4 Timeless Marketing Lessons to be Learned from Billboard's #1 Star
"Drop everything you're doing - you have GOT to cop Common's new CD!"
That's what my good friend Arash, a local music producer, said to me before we went out to breakfast last Saturday morning. So I dropped everything and we listened to the album and in a few words, Finding Forever is complex, timeless flawless. Common is a master storyteller.
But that much is to be expected of Common. What wasn't expected was his album being sold out in the three music stores that I went to with intent to buy the album. Even more surprising was finding out two days ago Finding Forever debuted #1 on the US Billboard 200 - Common's first chart-topper.
So as I cheer Common's unprecedented rise to the top of the music world (there are few artists more deserving), here are 4 timeless marketing lessons to be learned from the un-common path of music's #1 star.
1. Word of Mouth Marketing (WOMM) takes time- Common's ascent to being a household name was hardly meteoric. Finding Forever is his seventh album, with his only real commercial success being with 2005's Be. Though the lights shine bright on him now, people forget that Common's music debut happened more than 15 years ago.
2. Don't Alienate Your Evangelists- The reason why it took Common over 15 years to reach the pinnacle isn't due to a faulty path. 1992's Can I Borrow a Dollar? didn't achieve any commercial success but with it, he established a fervent fanbase in the underground scene - the same people who, to this day, are Common evangelists. Common made the decision early in his career to continue to do this his way; allowing the unique sound he's now known for, to develop organically with time. Common's path proved that mainstream success doesn't have to constitute "selling-out" if you don't veer away from the original purpose.
3. Seed Yourself Within and Establish a Solid Social Network- Years before P.Diddy "invented" artist collaboration, Common and his collective of underground artists collaborated on work, innovating a new sound that today resonates with mainstream audiences. His 1997 release of One Day It'll All Make Sense included collaborations with -at the time- unknown, up-and-coming artists such as Lauryn Hill, Q-Tip, Canibus, and ?uestlove. To this day, it's not uncommon to see him perform unannounced with his network of artists including the aforementioned musicians, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, and/or John Legend. Their collective success demonstrates the power of authentic connections in social networks. Web 2.0 properties are just web iteration of such communities. The same principles apply online.
4. Co-Branding is a Powerful Vehicle to Increase Brand Awareness- Harvard Business Review recently published a forethought entry by Daniel G. Goldstein, Professor of Marketing at London Business School, outlining three principles for an unknown brand to gain brand equity. One of the principles highlighted is to co-brand with a more established company. Though I doubt Common will ever find his way into the pages of HBR, he did use a similar vehicle to gradually gain awareness in the "Common" brand. He's co-branded himself with GAP, as a featured model. He's also made television appearances as an actor in shows such as Girlfriends and Saturday Night Live, and has served in supporting actor roles in big-screen films such as Smoking Aces (where he acted alongside Denzel Washington - an established brand, indeed).
Make no mistake: Common's pathway to the top of music industry is highly uncommon. Most artists, as do most companies, veer from their 'commander's intent' as soon as opportunities to take shortcuts arise. As Common evangelists live through the commercial success of Finding Forever, common marketing folks like you and I should reflect on his success. It's a case study in relentlessly sticking to your objectives. It's a textbook showcase of a marketing plan done right.