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.