3 Lessons In Brand Management From Michael Jackson
July 13, 2010 by Larissa THIA
Just 3 weeks prior, on the 25th of June, many around the world gathered to mark the one year death anniversary of the legendary singer who was the self-styled “King of Pop”. Whatever mud his name may have been dragged through in recent years because of his personal and very public eccentricities, what is undeniable is this: Michael Jackson was and continues to be a highly successful brand that has revolutionized the music industry in ways that no one has come close to doing in recent years.
Michael Jackson, the brand, also remains highly lucrative after his death. Billboard magazine estimates that Michael Jackson’s estate raised approximately $1 billion (£670 million) since his death one year ago.
So what’s all this talk about Michael Jackson again? Well, his succcessful singing career can teach us valuable lessons on brand management. Here are 3 key lessons that we oursevles have learnt.
(1) Build A Global Brand
To build a global brand, in entrepreneur speak, would mean to build a product/service that is replicable and scalable such that it can gain market traction rapidly. Think Michael Jackson’s worldwide phenomenon was a fluke? Wrong.
Before releasing his first solo album “Off the Wall”, record studio executives were already planning for it to be released on the global stage. “Our whole mind-set was that we were making music for the masses, and part of the big picture was to get the record company to turn around and market and promote to a mass market,” says Ron Weisner, who was co-managing Jackson with Freddy DeMann at the time. “Our attitude was, ‘Let the public decide — don’t just present it to a black market only.’”
Black artists were being sidelined during the 1970’s as a result of the Album Oriented Rock (AOR) format that radio stations across America adopted. AOR meant that program directors of radio stations discarded the wide range of musical genres embraced in earlier periods and focused almost entirely on a rock – centric sound. As such, folk, jazz and blues selections became rarer and program directors also blocked out black artists from having airtime.
This is why Michael Jackson elbowing himself into global consciousness is so phenomenal in itself because he was the first ever black artist to break down the racial and musical barriers and carve a place for himself as the “King Of Pop”.
How Michael Jackson and his team achieved that was to simultaneously release his singles across different platforms instead of carrying out promotion in a stepwise manner. After Epic Record’s (Michael Jackson’s recording label at that time) pop and R&B promotion teams heard “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” they knew that the record was going to be worldwide hit and the team therefore took the unprecedented step of promoting singles to R&B and pop radio at the same time. “It wasn’t the usual ‘Build up the artist at urban radio first and then go to pop,’” said Maurice Warfield (former West Coast regional urban promotion manager).
Moreover, when “Thriller” was released 1982, Epic’s then head of promotion, Frank Dielo (who grew so close to Jackson during “Thriller” that he later became his manager) decided to release two singles concurrently in order to broaden the album’s audience. Eventually, 7 of the album’s 9 tracks hit Billboard’s Top 10 and
his hit song “Thriller”, his hit album, stayed at No. 1 for 37 nonconsecutive weeks. (Thanks Travis DeMaria for pointing out the mistake)
More than tactical strategizing, Michael Jackson made music which would appeal to a global audience. Who wouldn’t groove along to “Thriller” or be mesmerized by the magic of his James Brown inspired moonwalk? National, racial, age and gender boundaries ceased to exists with his music. And in 1985, We Are the World”, written by Jackson and Lionel Ritchie in 1985, cemented his global appeal.
I guess the message embedded here is to find a product or service that fulfils a fundamental human need – be it whether it is a human desire for connection (as social networks have taken care of) or whether it is a need for zippers (as zipper brand YKK has seen to). In coming up with a new product, the foremost concern shouldn’t be how “sexy” the technology is but more importantly, is this product relevant to people and how does it fit into their everyday lives?
Remember: it is always people before technology.
(2) Take Risks and Be Visible
Michael Jackson was not only a talented singer but he innately understood the visual dynamics that would lend dimensions to his performance. As with brands, it is important to have certain visual hallmarks that are easily recognizable, distinct and resonate with the language of your brand. Michael Jackson as a performer understood this well.
Visual hallmarks of Michael Jackson includes his iconic crystal studded gloves, his eye catching costumes like the red ensemble worn in “Thriller” and of course, who could forget the white socks worn as Jackson moonwalked his way to history in “Billie Jean”? The white socks against his black loafers were arguably a calculated visual ploy on his part as they eyes would have been drawn to the stark contrast of white and black thereby concentrating the viewer on his now legendary dance moves. No, this combination was not new as even as early as 1951 Gene Kelly, wearing white socks and loafers, danced and charmed the world in “American in Paris.” But Michael Jackson borrowed well and achieved his objectives.
Aside from his visual extravaganza as a performer, Michael Jackson one of the forerunners of the MTV generation and one of the very few who executed it well. As what Weisner says, Jackson’s vision for “Thriller” was to “take it to the next giant level… It was about how we were going to marry the album with the visual extension.”
Videos enabled Michael Jackson to create a whole new way of experiencing his music. The audience could now experience music combined with sleek dance moves and visual effects. His videos were “not so much promotional vehicles for his songs as they were mini-movies, big-budget showcases for Michael Jackson: The Icon”.
MTV wasn’t the only TV exposure that changed the course of Jackson’s career. On May 16, 1983, NBC broadcast “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever,” and Jackson performed an instantly iconic rendition of “Billie Jean” and unveiled his sequined glove and the James Brown-inspired moonwalk. The next day, Fred Astaire called Jackson to congratulate him.
Fundamentally, the way Michael Jackson managed to control the media to amplify his brand is what’s noteworthy here. He was the part 24/7 be it on stage or off. This lesson is important as we arrive at a time where it is no longer possible for CEO’s and company bigwigs to direct consumers from within their gilded cages. We have moved past the stage where companies could find success organizing expensive advertising campaigns which essentially shout at the consumer in order to get their attention. With social networking, companies are moving forward with consumer engagement whereby spreading the brand’s message is now about tapping into the conversations that one’s customers are having about one’s brand.
As such, companies have now begun to put a human face to their brands with CEO’s and other executives blogging, tweeting and even starring in their company’s videos as they find new ways to communicate with their customers. In this respect, we can take a leaf from Michael Jackson’s book – by creating iconic visual hallmarks and engaging people through mediums which he could command, Michael Jackson ensured that the reach of his music extended as far as it could and in the process, cemented his place in pop history.
(3) Talk Is Free, Ideas Are Cheap. Building A Brand Is HARD WORK
For those of who are sitting at your office desks, daydreaming about one day becoming your own boss so that you can point some middle fingers at your current employer? Wake up from your reverie – this lesson is for you.
Building an enduring brand goes beyond just having a good idea. What it takes is many years of hard work and perseverance before one can even get a crack of success. Michael Jackson began performing by the age of 4, as the lead singer of Jackson’s 5 which formed in 1964. 8 years later, at the tender age of 12, launched his solo career by releasing his first No. 1 solo single “Ben”, an ode to his pet rat.
The point is this: Michael Jackson had undeniable talent but the success he attained was not because of his talent alone or through mere “luck”. Michael Jackson worked hard to build his brand, slaving away during his childhood years in recording studios, hauling himself across the state to play at unknown venues with the Jackson 5 such that by the time he was 19, he was already on the top of his game and ready to take on the world stage with his music.
The fact is that building a brand means a lot of sacrifice but no one wants to acknowledge the dirty work. But now, The Glove Lives On.
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About The Author
Larissa THIA - SGE Alumnus - Editorial Intern
Larissa is a fresh graduate who has a love for the irreverent and outré. She is highly fascinated by culture, thought processes and human nature in general.Read other posts by Larissa THIA