Everyone stands up at a Bruce Springsteen concert. You are obligated to, because Bruce doesn’t sing songs. He sings anthems, and you have no choice but to stand for the singing of the anthem. If you don’t stand up, you can feel the burning of thousands of eyes behind you.
Bruce sings anthems for hard times, honest work, growing up, growing old, falling in love, driving cars, seeking meaning, and fighting back.
Rock stars create timeless anthems. They can go years without having hits on the radio, like Bruce has, and still draw thousands of people. Singers sing songs, on the other hand, and need to always keep pumping out the momentarily memorable sing-along hits.
Anthems speak to my life. They tell stories that touch my inner fears and insecurities about my career, my family, my friends, and my mortality. Anthems reach into my heart, bypassing the logical part of my brain that would overrule such frivolous notions, and for a few minutes I am alive inside “Born To Run”. Wendy’s arms are wrapped around me as the engines on the bike roar to life and these two wheels become our escape from the trappings of our small town life. We scream down the boulevard, past amusement parks and power drones, and on toward the endless horizon of our future.
Songs get inside my ears, bounce around in my head for a little while, and fade away. They are fun to sing along with, and a few years later you hear them and remember the words, and after four minutes you can go on with life never needing to hear it again.
Does your business sing anthems or songs?Apple sings anthems. They might only have 10% of the personal computer market share, but those 10% sing the anthem loud for all to hear.
The Green Bay Packers play in the smallest city in major league sports, but Packer fans sing an anthem heard around the NFL.
Rock star brands sing anthems. Anthems tell stories. Stories create recall. And product recall creates long-term business success.
The world needs more brands that create compelling stories.
Stand up. Remove your hat. And sing your anthem.
Updated: April 5, 2011, on the 17th anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain.
Where were you when you first heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? If you’re under 40, chances are good you can remember that moment.
I was a young radio DJ working the night shift on an AM top 40 station in Kitchener, Ontario. It was a Friday night, or more precisely Saturday morning. The songs I was to play were on a playlist chosen for my by the Program Director. Like most late night DJ’s, I knew damn well the Program Director was asleep for most of my shift, but I still tried to keep to the playlist as much as possible. At least until 3 or 4am, when I could be certain he was out for the night.
After playing “OPP” by Naughty By Nature, I put a CD I hadn’t seen before into the player. It was just another song on my playlist. In no way was I prepared for what happened when I pushed “play” on that CD.
The moment that opening riff ripped through the late night AM airwaves, I was keenly aware that I was hearing something truly different. And I had the amazing pleasure of sharing it with thousands (or at least dozens) of listeners.
Almost 20 years later, the impact of Nirvana’s arrival cannot be understated. It was a song/album/band that kicked hair metal out of the room and established angst as a reasonable emotion. It gave musical voice to a generation that had been searching for one and not finding it in the rock of the day, which was pretty much all about girls, booze, and cars. Nobody was speaking to a generation growing up in the shadows of the boomers, raised in the “me” decade, left to wonder what would be left of the world when our selfish predecessors were done with it.
Nirvana – and the movement they were part of – sang about reality. They were angry, confused, uncertain, proud, and ready to talk about it.
But if the music Nirvana made was THAT groundbreaking, how did it hit mainstream culture so quickly?
Nirvana delivered something unexpected within an expected framework. The band gave us a sound that surprised and shocked us, yet they did it with familiar chords and harmonies that we had heard somewhere before.
Kurt Cobain himself said “We got attention because our songs have hooks, which stick in people’s minds”.
The songs on “Nevermind” were unlike any other songs on the radio in 1991. Yet they were absolutely full of simple pop music hooks. Songs like “Come As You Are” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are almost formulaic in their use of memorable hooks.
Kurt also realized that he was doing something nobody else was doing. He was mixing two kinds of familiar sounds that hadn’t really been mixed together before. “It wasn’t cool to play pop music as a punk band”, he said, “And I wanted to mix the two.”
According to the band’s founder, Nirvana played pop music as a punk band.
We had all heard pop music, laden with hooks that stuck in your brain for days.
