The Power of Focus

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Rock stars don’t set up their lighting and sound gear.  They have experts who do that. They don’t sell their own merchandise in the lobby of the venue.
Rock stars hire experts to sell merch, play instruments, help write songs, produce classic albums, and handle things that they can’t handle themselves.

Rock stars understand the value of focus.  They need to focus on the one thing that makes them great, and nothing else.  Experts handle the distractions so that they can focus.

It seems simple enough.  Focus your energy, like a magnifying glass.  Do one thing extremely well.  Don’t spread your message out in a thousand different directions.

I heard a 60 second radio commercial for a car dealer today.  They talked about financing and low 0.9% interest rates, then discussed their vast selection of over 400 cars.  They followed that with a suggestion that I buy now, before the July 1 sales tax increase in the city.  Then they mentioned that they now have a new tire and rim warranty worth $400 that is free with every purchase.  They used the remaining time (yes, there was remaining time!) to remind me that with their high residual value, a Honda is the perfect car to lease and explained the favorable lease rates.

Talk about a thousand different directions!  Financing rates for purchase,  huge selection, an impending tax increase, free tire and rim warranty, high residual value, good lease rates.  Six different directions in one commercial!

When your brand’s message says six different things, it says nothing at all.  When your brand’s message says more than one thing, it says nothing at all.

What one thing do you want to say in your brand’s marketing message?  Eliminate everything else.  If it is financing rates, then focus on how buying a Honda from this dealer can make my life better in these tough financial times.  If it is selection, then focus on how frustrating it is to drive from car lot to car lot finding the right car and how this dealer will make my life easier.  If it is the impending tax increase, then focus on how looking at a new Honda today could save me a chunk of money.

Focus.  Let the roadies, techies, and crew handle the distractions.

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Musicians Are A Lot Like Entrepreneurs

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Musicians are a lot like entrepreneurs.

Sounds crazy at first.  How can you be an artist and a business person at the same time? Aren’t these things mutually exclusive?  Aren’t “suits” only good for selling, not creating?

The musician rock star and the entrepreneur rock star have three things in common.

Creating Something From Nothing

Both musicians and entrepreneurs create something from nothing.  Musicians sit down at a piano or guitar and they scribble lyrics on cocktail napkins and eventually create a song that we all sing along to.  Entrepreneurs begin with concepts, inventions, and ideas and eventually create products we all want to be part of.

Seldom Finish Where They Started

Both musicians and entrepreneurs seldom finish with the same product they started with.  “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac was a song that was the result of several different songs coming together in bits and pieces.  In fact, Fleetwood Mac is a great example of a band that ended up in a very different place from where they began.  Their roots as a British blues band are far removed from their status as one of America’s legendary pop bands. 
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs similarly end up in a different place from where they began.   Google began as a search engine based on the relationships between websites and ended up (at this point) as the internet’s leading advertising companies.  Richard Branson started a magazine, then a record store, and eventually an airline.  Those big bold Virgin Airways 747′s are a long way from his business starting point in 1966.  Richard Branson didn’t start the Virgin brand we know today, he navigated there.

No Two Are Alike

Even the best U2 cover band doesn’t sound quite like U2.  That’s because we all sing in our own unique voice.  The most unique voices, like Bob Dylan, are often the ones most heard.  Bands that sound too much like other bands seldom endure.  The Beatles were unique.  How many bands were tagged as “the next Beatles” only to fade away into obscurity?
Likewise, no two business legends are the same.  What made Bill Gates rich is very different from what made Richard Branson wealthy.  Gates’ nerdiness contrasts dramatically with Branson’s swagger.  Each would likely make very different decisions when confronted with the same set of circumstances, yet both of them became incredibly successful by taking their own path.

Great bands and great business people are always ready to navigate somewhere other than the destination they originally had in mind.  They are open to new ideas, tastes, discoveries, and eras.  They also seem to know intuitively when the time is right to abandon one idea and move on to a new one.

