Lessons in Tech Branding from Rock Icons
Inspiration can come from funny places – if you are in tech marketing, perhaps you’ll like the following story about branding, which offers lessons from the world of rock music.
The Music and Branding Connection
I am a big fan of podcasts, and like listening to them while jogging. I’m also a music lover. A few years ago, I discovered Sound Opinions, a superb forum in which rock critics Greg Kot and Jim DeRagotis discuss music news, interview bands, host impromptu performances and dissect new album releases. They cover pretty much all genres of popular music, and it’s a great way to discover up-and-coming artists, niche players and forgotten classics.
After I heard their latest and ran through much of Sound Opinions’ back catalog, I was in search of another music-related podcast and stumbled upon My Favorite Album, hosted by Aussie Jeremy Dylan. He’s a music industry filmmaker and journalist who invites noted musicians into his studio to discuss records that greatly influenced them.
Recently, talented sideman Mike Bloom (who plays guitar for Julian Casablancis of The Strokes fame) was on to discuss Jimi Hendrix’s Axis Bold as Love, the classic that included the song Little Wing. This inevitably got to how Hendrix was perceived and classified.
Here’s an excerpt:
Dylan: He’s not just a raucous, incredible guitar player … It’s so far beyond that, and probably gets a little bit lost…. There is a tendency to put a reductive label or classification on any significant artist just because it’s easier…
Bloom: To brand…
Dylan: Yea… I remember reading a Taylor Swift interview when someone asked “Aren’t you pissed off all these people think you’re just some girl who just writes revenge songs about her ex-boyfriends all the time?”
She said “People are busy… Most aren’t playing that close attention. They can only hold maybe one idea or a couple of adjectives about some celebrity they’ve never met in their head at one time.”
So with Jimi Hendrix, the version of that is… Jimi Hendrix, wild man who set his guitar on fire and played it with his teeth and behind his head, and was the loudest, most raucous electric blues rock guitar player of all time… and that’s his theme, so that’s what most people think Jimi Hendrix is.
In the same way, Paul McCartney is upbeat, silly love songs
Bob Dylan is lots of words and vaguely political stuff
Bloom: Of course everything needs to be distilled down to a way it can be consumed I guess…
Dylan: Yes, even though there’s massive contrasts, contradictions and nuances and other dynamics to their art, and them as people, but there’s the one thing, idea that most people have about then.
Similarly, tech companies have “many contrasts and nuances”. Yet the famous names conjure quick associations (e.g. Apple is the stylish design-driven leader in consumer tech. IBM, the Big Blue diversified IT tech nerd, etc).
What words do people associate with your brand? Do you agree with them? Would you prefer other words?
Bucket, Bucket, Who’s Got the Bucket?
Of course tech is big, growing, generally very competitive, and this makes it harder for new entrants to get recognized and build brands. Even established companies sometimes need to rebrand. The NY Times covered this in the article When Every Company is a Tech Company does the Label Matter? The story said that GE, an old line diversified industrial and financial services company (until recently), now wants to be known for advanced research and technology.
Doubtless, a lot of this gets to opportunism and money. Categories and labels have their own brand associations and perceived value. The markets reward companies in hot areas like tech (and trending segments like Big Data) with higher valuations.
Within tech there are many categories and sub-categories, as mapped out by the Gartner Magic Quadrant reports. There are many genres and sub-genres of music, too – about 1,400, according to this NY Times article The Psychology of Genre. It says:
“We listeners are endless and instinctual categorizers, allotting everything its spot like bins in a record store… Categories help us manage the torrent of information we receive and sort the world into easier-to-read patterns.”
It goes on to further describe perception vs. reality and what happens when there is a disconnect:
“This ‘categorical perception,’as it’s called, is not an innocent process: What we think we’re looking at can alter what we actually see… When we struggle to categorize something, we like it less,” due to something researchers call “cognitive disfluency.”
Does your company fit neatly into an established category? Are you disrupting an existing space or is the technology a totally new “species?”
It’s important to carefully think through these things, as there are pros and cons to just fitting in vs, trying to blaze a new trail.
In a noisy world, the brand is an immutable concept, shorthand that can help you be understood and recognized. But first, it needs to be known.
The branding can just happen (like your name, everyone has one) but given its importance why not decide what you want it to represent, and proactively build it?
It’s easy to get distracted, and taken in by the latest shiny new marketing toy. Writing for TechCrunch, Samuel Scott urged marketers to look past trendy concepts and embrace the cornerstones. For example instead of focusing on content marketing, they should “practice real marketing and brand building.” Absolutely.
But what do you do when your company doesn’t fit neatly into an established category? After all, isn’t technology constantly changing, rendering segments obsolete and spawning new ones (Facebook’s motto is “move fast and break things”)?
I include a couple of my earlier posts, on this topic below, and welcome a conversation with you about this – please comment or click here to learn more.
Assume the Positioning: Words that work in Tech PR
Cracking the Quadrant: Confessions of a Former Gartner Analyst