Marketing Lessons from a Former Rocker (Part 5)

People in my professional circle are often surprised to learn that in a past life I fronted a rock band. Not just a simple garage group, but an actual studio-recording, dive-bar-touring, hard rock machine. From 2005 to 2007, I gained some hard-learned marketing insights and made several regrettable fashion choices as the band’s lead singer and rhythm guitar player. Here are a few of the lessons I picked up on the dark arts of guerrilla marketing and self-promotion, along with their supporting anecdotes:

5. Pitch to the Lowest Common Denominator

Want to send me into a hysterical fit of cursing, self-loathing, and maniacal rage? Ask me which of our songs “the fans” liked most.

If we had a “strategy” for our act at all, it boiled down to something like this: “Get a record deal and corporate sponsorships and make millions of dollars without selling out our musical style and becoming a generic radio-rock band like Nickelback.” What we didn’t realize at the time was that for all the big talk about “artistry” (Lady Gaga? Pop. Taylor Swift? Pop. Macklemore? Pop.) and being “true to your own style,” nobody makes it in the music business without fitting very, very nicely and conveniently into at least one (and preferably several, for crossover potential) pre-cast musical mold. Are there certain exceptions like Rush? Sure. But for every one truly novel, boundary-pushing act that makes it big, hundreds more mainstream, generic acts are able to cash in on consumers’ insatiable hunger for indistinguishable 120-bpm pop-rock.

Back to the first sentence of this section… Toward the end of our run we were growing tired of hearing about how “original” and “cool” our music was without earning big paychecks and mega record deals to back up the talk and implied promises about our “potential.” At rehearsal on evening, we were arrogantly mocking all of the generic rock bands that were making careers out of cookie-cutter four-chord song templates. The whole thing kind of morphed into a song of our own. We wrote, arranged, and played through, in its entirety, a song we dubbed “Mindless” in roughly 15 minutes. Start-to-finish, using the most generic chord progression and melody we could think of, we wrote a truly mindless song.

Care to guess what happened at our next performance?

In an attempt to be ironic, or perhaps simply to entertain ourselves, we played “Mindless” at our favorite venue, to a crowd of our most loyal fans: fans that had been coming out to our performances for almost two years. They loved it. An unsettlingly large number of them told us after our set that it was our best song up until that point. We were simultaneously amused and dismayed. After two years of hard work, pride in our “artistry,” and near-constant consideration and refinement of our musical direction, we learned a very painful lesson: consumers don’t really care about novelty or originality – they care about familiarity.

The takeaway? Whatever your product or service, aim your messaging and deployment squarely at the lowest common denominator of your target customer base. You can always build something up or differentiate it in the eyes of a more sophisticated customer, but if your offering is too complex or difficult to understand for the most unsophisticated folks, it becomes very difficult to strip it down.

It sounds offensive, but I’m a strong advocate for picking a stereotype (ditzy blonde, ignorant hick, confused grandmother, whatever) and asking yourself the following questions about them: Would I be able to articulate the value of my product or service to that person? Would they be able to understand my value proposition? Would they be able to see a potential benefit? Would my message resonate with them? If the answer to any of these questions is “No” or “Not likely,” you need to revisit the basics of your pitch.

A few ideas for maximizing your LCD appeal:

  • Craft, refine, and perfect an elevator pitch. If your name reveals something about what your business does, you’re already halfway there. Develop a one-to-two sentence response that clearly answers the question, “What do you do?” “What do you make?” or “What is using your product or service like?” Use this consistently in your promotional materials.
  • Use clear, simple language in your messaging. Look at the biggest, most successful brands in your space to see how they identify themselves to customers and take a cue from them.