The starving artist has a lot in common with the starving start-up owner, just as the million-selling rock star has plenty in common with the business tycoon.

Bill Gates, Fleetwood Mac, Google, Richard Branson, The Beatles, U2 202 Comments

The Rolling Stones: Living Up To Your Fan’s Expectations

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Next week The Rolling Stones could celebrate their biggest chart success in years.  For the first time since 1994 they could have the #1 album in the UK.

What is this exciting new groundbreaking album?

Exile On Main Street.

Their amazing 1972 album, widely regarded as one of rock’s most influential albums, is being rereleased this week completely remastered and bolstered with fresh unheard tracks from the original recording sessions.

What does this mean?  Well, at some point in your life cycle you become what you were.  You become your legacy. At that point it is smarter to accept it and stop trying to be anything else.

Here are some of the singles The Rolling Stones have released since their last #1 album, “Voodoo Lounge”, in 1994.

“Anybody Seen My Baby?” (1997), “Saint of Me” (1998), “Streets of Love”  (2005), “Rough Justice”  (2005), “Biggest Mistake”  (2006)

Can you sing along to any of those?  Even as a Stones fan, I admit that I can’t.  And on a cold January night in 2006 when I saw them at the Boston Garden on the “Bigger Bang” tour, the line up for the bathroom got a hell of a lot longer during “Oh No Not You Again”… the obligatory song from the new album.

Today The Rolling Stones represent the past.  They represent an incredible collection of rock ‘n roll songs that will stand up forever.  They represent the wonderful notion that you can keep rockin’ as long as you want.  There is no doubt that The Rolling Stones still rock, but today they are – for lack of a better word – a nostalgia brand.  That’s why their biggest success in two decades is a rerelease of one of their greatest albums.

I’m not saying the new music The Stones have made isn’t good, I’m merely saying that the vast majority of their fans want to hear classic Rolling Stones rock ‘n roll, and the band wins when it lives up to the expectations of their customers.

That’s the lesson for today’s brands?

When you live up to your customer’s expectations, you win.  Understand what they want from you, and give it to them.
Avoid the urge to make pizza at your burger joint (McDonalds).  Resist the thought of putting clear spring water in a beer bottle (Coors).   Fight the temptation to put your motorcycle logo on perfume (Harley-Davidson).   Know what your brand stands for, and deliver.
Here’s a taste of the awesome gritty rock ‘n roll that The Rolling Stones stand for.  From “Exile On Main Street”… here’s “Happy”.

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Kings of Leon: The Team Comes Together

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As I watch the Montreal Canadiens extend their season into the 3rd round of the NHL playoffs, I am reminded of one of the sweet mysteries of sports and branding: how some teams gel together at the right time and turn an ordinary season into something magical. For the non-hockey fans, Montreal finished 16th out of the 16 playoff teams and they have now managed to make the final four.  Despite that, the team has come together in a most unlikely fashion and galvanized their fans and their city as they make a charge for the Stanley Cup.

Just like rock ‘n roll.  Bands struggle for years in obscurity and then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, they become the next-big-thing.

Kings of Leon got together in 1999 making southern rock ‘n roll out of their home base of Nashville, Tennessee.  They went relatively unnoticed in the USA, but in England it was a different story.  Over the course of a few years the band had nine Top 40 hits in the UK along with a #1 album and two BRIT Awards.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the team came together.  In the fall of 2008 the song “Sex On Fire” took off.  It was followed by the massive hit “Use Somebody”.  Kings of Leon became a decade-long overnight succcess.

Brands can experience the same phenomenon.

Hush Puppies shoes were selling only 30,000 pairs a year in 1994.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, hip urbanites in Manhattan started making them fashionable again.  In 1995 they sold 430,000 pairs and did four times that the following year.

Old Spice was in similar shape, nearly out of business after 80+ years on the market.  And then it took off again over the past decade, once again becoming one of the leading men’s grooming products.

How can your brand be like Old Spice, Hush Puppies, the Montreal Canadiens, or Kings of Leon?