We had all heard punk bands, angry and loud and far from hook-filled.
But most of us had never, ever heard pop music played by a punk band.
That was part of the musical briliance of Nirvana. They presented conflicting sounds, yet brought them together in a familar sound.
When the brain heard Nirvana for the first time, it was shocked by the bizarre combination of two known elements. You couldn’t help but notice Nirvana because their music was so different. But the brain was also very familiar with pop and punk, and was able to reconcile the two sounds into a new sound.
Like Reece’s Peanut Butter cups! Everyone has tasted peanut butter, and everyone has tasted chocolate. But when Reece’s Peanut Butter cups combined the two, our brains were forced to reconcile them together into an entirely new product.
If you are ever in Winnipeg, try the Chili Chocolate Chicken at Fude Restaurant. We’ve all tasted chocolate. We’ve all tasted chicken. But most of us have never tasted the combination of seared chicken, slathered in a house made dark chocolate sauce off set with spicy cayenne cream and chilies.
Conficting ideas awake the brain.
Putting them in a familiar context makes the unfamiliar easier to digest.
Another reason that Nirvana was successful was because thay aligned themselves with Geffen Records, an established record company at the time. Geffen provided the unknown quantity (Nirvana and grunge music) with a spokesperson (the record label that released albums by Don Henley, Elton John, Donna Summer, John Lennon, Whitesnake, Guns N’ Roses, and Aerosmith). That’s a pretty cool combination of avant-garde music and mainstream promotion. By aligning themselves with Geffen Records, Nirvana was given instant credibility and access to a massive promotional machine to get their music heard.
Here’s what I think Kurt Cobain and Nirvana can teach us in terms of branding:
1. Surprise customers with something unusual, but put it in context that is easily understood. Just like people tell you a new food “tastes like chicken”, allow your customer to find a point of reference for your new innovation. James Dyson created a bag-less vacuum cleaner. He didn’t need to call it a vacuum cleaner. Vacuum cleaners have bags. This was something entirely new. But by calling it a bagless vacuum cleaner, he put it into context so that it was easily understood.
2. Align yourself with a winner who can give you something you don’t already have. Nirvana signed with Geffen Records, and as a result their new sound was given immediate exposure. They had priority access to the ears of influential radio programmers and trend-starters. Although signing with a mainstream record label may have risked them losing some alternative credibility, it gave them incredible access to an audience.
3. Don’t be afraid to buck the trends. In the midst of the hair band dominance of the late 1980′s, Nirvana emerged with a raw energy unlike any other band. They didn’t sing about the typical topics in typical ways. They broke with tradition. The offended some ears. But as Roy Williams brilliantly stated, “the risk of offense is the price of clarity.” Nirvana broke through and got noticed because they risked offending the mainstream by being different. Clarity was the result.
If only Kurt Cobain wasn’t such a troubled soul. His voice is very much missed.
In the 1990′s, a country singer was arguably North America’s biggest rock star.
In the fall of 1991, Garth Books had three albums in the POP music top 20 album charts at one time. In ’93 his album “In Pieces” peaked at #2 on the UK pop album charts and the song “The Red Strokes” went to #13 on the pop charts over there. He covered songs by Billy Joel (“Shameless”), Aerosmith (“The Fever”), and even “Hard Luck Woman” by KISS.
So what happened?
I think Garth Brooks tried to extend his brand too far.
His success on the pop charts came because he was such a massive country star, not because he was a true pop star. He simply became so big in one area that his stardom spilled over to another.
But when he made a conscious decision to expand from country into pop music, things went all wrong.
In 1999 he released an album that was supposedly the soundtrack to a yet-to-be-made movie called “The Lamb” about a fictional rock star named Chris Gaines. Garth was to play Gaines in the movie. To create buzz for the movie, Garth began to take on the persona of Chris Gaines. In October 1999 he released an album called “Garth Brooks… In The Life of Chris Gaines”. VH1 even did an episode of “Behind The Music” on the fictional Chris Gaines. Brooks did a massive amount of promotion in order to create enthusiasm for the project.
But the reaction from the world was… “huh”?
People just didn’t get it.
