What Brands Can Learn From Indie Bands

Forest Taylor
Forest Taylor

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sound boardEverything I know about being a digital strategist and all the things I thought I had figured out have either been taught to me or confirmed by independent musicians. And every company that’s serious about its online presence should either start a band or employ someone who’s in one because the best artists will teach you the three things you need to do your job well:

  • Passion for what you do
  • Humility when someone recognizes you for doing it well
  • Gratitude for the ability to do it

It doesn't matter if you're an indie artist or the CEO of a multi-national bank. If you want to thrive online, be honest and be human.

All the other things will come from creativity and trial and error — probably in that order.

How Your Brand Is Like a Band

Both brands and bands stake a living in spaces shaped by perception, opinion and consistently (or inconsistently) delivered palatability. Both strive for a broad audience and benefit greatly from word of mouth. Both are susceptible to poor reviews. Both are composed of human beings.

I'm not saying brands are human. That old drum has been beaten to dust. No one is ever going to relate to a font-and-logo like an old friend from college. I am saying, however, that brands can employ humanity just as well as any indie band and could do much worse when looking there for inspiration.

What does the humanity of indie bands look like?

  • Sandy Kilpatrick appreciated my review of the first single from his new album, “Redemption Road,” so much that he personally emailed me to say thank you.
  • Brian Sendrowitz of New York's Beat Radio includes a handwritten thank you note with every single album I order from him.
  • Drew Danburry (a.k.a. For all the Girls) personally sent me two copies of his special-edition album, “Goodnight Dannii,” just in case I wanted to keep one in mint condition.
  • Brett Detar made my year in 2011 by sending me a message on Facebook to thank me for my review of his debut album, “Bird in the Tangle.”
  • Maia and Joanna from Mitten know who I am and always thank me by name when I share their music on social networks

As for brands?

  • Simple, a Portland startup blazing new trails in online banking won me over by employing people like Kelly and Liene. They answered my checking questions with personal anecdotes and without a template.
  • Frank & Oak, an online menswear boutique, won all of my shirting business for good by inviting me to apply for a position on their style council — the first time I've ever implied taste and used the word "style" in a sentence about myself. Still, the mere fact that they even ask recurring customers to become a more integral part in defining the brand is outstanding.
  • Nike has always been willing to show the steps leading up to the idealized end and hasn't forgotten what it's like to set a goal and achieve it.
  • Then we have Lego, which continues to thrive by remembering what makes it so special: the excitement of building something (the agony of losing pieces) and its openness to crowdsourcing new product ideas.

The best brands are those that remember what it's like to confront the issues they set out to solve. By the same token, the most gregarious musicians I've come in contact with are the ones who haven't forgotten what it's like to be a fan.

And you can't fake that, not even with the most comprehensive editorial calendar in the world. You can't find the equation that will get you there in a detached observation of user data. I mean, you can get away with a lot — you can learn a lot — but if you want to thrive and not just get by, you have to trust yourself to feel your way through it.

What I've Learned From Bands and by Working With Brands

I take pride in the connections I'm able to make with consumers and even clients. I love blogger outreach especially because it allows me to operate at the frontline of brand/consumer interactions. I've learned not to expect consumers to appreciate what I'm about to tell them just because I'm contacting them on behalf of “insert your brand here.” By relying more on myself and less on my sponsor to make the connection, I've made more.

I stopped pretending that being a marketer and being a consumer have to be different. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to work with an online retailer who wanted to ramp up costume sales prior to Halloween. A lifelong fan of Christopher Lee, my strategy was grounded almost exclusively in the things I’d grown up enjoying. Luckily, the client had a killer social manager on their side who felt the same way, and through his efforts on the ground, we were able to grow their social audience significantly and sustainably. We didn’t market to a target audience; we just talked to people who liked the same things we did.

Most of all, I'm more comfortable advising companies in their marketing efforts because I'm human, and that's usually enough to get the conversation rolling in the right direction. I'm excited about the things we can do online (and offline, for that matter). I'm grateful to have the opportunity to work on this stuff, and I am never happier than when I receive positive feedback — especially from consumers. They're the ones with nothing riding on your success or failure, so it means more when they thank you.

Maybe this is how Sandy and Brian felt when I told them how much I appreciated their music. I'd like to imagine this is how my friends at Simple feel when I write and ask for more invites because I tell everyone about how much I love their company. I bet the guys that came up with Nike+ check in every so often just to watch the total miles climb, and I'd like to believe that it's hard for them to separate gratitude and pride.

And, even though I've never been very dexterous in my musical endeavors, I believe that loving music has made me a better digital marketer — hell, a better person. What's the difference anyway?

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