-the-ear hearing instruments, which we believe makes it the industry standard.”

Early in 2000, Phonak unveiled a line of fully digital, in-the-ear and behind-the-ear hearing aids that mimic the way the human ear perceives sound. Called Claro™, “it goes a step beyond the digital signal processing commonly used in advanced hearing aids today, with more automatic features than any hearing instrument previously available,” Voll reports. “The Claro line integrates 20 overlapping bands of sound in a manner that replicates the perception of sound in normal hearing. The result is a hearing ‘computer’ that automatically adjusts to quiet and noisy environments, controls loudness, and continuously monitors the speech-to-noise ratio in all 20 bands to intelligently adjust the amplification in bands where background noise overwhelms speech. A special computer program that allows wearers to dictate the desired softness and loudness in the hearing professional’s office makes it possible to adjust Claro to individual perceptions for optimal hearing.”

A short time ago, Phonak brought forth WatchPilot™, a remote control device for the Claro line. WatchPilot resembles an ordinary wristwatch, but is equipped with small buttons on its side that allow the wearer to unobtrusively adjust hearing-aid volume and change hearing programs.

Strengthening Its R & D
Phonak USA rolls out new products at fairly frequent intervals. In June, for example, it introduced a power digital BTE known as the Supero™, billed as the first digital instrument designed from the ground up for severe and profound hearing loss, says Jones.

“We didn’t just take an existing product and make it stronger,” she explains.

Until last year, all of Phonak USA’s research-and-development work was conducted at the headquarters’ laboratory in Switzerland. But in 2001, the company established a relationship with the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, Champaign, to engage in psychoacoustic research and product development.

“It makes good, strategic sense to have research and development taking place as close to this market as possible because, in that way, we are far better able to increase our understanding of consumer needs here and to increase our ability to produce the products necessary to satisfy those understood needs,” says Jones.

Adds Voll, “The Beckman Institute is helping us develop the next generation of hearing aids. With the institute’s help, we’re strengthening our understanding of the physiologic basis of how the cochlea processes sound. This is empowering us to develop products that will be even more effective and efficient at capturing and advantageously enhancing sound.”

Meanwhile, though, company officials fret that end users’ increasingly high expectations of what hearing aids can do may lead to disappointment among those who more are turning to the Internet as a source of product.

“Because you can buy hearing aids online, the instruments are coming to be perceived more as commodity items,” Jones laments. “Consequently, end users are buying on the basis of price rather than service, and on the basis of size rather than features. And, since they’re buying in this manner apart from the traditional channels of distribution, they’re more likely to blame the manufacturer if they’re dissatisfied with the product.

“In the United States, consumers want product that is always better, always smaller, always reliable, and always cheaper. That’s exactly what we will be striving to accomplish with our R & D of new products. The goal is to make things simpler for the fitter and the end user, while improving communication performance.”

Jones says a philosophy at Phonak is to “give fitters lots of choices so that they can decide for themselves what’s the technology approach that will work best for a client’s particular needs. Accordingly, in our products, we have multiple memories, with multiple signal processors. You can go with user control or automatic control. You can use an onboard memory switch or you can use a remote control.”

Jones notes as well that, while hearing-aid technology is improving, the tools used to fit the instruments remain largely the same as they were years ago.

“Even for an instrument as sophisticated as Claro, for example, we still rely on the puretone audiogram to fit it,” she says. “Therefore, to stay successful, we need to continue to innovate and continue to offer the highest level of service. We take our role seriously, and get great satisfaction from making the hearing professional—and, ultimately, the consumer—happy.”

Rich Smith is a contributing writer for Hearing Products Report.