1. Tenacity.  Montreal finished 16th.  Making the playoffs was above the expectations of their fans and hockey analysts.  They had to play 1st place Washington in the opening round.  It would have been extremely easy to accept their fate and surrender.  Kings of Leon were big in Europe, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  It would have been easy to accept being the best American band that nobody in America heard of.  But in both cases, they stuck to it.  Same with Old Spice and Hush Puppies.  I’m not suggesting you stick with a failing brand forever, but I am suggesting that you don’t need to accept that your present level of success is as good as it gets.

2. New Customers.  Twenty years ago, everybody expected Montreal to win the Stanley Cup.  Today a new generation of fans encites riots when the team wins a first round playoff series.  They’ve outlasted an old generation and brought their brand to a new generation with different expectations.  Same goes for Hush Puppies and Old Spice.  The turnover from one generation to the next has made the brand’s cool again in a retro fashion.  Where are your next batch of customers coming from?

3. New Stories. For Montreal, the story is a young Slovakian goaltender named Jaroslav Halak.  Old Spice told their new story with self-deprecating humor.  Hush Puppies word-of-mouth story started with the bars of downtown New York City.  What’s your brand’s fresh story?  Maybe the only thing standing between your brand and massive success is a fresh story.  Tell a simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional story and you can open your brand up to a world of new customers (thanks Heath Brothers).

Here’s Annakin Slayde and a new generation of Canadiens fans celebrating their team’s playoff success and singing about how it “feels like ’93″, the last time the Canadiens won the cup.

Hush Puppies, Kings of Leon, Montreal Canadiens, Old Spice 100 Comments

Ronnie James Dio: Tribes Have Symbols

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Heavy metal rocker Ronnie James Dio passed away yesterday at age 67.  He was the lead singer of Rainbow in the 70′s and then repalced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath in 1979.  Ronnie was also well known for leading his own band, Dio.
Ronnie James Dio also popularized the “devil’s horns” hand gesture while he was on stage with Black Sabbath.  He wasn’t the first to use it, but he was the man who launched the gesture into popular culture and made it an iconic part of hard rock.

Having unique symbols and language is a vital part of building a tribe of fans around any brand or cause.  Symbols can convey tremendous passion for products or brands without ever using words, audio, or video.  Certain symbols like the Nike “swoosh” logo establish a brand’s aura without the need to print the brand’s name.  The Starbucks mermaid is another logo that instantly establishes the brand.

I was staying at a Jamaican resort last winter and saw a beach lounger with a colorful towel on it. The towel was decorated with five dancing bears. No words, just five bears in blue, green, yellow, orange, and pink. I knew right away the owner of that towel was a Grateful Dead fan.
Brands with loyal followers often develop their own language, another tribal symbol.  iPhone hackers talk about “jailbreaking” their products.  Blackberry users “pin” each other or use “bbm” to connect.

Harley-Davidson owners are “HOGS” and their logo conveys powerful emotion even with the words “Harley Davidson” removed.

And one of the most famous of all is Apple, who’s logo doesn’t require any words at all to say cutting-edge user-friendly intuitive gadgets.
Sometimes the symbol is a ritual, like throwing toast at the screen at The Rocky Horror Picture Show, singing “Sweet Caroline” in the 7th inning at Fenway Park, or playing “God Bless America” at Philadelphia Flyers games instead of “The Star Spangled Banner”.

What words do your loyal fans use to talk about your brand? 

Are there symbols that your brand owns that create an emotional response about your brand on their own?

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Keeping Your Brand Relevant: A Lesson From Bono

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Paul David Hewson turned 50 this week.  We know him better as Bono, the lead singer of U2 and a man who has dedicated his fame to making the world a better place.

As a band, U2 remains a massive concert draw over 30 years since their debut album.  The #1 albums from 1980, the year U2 debuted, include Donna Summer, Bee Gees, Pink Floyd, Bob Seger, Billy Joel, Rolling Stones, Jackson Browne, Queen, Barbara Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Rogers, and John Lennon.  A great year in music to be sure, but aside from Springsteen and The Stones, most of those artists no longer carry nearly the same relevance 30 years later.

