'Why your brand is not like Bruce Springsteen'


Everyone knows, in normal circumstances, to stay away from internet spirals during your working day. In lockdown, most of my clients seem to be inactive, so I’m becoming less disciplined. Chasing a sequence of content prompted by the phrase ‘best Bruce Springsteen tracks’ took up a merry hour or so last week but did remind me of something useful.

First, here’s what all our brands have in common with Bruce Springsteen. Brands, like artists, need to appeal to people. Imagine that the brand you work on hadn’t advertised, or promoted itself online, effectively to date, and that Mr Springsteen hadn’t consistently written so many good songs.  You would be working in a different job, while Bruce would be about to retire from a long career as a garage mechanic.

Now, I’m a fan of the Boss. The older I get, and he gets, the more I like him. If I had to run a workshop on his brand, it would be a great challenge and a lot of fun. All sorts of characteristics, benefits and emotional content to suggest.

Probably more than there would be for your brand, let’s be honest…

Is that a problem? Should you be trying hard to hit lots of emotional notes? Do people have to actually love you? Should your brand be aiming for rockstar levels of fame? I say no. There are two reasons why your brand can’t be like a Springsteen or a Stormzy or a Killers.

The first way is the easiest to describe. Unless you work in a few specific categories then, unlike Bruce, your brand can’t rely solely on making people feel warm and fuzzy towards it. Yes, we all know people like to feel good, and that they buy on emotion. (Show me a marketer who hasn’t argued with their financial director about that last point and I’ll show you a downtrodden wretch whose budget’s about to get cut again.) But there is a lot of other stuff that needs to accompany the emotional content of your brand. Bruce is an entertainer, his job is to make us feel excited, moved or otherwise good. Full stop. Your building product/pizza/fruit drink/financial services product/inkjet printer brand has a harder task, and more concrete customer benefits to define and deliver.

You’d think this 'revelation' would be what the film industry used to call ‘page 1’; i.e, fundamental, something everyone learns early. But it isn’t. Many years ago a US marketer for Domino’s, talking about their Super Bowl presence, amazed many by stating “people are more interested in the football than they are in our pizza”. Strongly implying, in other words, that he felt his product didn’t really have much to say about itself and should concentrate on trying to reflect the entertainment on offer.

Hopefully we all understand that maintaining this attitude will get at least 95% of us fired. Yet there is a more understandable parallel right now, in the current emergency, in which we can be forgiven for focusing on the daily bad news. A lot of brands have consequently abandoned all reference to what they do, or offer, in a rush to show that they too are feeling the pain of loss and lockdown. Demonstrating emotional on-sideness (is that a phrase? You know what I mean) is the aim, yet I’d argue a lot of communications are coming off as clumsy or fake in the process, whilst not seemingly getting anything else done along the way.

The second way brands are different from Bruce is this. A successful brand needs to be very clear about what it wants people to think about it, how it expects them to interpret it. That’s absolutely not true with art, or music, where people are quite at liberty to take out what they want from what’s on offer.

Case in point: My ‘internet spiral’ revealed a Guardian journalist who’d picked out his Springsteen top 50, and oh, what a bummer it was! His focus was relentlessly on the (undoubtedly strong) themes of blue-collar disappointment and frustration, the 'stifled lives' in many of the Boss’s songs. Crucially, I’m not saying the guy was wrong. If someone thinks that judging by Bruce Springsteen’s music, living in America is one small step up from Dante’s Inferno, then that’s their interpretation, a valid part of the experience of music.

The popular Daily Stoic newsletter clearly doesn’t take out the same impression. They recently included Springsteen’s 2012 lyric “Bring on your wrecking ball, give it your best shot, let me see what you got.” The context was a recurring point of Stoic wisdom, specifically that ‘adversity provides the chance for wise people to reinforce their character and qualities’. Stoicism is all about confidence and self-reliance, a very different nuance to the overall theme discussed above. Reading the email, I could recall plenty of other Bruce lyrics (Rosalita, Out In The Street, Sherry Darling… ) which celebrate youth, love of life, peoples’ potential or just the notion of being successful. Thunder Road, frequently rated in the top 50/100 greatest songs in history, is full of confident optimism for the future.

Isn’t it great that art can induce such contrasting feelings? One day, sunshine, the next, rain. It’s not the same for brands though. We spend a lot of time trying to establish the core ideas behind our brands, and maybe a handful of genuine values they can represent. In my experience, customers can associate one or two ideas with the average brand and may come to perceive a couple of values, as long as they are very clear and consistent.

In other words, as a marketer you have a lot less scope for variety. For a commercial brand to provoke wildly different responses in two different audiences would, for me, indicate a lack of strategic focus. For us, there’s nothing wrong with picking a strong but ring-fenced area and defining yourself on it. Do you think anyone leaves Nando’s with the impression they have just dined at a sophisticated, date-night restaurant? Do they get into the car discussing the nuanced and interesting ‘dishes of the day’? Does a meal at Nando’s make a statement about the social consciousness of those choosing to eat some chicken there? No. Does this make Nando’s an unsuccessful or poor quality brand? Absolutely not.

We would certainly agree with the idea of ‘owning territory’ if we heard it said in a meeting, yet many of us appear too easily bored with briefing the same core idea and values, over and over again. Social media in particular has made it much simpler to give your brand a different tone of voice, and face, in the afternoon from the one it wore in the morning.

So, brands shouldn’t confuse themselves with entertainment products, or a political movement or popular opinion. They should not chase after any emotional reaction they can provoke, day in day out, because that risks the viewer losing sight of what’s involved.  The more marketers allow their brands to stand quietly alongside better understood, more entertaining properties (like that Super Bowl) - the more they flip and flop their tone of voice and messaging to try to match the zeitgeist - the weaker those brands risk becoming. 

Ultimately, and despite what they used to say about advertising in particular, we marketers are certainly not in the rock ‘n’ roll business. We are not in the charity business. We are, perfectly happily, just in business.


Tuesday 19th May 2020

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