A letter to brands who use music: Put the band first and reap the rewards

Geoff Cottrill pens a letter to brands asking them to put the brand first

MullenLowe president and former Converse chief marketer Geoff Cottrill pens a letter to brands looking to work with musicians.

The brand and advertising worlds have long played key roles in helping to promote musicians and their music. We use their songs in our commercials, we use artists in our content, we sponsor concert tours and venues, we show up in Austin each year with our banners, our activation spaces, our sampling teams and our own marketing teams. We ‘use’ music.

We are spending millions and millions of dollars to ‘use’ music and I have heard countless brand and advertising people say things like, ‘yes, we use music to help our brand be more relevant in contemporary culture’. And while there is nothing really wrong with this approach, I would challenge each and every one of us to really ask ourselves: ‘Is this the best we can do?’

Because I think we can do better. Instead of just licensing a song for a spot, why not ask ourselves how to go deeper – how to contribute to culture, instead of just borrowing equity or trying to sponsor it?

I used to lead the marketing team for an iconic sneaker company. We had a long, organic relationship with music. It happened because artists adopted it themselves, so a strategic choice was made. We decided that instead of following everyone else by doing things that had already been done, we would ‘be useful’ in almost everything we did as it related to how we interacted with musicians, songwriters, DJs, producers, record labels and anyone else we came across in the industry.

We understood that the people within the music industry provided some sort of influence within culture. We decided to treat artists as people and instead of asking ‘what can you do for my brand?’ we asked ‘what can our brand do for you?’

Once we started asking this question, the world opened up for us. We decided to never ‘use’ music in our work. We agreed that everything we did was going to contribute to the culture, not take from it. We no longer hired artists just to try to tell them how to record a song for us, like so many brands. Admit it, we’ve all done that and know it often doesn’t end well.

We stopped being transactional with music and the industry, and we started to ask how we might be able to make a difference. Our questions led to answers that reshaped the way our brand approached marketing. We asked, ‘if we could help you, what would you need?’

It all started in China, working with a few emerging punk rock bands in Beijing. They said ‘we have always wanted to play our music in a different city,’ and after getting over the shock that China had no touring network, we bought a bus and put two bands on the road for two weeks, filming the entire thing and giving away the documentary film to our consumers. As we did, we realized the power of putting the artist first – they started to speak on our behalf in social media, press interviews and other ways. They became brand lovers and their love was real because we put them first.

We then started asking the same questions to artists in the States, in France, in the UK, in Brazil and other places. In nearly every conversation, we heard the same thing: ‘I work in a bar but I am also in a band. I want to do it full-time but I can’t afford to get into a studio to record my music, and therefore I can’t get signed by a label.’

So we decided to open a studio to let these emerging voices have the chance to see if they had what it takes to make it in this business, but we avoided the idea of starting a label because we knew we made sneakers, not records.

In five years we recorded with more than 3,500 artists all over the world. In nearly every single case, we walked away with a new friendship, and a new lover of our brand. And guess what? We asked them for nothing in return. We let them keep their music, we held no rights at all. Every single day the artists pulled out their phones, took photos and posted them to their own networks, often saying ‘thank you’ to us for doing something unselfish for them.

Our ‘media impressions’ were far greater than any media buy we could have ever made and the message delivered by each and every artist was one of positivity. They talked about their great experience with us.

Instead of us using the artist to record a song for us, or to stand up and dance in our sneakers, or any of the other things brands normally do, we simply decided to give them something they would never forget.

People are the strongest form of media. In this world, the experiences a brand creates for people can become a powerful message for (or against) your brand. Instead of always being the one that has to talk, talk, talk about your brand, saying less may actually do more.

We all know the simple rules of marketing: find your consumer, serve them in meaningful ways, find ways to somehow contribute to their lives, and then repeat it over and over again. It takes courage and commitment to step out of the norm, to attempt to do things that haven’t been done before.

If you are brave enough you’ll be respected by the music world. If you are brave enough, maybe you’ll decide to invest your marketing dollars in more meaningful ways. More meaningful for the artist. More meaningful for the fans who are your consumers. And, ultimately, more meaningful for your brand.

Put the artist first, not last.

Geoff Cottrill is the president of MullenLowe. Formerly the chief marketing officer and general manager of Converse, he has led marketing for Starbucks’ Hear Music as well as serving as the global head of entertainment marketing at Coca-Cola. He currently serves as the chair of the Grammy Foundation.

This article was originally published in The Drum's special music marketing edition.

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