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< TSG Thinks

Straight Outta Marketing: Lessons From The Rap World

We hear easy-listening music just about everywhere: while riding in elevators, shopping at the grocery, or waiting on hold. We know this kind of tune all too well: It’s background music—Muzak—engineered to make the passage of time less noticeable.

The music is familiar, likable, and forgettable. But as marketers, that is the last thing we want for our messages and campaigns. We need the opposite of Muzak. We need rap.

Love it or hate it, rap music almost always generates a response. It is, by nature, antithetical to ambience. It demands your attention—even if you don’t enjoy it. As marketers, we should strive to bring this sort of impact to our messaging and campaigns.

Good marketing is memorable. It takes risks and stops consumers in their tracks. Our biggest priority as marketers is to cut through the noise, contrary to playing it safe. If this is true, then the obvious question is: Why aren’t more marketers “rapping” today?

Playing It Safe Is Dangerous

The very act of making a bold statement—just like rapping—creates vulnerability. We often believe that by “playing it safe,” we will, well, stay safe. The future is unknown when we take risks, making us uncomfortable. What we forget, however, is that the failure to take chances is inherently risky.

In “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Clayton Christensen examines what happens to businesses that avoid taking certain risks. By abstaining, these businesses actually invite greater risk. Likewise, a marketing plan won’t succeed if it lacks a little healthy uncertainty. A failure to take chances enables competitors to offer a more compelling message, and it won’t be long before they do.

Our agency recently examined vulnerability by discussing Brené Brown’s well-known TED Talk. While we generally dislike feeling vulnerable, all the magic happens when we’re feeling least protected. Vulnerability elevates us from the slums of elevator music to the echelons of rap-style glory.

Without risk, we stand to lose what matters most: standing out. And the boldness of taking a leap isn’t isolated to those who rap. These greats certainly capitalized:

  • The Beatles: Believe it or not, every major record company initially rejected the Beatles. It wasn’t until the mop tops found a manager willing to work with them that they secured a record deal with a small label. The Beatles didn’t sound like anyone else, and they never conformed to whatever style of music was mainstream at the time. They stayed true to their sound, which gained a devoted following. In the end, they solved record label issues by creating their own label. Apple Records went on to produce music—by the Beatles and a host of other artists—that forever changed the music landscape.
  • Adam Levine: Before he appeared on NBC’s “The Voice,” Adam Levine’s band, Maroon 5, was an alternative group that enjoyed some success. Then Levine took a bold marketing risk—becoming a celebrity judge for a mainstream talent show—and turned himself into a household name. He now operates on a whole new level and is a classic example of the transition from background music to center stage.
  • Beyoncé: Beyoncé is a true icon, from her style to her music to her life. True to form, she wowed the world with a simple “surprise” on Twitter. There was no hype leading up to her new album’s release—just a tweet to let fans know they could download it. Her release shattered iTunes’ sales records with nearly a million downloads in the first three days, and it soared to No. 1 in 104 countries. Many marketers would have hedged at that bold gamble, choosing traditional distribution instead of taking a chance.

How Your Marketing Can Be Bold

You don’t have to be an iconic performer to take risks with your marketing. Just make a plan and boldly attack it. Here are three tips to get started:

1. Identify what makes people buy your idea or product:

To be bold, understand why someone pulls out his wallet.

A friend of mine built hundreds of specialty retail stores located in cruise ports worldwide. Upon launching a new brand, he noticed his stores were struggling and wanted to learn why, so he spent time on the sales floor. One day, he saw a woman pick up a watch, look at it, and set it down. She left the store shortly thereafter.

Confused, my friend literally chased after the customer and said, “I’ll give you this watch right now if you’ll tell me why you didn’t buy it.” She replied, “It’s just like all of the other watches on the ship.” His takeaway: People want something unique. Among other items in his store, my friend had a few products made from bamboo; these were, in fact, quite unique. Thus, the successful Cariloha retailing concept was born.

2. Determine whether people are paying attention to your marketing:

Once you understand what your customers want, ask yourself whether your marketing speaks to their desires. Would you pay attention to what you’re saying? If you’re indifferent to your own marketing message, stop and reboot now. Like a rapper, you need to demand attention, not politely ask for it.

3. Dream big. Dream wild:

At our agency, we often start our ideation process by coming up with ideas that are big, wild, and beyond our available resources, yet we know they’d solve the marketing problem. We don’t limit our thinking. Running with the wild idea in its original state doesn’t happen often, but it’s an incredibly freeing exercise while it’s happening. Release some constraints and say, “Here’s something we’ll probably never do, but it would solve our problem.” Reigning in a wild idea is always better than dreaming with blinders on.

Keep these tips in mind when it’s time to create your next campaign. Don’t let easy listening lull you into a riskless future. Remember: Soothing lullabies were never meant to make people sit up and take notice; they were meant to put people to sleep.

by Todd Wolfenbarger . President And Partner .