Seven Brand Lessons You Can Learn From Freddie Mercury & Queen
March 14, 2019
I’ve been a Queen fan since I was young. Here are some brand lessons we can learn from them.Learn More
“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life” said Oscar Wilde, and when you’re looking for cues in how you should be approaching your business marketing, there are great examples from the last sixty years of rock and roll. From the discovery of Elvis Presley, to the popularity of Eminem, this piece will cover the most iconic moments throughout music history.
Producer Sam Philips wanted to find a ‘white guy who sings like a negro.’ Sam never questioned whether it would work and lo and behold, in walked a 19-year-old truck driver who became rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest bang. There were rock ‘n’ roll records before this one, nearly all of them by black artists, but this is the moment when the embryonic form found its perfect embodiment.
Question the norm. Your business will continue day in and day out in the same manner unless someone steps up and asks ‘why not?’ Why can’t you take this new approach? Why can’t your product do this? Why can’t we change that price?
If Sam Philips had never questioned the norm of good rock ‘n’ roll records being released by purely black singers, they’d never have found Elvis. Thank you very much.
One of the most innocuous, yet iconic rock and roll songs of the 20th Century gained sweeping popularity when included on the soundtrack for juvenile delinquent drama ‘Blackboard Jungle’. Most fans danced in the aisles, but some rioted, ripping out seats and destroying theatres. After originally reaching a poor number 23 on the US Billboard charts, Billy Haley and his Comets gave birth to one of the most famous songs of all time, and ushered in the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll.
The success of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ was never planned by Bill Haley, his band or his marketing company. He never advocated the destruction of theatres but his song became an anthem for the disaffected youth, and from that point onwards, Bill gave up control of his music.
Your business cannot control everything that happens, and often, especially with your marketing, you might struggle to maintain control. If you’re riding a wave of popularity, let go and enjoy the journey.
This also talks to those businesses that are looking for innovation: it may just be that innovation comes from the staff member that works part-time, one day a week, your suppliers or even your customers. Give up control and maybe let them decide for you?
Possibly the most aggressive British rock group of the last century, The Who dressed in Union Jack suits, smashed their guitars, and wrote songs that perfectly caught the rising tide of teen frustration. The stuttered snarl of ‘My Generation’ remains one of the key moments in British rock, and the most potent evocation of Mod Elitism and amphetamine-fuelled aggression ever committed to vinyl. But most importantly, they were genuine about who they were. And that’s what sold the records.
Today, everything is transparent. We know where our coffee comes from, we know who makes our sports shoes and we know the factories that churn out the smart phones we use every day. You can’t hide behind marketing bullshit; so stop trying.
During a session with an English journalist John Lennon wistfully pointed out that the Beatles had now become ‘bigger than Jesus’. Whilst factually accurate, the interview resulted in outrage from religious leaders and accusations of blasphemy. Churches ordered the burning of Beatles records up and down the UK; whilst record shops saw ‘record’ record sales.
If you continually measure your business against your competitors, you’ll spend more time watching them than watching the finish line. An Olympic swimmer checks themselves against their own standards – their clock – before they see where everyone else finishes.
Punk’s crowning glory saw 3 minutes and 19 seconds of unspeakable criticism released at the height of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. Workers in a record plant refused to press it and official chart compilers refused to acknowledge its chart-topping position. “There’s no future, no future, no future for you,” sang Rotten. Two years later, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher swept to power.
There will be plenty of people that tell you what your business should do and what it should be. If you think they’re wrong, then they’re probably wrong. Don’t pander to the wants and needs of everyone if it doesn’t fit with your business goals. As ‘Gold Five’ said in Star Wars: “Stay on target. Stay on target.”
And remember, if Sony had listened to their customer focus groups back in the middle of the 1980s, there would never have been a Walkman.
No rock ‘n’ roll death has embraced the lifestyle the music suggests more than that of John Simon Ritchie, better known as Sid Vicious. Manager Malcolm McLaren once claimed “if Rotten is the voice of punk, then Vicious is the attitude”. Two years after joining the Sex Pistols, battling hepatitis, accusations of Nancy’s murder and jail time, Sid died of a massive heroin overdose.
Well, let’s perhaps not go out in the way that Sid did, but remember, there’s no harm in leaving your audience wanting more. Steve Jobs was the master of this. Just give them enough to get them hooked and make them wait. Year after year, Apple drip fed features and upgrades; versus Samsung, who crammed everything in as soon as they could. Which company is sitting on $200billion of cash reserves now?
Decades before his own reality show appeared to show his family living in a warped parallel universe, Ozzy was as famous for his outrageous and offensive gestures as he was for his music. Biting the heads of two doves during a record company meeting, urinating on the Alamo, and shooting his wife’s seventeen cats, Ozzy’s dive into alcohol and substance abuse came to a head in 1989 when he tried to kill his wife and manager, Sharon.