Garth Brooks was/is Garth Brooks. That’s some very expensive and valuable mental real estate to own in the mind of the public! Being Garth Brooks, the biggest country star on planet earth, meant millions and millions of dollars. It meant country hits that transcended country and spilled over into pop music. In meant taking an American form of music, and reaching the charts in the UK and Europe, where country music hardly exists.
By trying to be something other than Garth Brooks, Garth effectively gave up that incredible piece of mental real estate he owned. Quickly Tim McGraw, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, and others filled the void left by Garth.
After the Chris Gaines fiasco, Garth Brooks officially retired from playing live. It has been a decade since Garth Brooks ruled country music.
Garth Brooks deserves huge credit for taking a risk. Branding like a rock star means having the guts to step outside the rules and attempt something brave and new.
Garth also deserves credit for making a smart move in the decade since the fall of Chris Gaines. He has made himself obscure since then, playing live only a handful of times. Being “rare” has made him valuable again, although not nearly as valuable as he once was.
But Garth made a very bad decision to attempt to extend his personal brand beyond country music. Both his career, and country music itself, have suffered because of it.
For more reading on the dangers of extending your brand beyond it’s means, check out Laura Ries’s blog Ries’ Pieces and this particular piece on line extension gone mad.
I’m a tremendous fan of Seth Godin’s many books and blogs, and I really enjoyed this posting about how some marketers are “opening acts” and others are true “rock stars”.
Seth is right, which doesn’t surprise me, when he suggests that marketing rock stars:
1. settle for a tiny audience that views you as a rock star, and then grows that audience.
2. are really really good.
Take a look at Jimmy Buffett, The Grateful Dead, and Phish. These are acts that never had many real hits, yet established themselves as some of the biggest touring names in the world. They appeal to different generations and different genres of music fans. But they share those two things in common.
All three of those acts started out appealing to a relatively small audience, but that audience came to see them. They didn’t come to see an opening act or another act on the bill. Those fans viewed those acts as rock stars, even when they arguably weren’t.
But it wasn’t just by being really, really good (at music) that these bands developed massive followings.
They were also really, really good at a few other things.
1. They were really, really good at nurturing the growing fan base, and allowing the fans to become disciples for the band they loved. The Deadheads, Parrotheads, and Phishphans are excellent examples of this. These at-first unofficial groups of fans have become organized legions that guarantee each concert will be a sell out and each concert will be a memorable experience.
2. They were really, really good at offering more than just a musical experience. At a Grateful Dead or Phish concert, the experience became cultural. The visual, artistic, communal, and psychedelic experience was as important as the music. At a Jimmy Buffett concert, you are offered a tropical escape from reality, as a man in a coconut bra serves you a margarita from his home-made tiki bar in an Ohio stadium parking lot.
3. They were really, really good at telling a memorable story. The Dead offered kids from all around America the chance to experience California counter-culture in the flesh. For a few hours they could live in Haight-Ashbury and be hippies, and the next day they could go back to work at the bank. Jimmy Buffett tells a story of a man who longed to live life under the tropical sun wearing sandals and shorts, working only hard enough to afford life’s simple pleasures. A Buffett concert lets you live that story.
There are more things that “Rock Star” marketers are really, really good at. And that’s why this blog and the forthcoming book exist.
Also, thanks to Don Hart, Jamie Bolak, and the team at Move Communications for noting Brand Like A Rock Star in their recent posting on how being specific makes you unique. I couldn’t agree more, and I appreciate how they expanded on my thought. Understanding your differences and using them to create something powerful is only useful when you grasp how you are different. Don does a nice job of elaborating on how to do just that.
In a fantastic lesson that old brands can learn new tricks, KISS today announced their plan to let fans decide where they will play on their summer tour.
Sounds like a brilliant strategy, considering that they are a 35 year old act without a new album to promote going out on the road during a deep recession up against big-ticket draws from their era like AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Fleetwood Mac, and many others.
