COMPANIES TO WATCH
|Merida Extrema is making a strong play for Western markets.
Chinese guitar maker aims at global market with high-value solid-wood instruments.
MERIDA EXTREMA, one of the most popular premium acoustic guitar lines in China, with sales of over 35,000 units annually, is setting its sights on global expansion. Although the company has sold guitars around the world to many well-known brands as an OEM supplier, it is working to establish its own trademark with a distinctive line of instruments that combine playability with visually striking inlay work. “Our goal is to become a successful Chinese brand breaking into new territories,” says David Yu, who is directing the global marketing effort. “We respect our competitors but feel we’ve something unique and inspirational to offer.”
Merida Extrema guitars are now being produced in a humidity-controlled plant in the Jiangxi Province, outfitted with advanced CNC machinery, laser cutting equipment, and an automated finish line. By any objective measure, the operation compares well with the world’s best guitar factories. The sleek new facility underscores the Merida Extrema emphasis on quality and distinguishes it from the legion of Chinese manufacturers who prioritize price points. The results of this approach are evident in the latest “Brahma” series instruments, which are made from top-quality tonewoods and include contemporary features such as a radiused armrest for player comfort, and a unique bridge, designed to enhance top vibration. Yu states, “The goal has been to build an instrument that provides inspiration for the players.”
mERIDA The origins of Merida trace back to 1994 when the company’s founder, David Yu’s father, took a job at a guitar factory that was supplying OEM instruments to several prominent Western brands. Bright and ambitious, he soon found himself working directly with guitar makers from around the world, spec’ing out instruments, addressing quality concerns, and intently watching how players responded to different features. Drawing on lessons learned from this immersive education, in 2000, he went into business for himself, distributing Washburn and Ibanez instruments to the Chinese market. He soon recognized that a large segment of Chinese guitar buyers were being underserved, customers who couldn’t afford Western brands but wanted something better than what most Chinese companies were offering. Thus, in 2003 he opened his own factory in Dongguan to address this market segment.
Merida was one of the first guitar plants in China to build solid-wood instruments exclusively at a time when most others were working with lower-cost laminates. A proven ability to work with fine spruce, rosewood, and mahogany helped secure key OEM contracts, which got the factory up and running in a short time frame. However, Yu’s primary goal from the start was to establish the Merida Extrema brand as the high-quality alternative for the fast-growing Chinese domestic market. As sales of Merida Extrema instruments expanded, he gradually scaled back the OEM business. Today, the company only has a select number of OEM customers left.
The initial Merida Extrema instruments were designed with the help of noted European luthier Ritty van Stralen, who also helped train the in-house team of guitar builders. More recent instruments have been designed entirely in-house. David Yu describes the guitars as drawing on the centuries-old Chinese tradition of craftsmanship that has produced exquisite lacquered furniture, fine porcelain, and sculpture. However, he adds that they have been influenced by “contemporary musical culture, luthiers from around the world, and modern technology.” Since the initial launch, Merida Extrema sales in China have grown every year at a rate of between 20% and 30%. Now Yu is looking to achieve similar results in export markets.
Merida Extrema’s marketing approach for the Chinese market is very similar to the playbook used by manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe, with a blend of artist endorsements, clinics, retail training, and point of purchase materials. However, David Yu notes that China is more “social media”-focused than much of the rest of the world. “China customers use Youku, Wechat, Tiktok, and many other online platforms to gather information,” he explains. “Then with a single click, they are directed to a local store or any number of online portals.” He feels that some of these online techniques can be successful in Western markets. “We’re convinced we offer a powerful opportunity for savvy retail and distribution partners around the world.”