The ‘expose yourself’ mantra is similar in a way to the ‘no more marketing’ bullshit. The difference is about taking your core values and throwing them out on display. Who are you, what do you believe in, and what are you trying to achieve? Tell us. Don’t be backward at coming forward.
The first record to give birth to gangsta rap was so extreme it was banned by radio and MTV and brought the record company, Ruthless, a warning from the FBI. The man behind the menace, Dr. Dre went onto be one of the most successful producers ever and moved the global shift of hip-hop from New York to LA, arguably leading to the deaths of two more of rap’s greatest icons, Tupac & Biggie. He later founded Beats that was eventually sold to Apple for billions.
Everyone loves an underdog; Richard Branson built his empire on it; Donald Trump tries to play that card all the time; sports teams revel in being the one not expected to win. If you want to draw attention to yourself and develop more loyal fans, pick a fight with someone. And the bigger and badder the person you’re picking a fight with, the more heroic you’re going to look.
Where were you the day you first heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’? Switching effortlessly from the hushed crawl of Cobain’s whispering voice to the guttural scream of pain, the song heralded in a new generation of solipsistic teenage angst with its dramatic mix of brutal guitars and pounding bass. ‘Generation X’ was fighting back and no band since 1992 has been able to write their sleeve notes without acknowledging ‘Nevermind’ as an influence.
Sometimes just being a little better than your competition isn’t good enough; sometimes you have to offer a total revolution. That’s hard. Innovation is a tough ask for any business; revolution is a once-in-a-lifetime event. But get it right and your business will go down in history. Facebook, Ebay, the iPhone, the Walkman – they were all the Nirvanas of their day.
Prince called it ‘emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros’ but most observers saw the change as an attempt to reinvent himself, refocus his musical direction and breath life into a career that had stalled after the release of his twelfth studio album. Cunning marketing ploy or not, the column inches in the press didn’t transform into sales and the success of the late 80s and early 90s never returned; 2007 saw Prince give his new album away with copies of the UK’s ‘Mail on Sunday’.
If your business is slowing and running out of steam, revitalising yourself might involve substantial risk. Avoid it and you’re toast. Take it and you can still fail. That’s why it’s called risk. But at some point you’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons and roll those dice before it’s too late. The taxi industry could take a risk and innovate now in the face of Uber, or they could have done it 5 years ago and stemmed the tide of the competition before it even happened.
Hindsight is the only exact science.
Brit-pop’s big stand-off. Orchestrated by their respective record labels – and hyped by the pop and mainstream media – Blur and Oasis went head to head, releasing singles on the same day. Neither were any good, but Blur’s ‘Country House’ was spectacularly bad. It went straight in at Number One. A couple of years later, when Oasis had eclipsed Blur as the biggest band in Britain, Noel Gallagher would be summoned to a New Labour victory party in Downing Street. The beginning of the end of Brit-pop and the hype that was Cool Britannia.
Your brand can never be all things to all people so don’t bother trying. Commit to and focus on one target market on one side of the fence, and actively ignore anyone else.
A word that struck fear into the heart of music business fat cats. Launched by 19-year-old Shawn Fanning from his uncle’s garage, Napster was the download service that provided free music to an estimated 100 million users in 2000. Music downloading and now streaming has come a long way since Fanning revolutionised the industry, and now other industries are exhibiting the same panic that the music industry once did.
Technology is not the answer to your business marketing. It may be a component part of it, but don’t get dragged into the idea that simply by engaging in social media, or building an app, you’re going to suddenly get a new lease of life. Marketing needs adherence to the principles of communicating through multiple channels in interesting and creative ways. Some of those might be tech-led; but some of them might not be.
And at the same time, burying you’re head in the sand and pretending the world isn’t changing is just as dangerous. If you’re scared of technology, find someone in your business who isn’t and get them to help.
At the height of his notoriety Eminem, who had single-handedly made rap a medium for the kind of whining usually expressed by pampered white guys with guitars, received the kind of endorsement even the biggest marketing companies could not buy. Two years later, American parents found that 53 per cent agreed that ‘America’s youth find more truth in Eminem than George Bush’.
There is no misunderstanding around Eminem’s brand. He embodies pretty much every lesson that’s gone before him and packaged it in a perfectly timed and executed brand strategy. If you follow that lead with your business marketing, you’ll succeed every time. But the first step before you go and tell everyone who you are, is for yourself to know and accept who you are.
Full credit to Richard Laermer whose book ‘Punk Marketing’ inspired me to start my own business marketing company and laid the foundation for this article. Drop me a line on [email protected] and I’m always happy to chat.
I’ve been a Queen fan since I was young. Here are some brand lessons we can learn from them.Learn More
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