As the 50th anniversary of the Beatles‘ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show approaches (there’s a big special about this event this Sunday on CBS), our pop culture is awash in Beatlemania nostalgia. I’ve been a fan of the Fab Four since my older siblings introduced me to Rubber Soul and countless Capitol Records 45s way back in the early ’60s. In fact, some of my first memories about pop music revolve around the Beatles. I guess they’ve been a pop culture touchstone for me all of my life.
And you know, I should be glad about this wave of renewed attention to Beatlemania. Not just because it celebrates a band that did so much to turn pop and rock music a major cultural force in our world, but also because the Beatles’ astounding success offers many, many lessons for marketers.
Think about it. The Beatles were one of the first musical imports to the U.S. to be mass marketed, and they were one of the first musical acts to go viral — without benefit of YouTube or “The Harlem Shake.”
Here are five marketing and branding lessons from John, Paul, George and Ringo that we can continue to study, all these years later.
1. Put a twist (and shout) on the familiar
Much of the Beatles’ early success was built on their renditions of earlier recordings. Rock-and-roll was less than a decade old, but already the Beatles were mining a treasure of terrific American music. They covered Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over, Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music,” Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” and many other popular tunes from rock-and-roll’s early days. (They even covered a country tune: Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally.”) They re-invented these familiar tunes not so much by their musical style (Paul McCartney emulated Little Richard quite well on “Long Tall Sally,” and John Lennon’s version of “Twist and Shout” is as passionate as any) but by their presence. The twist on the familiar was that four mop-topped lads from Liverpool were performing American rock standards — paying homage to the roots of rock-and-roll while giving these songs a new life, and introducing this music to a new audience.
The takeaway: Take a look at your familiar (or even traditional) ways of marketing, and think about ways to give these approaches a makeover. Or take a look at familiar products — courses, degree programs — and think about new ways to promote them.
Many music critics think the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the ultimate concept album, the height of musical creativity. (Rolling Stone magazine puts Sgt. Pepper’s at the No. 1 spot on its list of the best rock albums, calling it “an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology.”) But the Beatles were experimenting with their style years before that crowning achievement. In his 2006 book The Gospel According to the Beatles, rock journalist Steve Turner points out that many of the Beatles’ best singles came about because the group was not afraid to experiment or try new approaches to the standard pop tune. “Why couldn’t a song begin with a chorus (‘Can’t Buy Me Love’), a crashing chord (‘A Hard Day’s Night’), extended feedback (‘I Feel Fine’) or a fade-in (‘Eight Days a Week’)?” The Beatles questioned convention. They asked, “Why not?” They flipped things around. And in so doing they reinvented pop.
The takeaway: Consider your current marketing approaches. What kinds of experiments can you take to reinvent your own marketing?
3. Get by with a little help from your friends
Just as the Seattle Seahawks and Texas A&M have their “12th man” to help them win football games, so John, Paul, George and Ringo had their “fifth Beatle” to help them create astounding music. They had several fifth Beatles, actually. Producer George Martin was the wizard who mixed their sounds into works of pop art. Manager Brian Epstein helped put the Beatles on the map. Keyboardist Billy Preston added some R&B funk into tunes like “Get Back,” which became a No. 1 single. The Beatles had more than a little help from their friends behind the scenes.
The takeaway: Marketing, like music, is a team sport. Involve those who can add value to your efforts. And don’t forget to thank them. (That includes the receptionist in your office or the student assistant who serves as your courier to deliver proofs across campus. They’re part of the team, too.)
4. Let your Ringos sing
Most of the time, the Beatles went with their two best vocalists: Lennon and McCartney. They were also the de facto leaders of the band. But once in a while, just to mix things up, they let Ringo Starr sing. His voice was not as mellifluous as McCartney’s, nor as passionate as Lennon’s. His was more suited for harmonizing or choruses. But it had a certain ring to it that worked on songs like “Act Naturally,” “Don’t Pass Me By,” “With a Little Help From My Friends” and, most notably, “Yellow Submarine.” Ringo’s lead vocals added just enough variety to their catalog to keep things interesting. (George Harrison also got to sing lead from time to time.)
The takeaway: Think about how you could shine the spotlight on those less prominent academic programs, or faculty spokespeople, to add a bit of variety to your branding and marketing.
5. Believe in yourself
Yes, the Beatles were amazingly talented. Yes, the Beatles worked hard to hone their craft. Yes, they arrived at seemingly just the right time. But what really set the Beatles apart was their chutzpah. They had the audacity to believe in themselves, and wouldn’t accept defeat. “The Beatles’ secret ingredient was arrogance,” writes Andrew Romano in this essay from The Daily Beast. “Unlike most of us, they remained arrogant until their ability finally matched their ambition. Arrogance was the reason they abandoned everything but music.”
The takeaway: Believe in yourself and your marketing. Don’t accept defeat.