Never underestimate how low the lowest common denominator actually is. If you don’t believe me, Google the lyrics to Nickelback’s “Burn It to the Ground” and consider that the song made it to the #3 position on Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock chart. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

Marketing Lessons from a Former Rocker (Part 4)

4. Limits of Social Media and Value of Establishing Your Own Platform

In 2006, only college students had access to facebook, and it was already becoming apparent that MySpace was slipping in participation – and dominance. Rudimentary html code generators allowed virtually anyone (and seemingly everyone) to modify their MySpace profile into an epilepsy-inducing spectacle of flashing graphics and blasting Fergie songs the moment their page loaded on the screen. Ultimately, this bogged down the entire network and made perusing profile pages a nuisance and a chore.

Despite the downward slide, MySpace had been adopted as the platform du jour for many amateur and professional musical acts – to the point that even established groups forewent creating a standard dot-com webpage in favor of focusing their entire online effort on developing their MySpace profile. Pop-punk and emo bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy established their brands in the early days by giving their music away via MySpace and racking up huge numbers of friends, song plays and downloads. Hype and big numbers led to record deals, which led to fame and fortune.

One thing that became apparent to us very quickly was the inherently shallow (barring a few exceptions) nature of most social media contact in the B2C sense.

Today, marketers refer to social media and mobile activity as “short-span” or “ADD,” and subsequently design interaction with their media around the odd, fickle, and detached way we interact on social platforms. At the time, however, traditional thought still proposed that people wanted to participate at a deeper level in pre-fabricated communities centered around their personal interests (like topic-based forums or chat rooms or discussion groups), rather than self-created sub-networks centered around their own egos (see: facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Vine, etc.).

We were aware that the traditional theory was somehow flawed, but we still wound up in the trap. It happened more than once that we would receive a seemingly legitimate referral to play at a show in a new market with the promise of a built-in audience there to support a hot local act. As much as we attempted to pre-qualify these opportunities, we often ended up relying upon promises made by people far away, whom we had never met. These people usually professed to guarantee draws (concert attendance) of 200-300 new listeners who were (naturally) clamoring for our particular brand of rock ’n roll. Usually, we were offered a healthy cut of the door (percentage of cover charge) as an enticement.

In reality, and all too often, we would drive two hours in a blizzard only to show up at a hokey dive bar with bad sound, nonexistent management, and maybe 20 uninterested locals staring at us like we were all wearing wedding dresses. In the most extreme example of this, the flake “promoter” who had organized the entire concert even failed to show up – along with his hot local act and the 300-500 person built-in draw he had “guaranteed.”

What we very soon learned was that social platforms are great for getting click-through participation, “likes,” and song plays, but they are not conducive to driving actual engagement with your product or brand. Now, I don’t profess to be a social media master, but based on my experiences, it amuses me to no end that so many huge brands (who should know better) have been duped into perpetuating the buzz around social media and “customer engagement.”

In my professional estimation, the effort and energy expended by so many B2C (and especially B2B) companies on beefing up their social media presence is wasted. People simply do not care enough about Tide detergent, John Mayer’s new single, Orange is the New Black, or Pop Tarts to get off the couch and truly engage with those brands. They may “like” a product page. They may share a coupon. They may Tweet about how great their laundry looks (thx @Tide!!!1!1!). They may even throw online tantrums when they find out there will be a product (Sriracha, Velveeta) shortage; but they absolutely will not ever truly engage enough to justify returns for these brands

Social media is a great medium for spreading a message, building hype, and reassuring customers of your concern for their feelings. Ultimately, however, people really only use social media for three things (which actually comprise about 90% of all human activity): bragging, bitching, and trying to get laid.

So if you want to build hype, great. Use social. If you want to defuse a bad PR situation, great: Use social. If you’re looking for a romantic liaison, great: Use social. If you want to make money, great: Focus your energy on core marketing activities instead.

Marketing Lessons from a Former Rocker (Part 3)

3. Guerilla Marketing (Done Right) Is Remarkably Effective

Our first forays into guerilla (street) marketing were misguided, ad-hoc, and embarrassingly pedestrian. We assumed that gaining fans was simply a numbers game. We also assumed that by blanketing key areas with posters and flyers (sticker bombing), or by gaining as many “friends” (and subsequent song plays) as possible on MySpace – remember, this was 2005 – that we were “promoting” ourselves well.