How does U2 manage to remain relevant after all this time?

1. Consistent.  The U2 “sound” is real.  They have always had broad sonic consistencies between albums, delivering what their fans have come to love (and expect!).  Yet at the same time the band has experimented with their music.  In fact, in the mid-1990′s they came dangerously close to alienating large numbers of fans.  So when the band wanted to truly experiment, they wisely recorded under a different “brand name” as Passengers.  Like Toyota knew when they launched Acura, you can’t sell people a completely different product and give it the same name.  Smart move.

2. Involved.  From the beginning, one of the magnets that brought people to the U2 “tribe” was the spiritual and political tone of their lyrics, written in large part by Bono. As the band became more and more famous, his ability to make a difference grew as well. Today, instead of just writing songs about social injustice and the need for change, Bono can be found in the offices of the world’s most powerful politicians actively campaigning for the causes he believes in.  That kind of involvement – smart cause marketing – builds a powerful bond between the brand and its customers.

3. Aware.  U2 is keenly aware that they need to keep their presence fresh.  With each new tour, they attempt to top their last tour.  From the video-enhanced Zoo-TV tour to the massive mirror ball of PopMart to the claw-like stage configuration of the U2 360 tour, the band has never rested on the idea that they can just walk on stage and play.

4. Honest.  After experimenting with industrial sounds in the late 90′s, the band realized they were veering away from what their fans expected.  They confronted those criticisms head on, telling the world in 2000 that they were “reapplying for the job of best band in the world”.  They managed to do exactly that with a string of albums that firmly entrenched their status.

Happy 50th birthday Bono.  Thanks for the ongoing lesson in building a brand that can dominate for decades. 

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Barenaked Ladies: Naked Honesty in Branding

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“Honesty is hardly ever heard, and mostly what I need from you.”
Billy Joel

That schmaltzy line from 1979 could sum up what many brands need to remember in 2010.  Today’s great brands exude authenticity, tapping into the growing civic sense evident in our society.  Brands are becoming more and more honest.

The Barenaked Ladies are a perfect musical example.  Their new song, “You Run Away”, is the band’s first release without co-lead singer Steven Page.  The band’s typical jovial approach is tamed in this poignant song that reflects the band’s parting of ways with Page.  Ed Robertson, the other singer and co-founder, has been candid in talking about the song and the need for the band to be honest and real, to confront the past, and to move on in a way that feels right to them and to their fans.  It might not be typical  Barenaked Ladies, but it is an amazing song that completely feels right in step with where their “brand” is today.  Their fans will appreciate this song.

Roy Williams has created a powerful presentation on this evolution called “The 40 Year Pendulum“.  He’s not alone in his observations.  In their book “Generations: The History of America’s Future”, Strauss and Howe describe the same pendulum swing from the individual society to the civic society.    It is very real, and wise brands are aware of it.

Domino’s Pizza took the honest approach in their latest major advertising campaign.  They acknowledge the reality that a great many people think their pizza sucks, and they clearly stated what they are doing to make it better.  They’ve even created a short documentary about how they plan to turn the company around.  It actually makes for a pretty powerful 4 minutes.

When you put away the hype machine and speak to people in honest and real terms, great things can happen.  Your brand can evolve from being just a product to having a human identity.  It is much easier for a potential customer to form a lasting relationship with a human-like brand than with a massive faceless company.

That advice is especially powerful if your brand is experiencing controversy.

GM took that approach with their “Reinvention” campaign from last year.

Take a lesson from the Barenaked Ladies, GM, and Dominos.  Acknowledge what people are saying about you, address it head on, and be honest with your customers.

That’s how legendary brands are built.

Now, enjoy the Barenaked Ladies addressing the band’s status head-on, and not running away.

Barenaked Ladies, Domino's, GM, Roy Williams 704 Comments