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How to Brand Like a Rock Star

Steve Jones is the VP of Programming for Newcap Radio, one of Canada’s largest radio groups. He’s also the author of a new book called Brand Like A Rock Star: Lessons from Rock ‘n Roll to Make Your Business Rich and Famous


website) and this book teaches how any brand can learn the lessons of rock superstars to make those brands more effective.

I talked with Steve about the book and how we can turn these lessons back home towards radio.  Watch this video of our conversation:

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Steve, one of the key themes of this book is the importance of having passion for what you do – something which drives you, which matters to you a lot. Rock stars and other music artists often exude passion, but do you think we sometimes lose that sense of passion as broadcasters?

Yeah absolutely. I think we often get caught up in numbers and in ratings in the moment and forget that if you don’t truly care about what you’re doing, if you’re not passionate about it…they say your smile comes through on the air, but the passion comes through on the air. Fun comes through on the air. It’s easy in the business of broadcasting to lose sight of how much that really does matter. When you truly care about something you’re able to communicate a level of passion and excitement far beyond someone who’s just going through the motions or just doing it because it’s PPM friendly or it’s what they’re told to do.

“Branding like a Rock Star” is about passion, it’s about values, it’s about being part of a tribe; something bigger than yourself, almost in a religious sense. Bands like The Grateful Dead were able to inspire that level of passion and dedication and devotion.

Passion is really what branding is about, it’s about emotion. There’s a lot in the book about the idea that brands aren’t logos, they aren’t positioning statements, they’re emotions, emotional connections, and it’s really hard to control that. Even if you spend millions of dollars to try to influence it, ultimately what people think about you, what they feel about you, what they passionately believe you are is what you really are.

If brands are about emotional connections, what can I do as a radio brand to make those emotional connections? What are some of the rules of thumb?

We have to be about things people care about. No one will ever come up to you as a morning show host twenty years from now and say “I love the way you play twelve-in-a-row commercial-free every hour after 9:00 am.” But they will come up to you and say “I remember that time when your dog died and you were in tears on the air. I can so relate to that because my dog had passed away.”

When we talk about things that matter to people, when we really connect with them on a level that makes a difference in their lives, that’s where passion is, that’s where emotions come from. You can throw up positioning statements all you want, and you can play as many songs-in-a-row uninterrupted as you want, but you’ll never ever achieve any level of emotional connection doing just that. All of those things are important, but we can’t lose sight of how important emotions really are.

The best broadcasters I work with are all keenly aware of the fact that PPM doesn’t reward them if they get sloppy on the mic, if they do anything other than play a lot of music in a row for too long a stretch. But at the same time, they are also keenly aware that if they don’t make that mic-time count, if they don’t connect with people on an emotional level about things they care about, then they lose. They know how important this is even though it may not be obvious from PPM. Is that what you see, too?

Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more on that. It’s easy to say that this is hard to do, so let’s not do it; let’s just play another song, let’s play another five-in-a-row because it’s difficult to be real and human and it’s difficult to elicit emotional reactions in people. But we have to strive for that. It’s the only way to succeed. It’s the only way to build a brand.

If you build a brand, if you build up expectations, that’s the only way to get people coming back to you because in our business it’s inevitable that people will go away. We’re going to play songs that people don’t like and there’s just no way around that. Not everybody likes every song. So you need to have that expectation in your audience, that expectation built-in that if I come back something good will happen.

Your book talks about two seemingly opposing forces, both critical to building a great brand: Consistency and change. How do you reconcile these two things as a broadcaster, the need to deliver to expectation and yet the need to evolve?

Look at it from a musical point of view. AC/DC is an example of consistency, and there’s no doubt that a band that played really three chords in thirty years is consistent in everything they do. But it risks being a bit boring, and it’s sort of discouraging that you can never change.  But you can change.

