Just one year ago the pop music phenomenon known as Lady Gaga was preparing to perform at Palm Springs California’s White Party, perhaps the largest Gay men’s celebration in the country. I’m sure it was a career step up for the Lady (real name Stephani Germanotta) at that time and a significant turn of the wheel for what I think is a masterful marketing machine. As small business owners we can probably learn some great marketing lessons from her story and those of other pop music performers.
I love just about all types of music and have been fascinated by those performers who have the ability to move beyond just having a hit song and a taste of fame to developing a long lasting career. What does it take? Were there other artists equally as talented as legends such as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson? Yes, but today most of their names are etched in the sands of time rather than on marquees or the cover of People magazine. I’m way off the profile for Lady Gaga’s fan base but since noticing the promotion for her Palm Springs appearance, I’ve been impressed by her brand building and marketing skills. To get past being just a flavor of the year will require all her skills plus the ability to adapt quickly to the marketplace. It is about marketing what you have.
It was two years ago (August 2008) that Lady Gaga released her first successful album, “The Fame” and began to build her fame in several foreign countries. But as we now know in today’s media saturated marketplace, a person can be famous just for being famous. Excuse me Paris Hilton and Kate Gosselin. When I began to learn more about Ms. Gaga, it became obvious that the young lady can play the piano well, sings with a lovely voice and is able to write catchy songs. In other words she has the basic skills to sustain a music performer brand but she had to first get noticed and work on building a fan base. I’d say her packaging in those outrageous costumes helped separate her from the ever present pack of want to bees.
Who would have thought that when Madonna released her “Like a Virgin” album in 1984 that people would still be talking about her twenty six years later? She has been a brilliant brand builder. As a vocalist her talents are modest but earnest. If she were an American Idol contestant today, Madonna might not make it to round three. But she has successfully charted a singular course of experimentation and reinvention for a quarter century. The odds of doing that in the fickle firelight of pop culture are very long. The core values of a great brand must remain constant but how it is presented and marketed must evolve with the times.
Cyndi Lauper had a worldwide hit album with “She’s So Unusual” in early 1984 around the same time as Madonna began her rise to stardom. Though Lauper has sold millions of records over the same timeline as Madonna, you decide who is the bigger name brand today. The worlds of pop and hip hop music are littered with the bones of performer’s disintegrated careers. You do remember Wild Thing by Tone Loc don’t you? How about Christopher Cross who racked up hit records, Grammy awards, an Oscar award and a Golden Globe in a short space of time in the early eighties. Wherever Mr. Cross is now he must feel as though his career went from sunny and sizzling to the dark side of the moon.
I think that one key to Madonna’s brand success is that she has constantly developed it over the years, offering something interesting to each new generation while holding onto some of her late eighties fans. She has been a magnet for press coverage as a result of living a clearly unconventional lifestyle. And she has explored various music trends which kept pure music fans interested. Madonna has succeeded with what the very best marketers in the world have always done; they have trusted their inner instincts and followed them. Barry Manilow has a long career arc, having been hot and cold over the years. Now he’s performing in front of crowds in Las Vegas. Manilow’s core value is that he truly loves and respects the music and that has nourished his relationship with fans for decades. Paul McCartney is filling the Hollywood Bowl with his durable product forty years after the Beatles broke up! Prince has always enveloped himself in an aura of mystery on top the fact that he is a consummate musician. Being a mysterious iconoclast who can play music exceptionally well had helped him establish a strong personal brand. Among the newer generation of performers there are people such as Gwen Stefani who may have what it takes to build a long lasting personal brand.
What the business branding lessons we should take from these people? First your product has to be useful or desirable to a sizeable body of consumers and you have to help them notice it by building awareness. It needs a distributions system that makes it easy for them to access the product. You want to develop a clear product identity. Pop stars have a clear advantage there because their faces, voices and costumes separate one from another in the public consciousness. The key to longevity is to never stop developing your product or presenting it in fresh ways to potential new customers. The old Volkswagen bug changed in over a hundred ways during its lifetime, but there was never a danger of mistaking it for anything else.
It will be very interesting to have a look at Lady Gaga’s career a year from now to see if she’s mastered the art of keeping the brand fresh without breaking the bond with her core fans. She got noticed as a costumed curiosity who also had songs with strong lyrics. Will she learn to be a successful marketer for the long term in the unstable world of pop culture? She faces challenges similar to those that all small business owners must master. First there is the product then the perception, and most importantly, keeping the relationship with your customers alive. Last week I watched a 1969 Dick Cavett interview with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Cavett asked Jagger if he could picture himself singing a prancing around a stage at age sixty. Jagger’s reply; “sure I could.”