We further mistakenly assumed that people knowing of us was the same as them knowing about us and drew the illogical conclusion that if enough people knew about us, surely a certain percentage would purchase our music, attend our gigs, and advocate for us by default. This was, naturally, incredibly arrogant and immature thinking on our part. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and I will explain some factors that compounded our problems in #4.

Two missing components stand out in retrospect as being absolutely vital:

  • We failed to capitalize on many opportunities to cheaply (or freely) target and convert listeners because we did not have an engagement strategy or a marketing plan. We did not develop or promote an effective call-to-action, nor capitalize upon the enthusiasm and word-of-mouth potential of our strongest supporters by providing them with a standard process to help promote us and generate leads.
  • We put far too much emphasis on the quantity rather than the quality of our performances, appearances, communications, and promotional activities. It would have been far better for us to have fully developed maybe six or eight radio markets and focused on building a strong presence in each than to play all over the Midwest to new, shallow markets.

When we did guerilla marketing right, we succeeded. We had a relatively strong (albeit self-produced) press kit and one-sheet when many of the groups we performed with didn’t have either. We successfully penetrated college and alternative radio stations around the country and received airplay and interview opportunities on them. We hijacked similar artists’ MySpace pages to redirect traffic to our own page. We created a small “street team” to help us break into new markets and book performances at more reputable venues. We created specialized collateral and merchandise for our best fans. We solicited pictures of our fans promoting us and recycled them into additional collateral.

The tactics that we employed as we gained more experience were actually strong in principle, but in the absence of a clearly articulated strategy with measurable goals and desired outcomes, we had no way of gauging successes and failures in the appropriate context. A lot of the frustrations that we encountered are unsurprising in reflecting on our misguided priorities and subsequent metrics.

A few tips on running an effective guerilla campaign:

  • Focus on quality over quantity. Your goal is to connect meaningfully with as many customers as possible. This will not happen overnight, and the strength of your existing relationships will build word-of-mouth buzz and subsequent credibility with others. The effect is cumulative. Find ways to reward your best advocates and don’t be afraid to ask them for referrals and assistance.
  • Measure your success in realistic terms, and in terms of results rather than activities. Take an incremental view. How many more sales did you make this month than last? How many more referrals did you generate?
  • Pick a few (read: 3-5) tactics that you can execute well and execute them consistently. It’s important to diversify to a degree, but if you’re trying to maintain a presence on every digital or social platform in existence (see #4) you’re not going to maintain a presence on any of them very well.
  • Take a cooperative approach. You gain far more from cooperative tactics than competitive tactics, especially when on a tight budget. Some of our best performances came from trading show leads and industry contacts with other groups in our position.

Marketing Lessons from a Former Rocker (Part 2)

2.  Consistency is Key

Regardless of the product or service you offer, repeatability and a certain (preferably high) standard of quality and user experience will drive participation and purchases far more than any marketing effort. A prime example of this in the music world is a very successful rock group known as Linkin Park.

No doubt, Linkin Park’s music and branding have evolved significantly over their 15 year run. What hasn’t changed, however, is the consistency and quality of their recordings, live performances, merchandising, and supporting media. When Linkin Park first broke in 2000, their debut album set a new standard for production quality and helped usher in a new era of techniques for mixing and mastering recorded sound.

I saw Linkin Park perform to a very humble (read: sparse) crowd in Grand Rapids, Michigan shortly before their first music video appeared on MTV, and I’ll never forget one aspect of that show: there was almost no discernible difference between the quality of their live performance and their recorded album. Both were utterly superb. That level of preparation and polish surely contributed to the group’s resounding and continued success in the decade that followed.

