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.