So look at the Beatles. With every new song came a revolution in recording techniques, in songwriting techniques and how songs can be created, how they could be written, how they could be presented. People didn’t just buy Beatles music because they were great songs, people ran out to buy the new Beatles albums because they were a step forward in how we digest music.

In business, it’s the same thing. Consistency can be “being the same” or you can be consistently amazing. You can consistently surprise your audience; you consistently amaze them and delight them in different ways. It doesn’t always have to be exactly the same way, but the point of consistency is that even as you change, you change in a consistent way. Listeners come to expect that they can get something from you, something very big from you and they can consistently get that even if you’re giving it to them in different ways each time.

How do you build in innovation in an environment where resources are slashed, where people are stretched, where incentives are very short-term? How do you maintain an innovative spirit, and how do you make sure that you keep that change and that evolution happening?

I think if I could easily answer that question we would save the industry.

Ultimately, it comes down to the right people. You have to have people who are empowered and people who are capable of taking that empowerment and turning it into something positive on the radio. You have to have people behind them on a management level who will stand up for mistakes and recognize that failure is an essential step to success, that sometimes we’re going to make mistakes, it won’t always be perfect – not every at-bat will be a home run. And you have to have patience because things don’t connect overnight.

All those things are somewhat lacking in our industry and I realize that with resources slashed, it gets harder and harder to do it. But it only takes one or two great people. It doesn’t take twenty people to be great on the air. One or two great shows can elevate a whole radio station.

Of course, as you win, resources become more available to you. So there is a chicken and egg thing; how you get ahead when resources are cut? But once you get ahead the resources tend to come, and if you use them wisely, you build on that success and snowball it.

You need the permission to fail, the permission to try things, because without those trials you’re spinning your wheels, right?

Yeah and I think every band has done that. Every band has recorded a song that didn’t quite connect.

Look at U2. They went through a whole phase in the early 90’s of recording music that they felt was relevant but that most of their fans felt was weird. But they came around, came back, and they continued to evolve and, remarkably, U2 has survived through all these changes to be the most profitable rock band of all time.

Brand Like a Rock Star talks about the idea of not selling products or services per se, but selling experiences. In radio, how would you define what you mean by an experience?

Again, it goes back to emotions. It goes back to what I feel when I listen to a certain radio station.

I’ve talked to jocks about that before and they say “What do I say? How do I talk to this target listener,” and I tell them, “Don’t focus on what you say, focus on what they’re going to feel. Focus on the experience at the end of it all.”

That could be a big thing, like a morning show where the experience is edgy or the experience is raunchy, the experience is humor, the experience is sex, the experience is celebrity gossip.  Whatever the experience is, the emotion is, that’s where it begins. It’s so much more than just “get in and out in ten seconds.” It’s so much more than just using certain words. It’s really about building an experience and an expectation.

One of my favorite chapters in the book, and it’s one of the weirder chapters that I was reluctant to even include, is about the power of white space – the power of what you leave out, what you don’t say, what you choose to surrender, and how that impacts your brand.

In the case of the book, I’m writing about business in general but it applies to radio, too, and what songs you don’t play, what things you don’t talk about, what clients you don’t allow on your radio station, what you choose not to stand for and how much that can have an influence on how your radio station is perceived and how your brand is perceived as a business. In the book I used examples like the Beatles White Album and Led Zeppelin IV – albums that had no title on them. These bands were able to add a little mystery and intrigue to what they were doing.

In radio we seem sometimes so excited to tell everybody everything about what we do, and in business it’s sort of the same thing. People put an ad on the radio and talk about ten different things in the ad because they’re so excited about communicating what they’re about. I think there’s a lot to be said for stripping that back and leaving a little mystery and intrigue in the brand.

The little details we leave out, the mystery we’re able to create around promotions or around on-air content, and stories. It’s creating drama, it’s creating a reason to tune in and stay tuned in because something really cool is happening here and you might not even know what it is but there’s something cool happening.

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