Retrospectively, it’s easy for me to see now that my group failed in this area – but we shouldn’t have. Our recordings were professional and garnered positive attention, but we simply didn’t back them up with consistently excellent live performances or a fan/listener experience that was consistent throughout. Our web graphics were a bit different from our album art, which was a bit different from our stage imagery, which clashed a bit with our personal “styles;” none of which really captured our vision, reflected our musical style, or communicated what we were “about.”

In the interest of throwing out some shameless b-school clichés to support this point, which is probably the most obvious assertion of this entire post: “McDonalds (again),” “Mercedes,” “Samsung,” “Jif.” Any time you make a purchase of any of these brands, you expect a certain level of quality and an experience consistent with every other experience you’ve ever had with their products. In musical terms, this might be referred to as “production value” or “listenability” or “accessibility” or “crossover appeal.” Regardless of the phrase used, customers want a reliable experience with you and your products – and ensuring that they receive it may be the single most important factor in a successful marketing endeavor.

Marketing Lessons from a Former Rocker (Part 1)

1.       Branding and Ease of Recognition Will Make or Break You

We made an obvious and fundamental branding error by choosing an obscure, meaningless, difficult-to-pronounce, and difficult-to-spell name. Even after two years of relentless promotion and almost two hundred performances, it was a common occurrence for us to prance onstage as an emcee incorrectly introduced our group. Further compounding the problem, we had no story. We had no creative answer to the question, “What does your name mean?”

Most band names don’t provide an immediate identifying connection to the group’s musical style or lyrical content (examples: The Rolling Stones, U2). But often, names work largely because they elicit a visual image or are associated with common terms or expressions (examples: Skillet, Counting Crows, Eminem, Red Hot Chili Peppers) that aid in both recognition and recollection of the brand, regardless of the genre.

Translated to business, it is much more critical not only to choose an accessible name, but a name that acutely tells the consumer what your product or service does. Strong examples of self-evident names in consumer brands include Craftsman tools, KitchenAid appliances, and Hamburger Helper; the names themselves provide a pretty solid clue as to whom or what the product is designed for.

Another common practice in the musical world is to simply use an individual’s name (examples: The Dave Matthews Band, Elvis Presley, Van Halen, Eric Clapton), which can work well, but unfortunately does not lend itself to lineup/staffing changes or allow for separation of personal and professional identities. I am personally not a proponent of this choice because it tends to be more difficult to differentiate your brand. How many law, CPA, or consulting firms with names like “McClellan, Arthur, and Swaney” have you heard about and immediately forgotten? How many generic country singers with names like “Josh Jones” or “Garrett Gilmore” have come and gone through the years?

An exception to the rule on using the name of a person is the practice of intentionally naming a brand after a fictionalized version of a person. Examples here include Captain Morgan rum and Betty Crocker baking kits, or a caricature/mascot choice such as Red Baron pizza.

Regardless, here are my best-practice recommendations for deciding on a name:

  • Use words that make sense in context and that are easily recognizable
  • Build what you do, make, or who your target customer is into the name
  • Use words that create a visual image or that play on a common phrase or idiom to aid recall
  • Use words so basic that that someone with an elementary command of English will likely spell them correctly in the search bar of a mobile device, at night, while drinking

Don’t over-think it. “Susan’s Sandwiches” may seem pretty vanilla, but it’s a much better choice than “Susan’s Sundry San Jose Snack Shoppe” or whatever clever name your friends claim to like.

Logos get a lot of hype from visual-creative types, and visual imagery is certainly an important aspect of branding; but it takes a solid initial effort and years of exposure before a logo can stand alone as a tangible value-added component of branding. Most logos, pictures, and symbols never achieve that goal. Remember Prince’s disastrous symbol experiment? He probably wishes you didn’t. Unless your imagery is as ubiquitous as McDonalds, Pepsi, or Chevron, it’s probably best to focus more effort on effective words or phrases when choosing a name and message for your product, business, or group.

People enjoy imagery, but they don’t speak in visuals. They speak in words. Choose your words wisely.