KISS is looking to tap into social networking and viral media by asking fans to vote for their hometown to be added to the KISS summer tour. They are inviting fans to create viral videos on-line to motivate their neighbors to get involved and bring KISS to town. The hopeful result will be numerous Facebook groups dedicated to bringing KISS to wonderful places like Intercourse, Albama and Dildo, Newfoundland. Laugh all you want, but Dildo is actually a beautiful place. And you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced Dildo Days.
Once your Facebook has been hit with dozens of invites to join “Bring KISS to Hairy Pond Head, Virginia“, you’ll be hit with endless tweets on Twitter with invites to get involved. You’ll be invited to view all kinds of home-made videos on YouTube created by rabid KISS fans. And the best fan-made videos will be edited together and shown on the big screen before each KISS concert.
What makes this strategy work so well?
1. They are appealing to my patriotism. Few things touch a person closer to their heart than their sense of pride and community. That’s why perfectly normal people from Pennsylvania go insane when even a b-list rock star gets on stage and screams “Hello Climax!”
2. They are creating a built-in audience. Getting me to become personally involved (through a Facebook group, YouTube video, e-mail forwards, etc) makes me far more likely to purchase a ticket. If I have invested time, effort, or energy towards the campaign to get KISS to come to my hometown of Cooter, Missouri, I feel almost obligated to buy a ticket.
3. They are letting their fans do their heavy lifting. Why purchase millions of dollars in advertising when card-carrying members of the aging KISS Army can do the work instead? There are still plenty of KISS Army members ready to draft others on board and finally bring their boyhood heroes to Knob Lick, Kentucky.
4. They are making themselves relevant to an entirely new audience. Let’s face it, the legend of KISS isn’t the same for today’s 14 year old who only knows Gene Simmons as “that guy on TV”. But by tapping into social networking and viral marketing, KISS is attempting to reach out to a new generation of young suntanned fans who would love to have the band rock out in Fluffy Landing, Florida.
She is, no doubt, a master at evolving her image.
As the 1980′s came to end, Madonna pushed the envelope even further. Her early 90′s image makeover included her “Erotica” days and her nude coffee table book.
And then came a return to the clubs… the dance floor… and we were introduced to the “Ray Of Light” Madonna.
The next brand evolution for Madonna was the married mom, focusing her time on yoga and Kabbalah. The spiritual and grounded Madonna was an image hit.
What image is next for Madonna?
Now that her latest adoption attempt has been turned down and her marriage to Guy Richie is over, how will she present herself next?
Nobody knows, but Madonna is one of the few musicians who can be counted on to succesfully reinvent herself. No artist in the past 30 years has been able to navigate the trends and fads better than Madonna.
Surprising us with her next image is now an integral part of the Madonna brand.
But there was no shortage of gangsta rappers in Detroit in the early 90’s. Most of them used the same themes in their music, rapping about violence and drugs. It was tough to distinguish one angry emcee from another.
Inner City Posse made a brilliant decision early in their career. They decided to stand out, and to tell a unique story.
They based their act on a dream that one of the band members had about an evil traveling carnival. The two developed that dream into an entire dark carnival concept that involved elaborate stories, make-up, and horror themes. They renamed their group “Insane Clown Posse”.
The Insane Clown Posse’s elaborate stage show involves monsters, dancing clowns, girls, and trampolines. And the group recognizes that their bizarre storyline is part of what makes them so popular. Joseph Bruce commented that “without all that crazy sh*t going on around us, we’d just be two more idiots walking back and forth rapping on stage.”
With an elaborate theme in place, the band quickly began to get noticed. Their fan base grew, and their success led to the annual Hallowicked concert that they have hosted in Detroit every year since 1994. Despite having no hit songs, their albums sold millions and the band was invited to play at Woodstock ’99, exposing their sound to the world.
Being fans of professional wrestling, the band expanded their reach by taking their extreme act into the ring, working with various wrestling organizations and eventually forming their own wrestling promotion company and hosting their own events. Professional wrestling lends itself well to the over-the-top storyline that is Insane Clown Posse.
Love their music or hate their music, there is no doubt that I.C.P teaches a great branding lesson in how to tell a unique story and how to use that story to stand out in a crowd.
Are you willing to tell it? Someone will dislike you because of it.