Authenticity Vs. Perfection: How To Brand Like A Rock Star

Billy Joel’s schmaltzy ballad "Honesty" spoke the truth back in 1979. Yet at the time, the accepted strategy for building a brand was creating perceptions that were often far removed from reality. Honesty was not a widely accepted strategy for marketing before the digital revolution that hit us in the late 1990s. Today, growing legions of brands are discovering that honesty is essential in developing a loyal fan base. They are learning the lesson evident in rock ’n’ roll for years: exposing your faults and imperfections makes you more real, more human, and more likely to be loved. 

The Beach Boys recorded a song in 1965 that demonstrates how authenticity is a timeless value. It is a song that I’ve always loved, but I was never quite sure why until I began to analyze the bond between brands and their fans. This particular song oozes authenticity. The Beach Boys had been in the studio that day for hours and hours recording and desperately needed a break. As fun as being in a band is, spending endless hours doing take after take of the same song is fatiguing and can really suck the life out of what should be a fun process. 

During that stressful recording session, some friends of the band came by the studio, including Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean. Mike Love went across the street to buy a few cases of beer. With each take, and each subsequent beer, the recording session began to gradually morph into a party. The songs got crazier and crazier. People started to improvise and mess around. Drummer Hal Blaine pounded on anything within his reach, including an ash tray at one point. Everyone in the room joined in the singing, even if they didn’t know the words. Brian Wilson, with Dean Torrence helping him out, kept raising his voice above the incessant talking and laughing around him, until he could resist no more and gave in to the laughter himself. 

Thank God that the tapes never stopped rolling because the final product became a number two hit in December 1965. "Barbara Ann" remains one of the Beach Boys most endearing songs, forty-five years after the studio party ended. One of the reasons people still love this song so much after all these years is the brilliant honesty that it exudes. The Beach Boys were not the only band leaving some of their mistakes in the final mix. The Beatles songs like "Taxman" and "The Long and Winding Road" are only two of many to feature stray guitar notes, drumming mistakes, and various unusual microphone noises. The Beatles were famous for their mistakes, outtakes, and experiments. Producer George Martin was wise to leave many of them in because they made the songs more interesting, intriguing, and human. Rumor has it that the famous repeated eight piano notes that open "Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll" by Bob Seger were a mistake. The recording equipment accidentally played it back twice, and Seger and his producer loved the way it worked and left it in. 

The song that features what Guitar World magazine called the number two guitar solo in rock history was itself a mistake that was never supposed to exist. Eddie Van Halen was warming up for a gig at the Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles and started tapping out scales and improvising in the studio with a piece the band had been playing live for a few years. Producer Ted Templeman was rolling tape. In Van Halen’s words, "It was just a total freak thing. It was just an accident. He happened to be rolling tape." The result was a gem called "Eruption." On the album Van Halen, it is the track right before "You Really Got Me." To this day true fans cannot hear "You Really Got Me" without hearing "Eruption" first. They have melded it into one classic piece of rock ’n’ roll. Not only was "Eruption" itself never supposed to exist, but the final mix even includes a mistake. "I didn’t even play it right," Van Halen told Guitar World. "There’s a mistake at the top end of it. Whenever I hear it, I always think ’Man, I could have played it better.’ " 

Even in the days of four-track analog recording, George Martin, Brian Wilson, Bob Seger, and Eddie Van Halen all had the ability to create audio perfection. They didn’t need to leave mistakes in. Yet they intentionally did over and over again because the imperfections enhanced the song. 

There was a point, only a few years ago, where having a solid rock star brand meant covering up every wart and imperfection. When something went wrong, companies rushed to cover things up and often issued a "no comment." Before the rise of the Internet and social media, companies could cover up blemishes with image advertising. They could bury their skeletons and paint a perfect picture for theirc ustomers. In those days, it was all about money. You could buy your way into any image you wanted to create and very little could be done to get in your way. 

Today the power base has shifted, and now the customer has equal, or even greater, power. Treat your customer poorly and instantly hundreds of people know about it through Facebook and Twitter updates. Provide bad service at a hotel or restaurant and instant reviews on Travelocity and other sites will have an immediate impact. If you make a mistake today, there is no way to hide from the discussion. Many brands still choose to ignore the discussion, but the discussion happens nevertheless. Because of this never-before-seen level of connectedness, today’s brands need to be more authentic. There is no longer any way to buy enough advertising to combat persistently negative word-of-mouth campaigns because social media allows word-of-mouth to reach more people faster than any advertising possibly can. Smart brands today engage their customers in two-way dialogue. Using social media, brands can acknowledge their flaws and mistakes when things go wrong, and they can share with their customers the steps they are taking to improve. Cable giant Comcast is a great example of a brand that has tried to dramatically reverse poor customer satisfaction scores through social media. In 2008 they started to actively use Twitter to monitor customer problems and intervene to solve them proactively. Their once-dismal customer service scores have improved each year. 

Some smart brands have even decided to make their imperfections a part of their appeal. What if you had a product that was repulsive to use, but worked brilliantly? The old-school approach would be to ignore the bad taste and use your marketing budget to promote the effectiveness. The old-school approach would be to spend enough money telling people your version of the story so that they would ignore the reality. Canadian cough medicine Buckley’s did not take that approach. Their cough medicine doesn’t taste very good. In fact, it tastes awful. But it has a track record of working very well. Buckley’s could have spent their advertising budget telling people how well the product worked and attempting to mask the reality that it tasted horrible. They wisely decided to turn this weakness into a strength. Why fight the obvious? Buckley’s slogan is, "It tastes awful, but it works." 

Brilliant. The advertising message begins with a concept that everyone who has ever used the product can agree on—it tastes awful. Making the message even more powerful is the widely held notion that medicine should taste awful. After all, a medicine that tastes like candy can’t possibly be as effective as a medicine that tastes awful. That’s the way the human mind thinks about medicine! Entire generations were raised on medicine that tasted awful. By basing their advertising message on reality and honesty, Buckley’s has become incredibly successful. Their TV campaigns are fantastic, and their Internet videos are wildly popular. Buckley’s has built a brand based on authenticity and honesty. 

Marmite is another product that, to most palates, tastes awful. True, it is loved by many in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. But to the vast majority of the world, Marmite tastes horrible. Like Buckley’s, the makers of Marmite decided not to fight the obvious. They chose to embrace it, flaunt it, and revel in it. Visit them at Marmite.com and instantly you’ll be presented with two options to click on. One says "I’m a lover" and the other reads "I’m a hater." You get a different version of the website based on your choice. It takes a brave (and smart) brand to allow people to publicly declare their hatred for its product on the front page of its website! 

If you choose "I’m a hater," you can take part in the campaign to "stop the spread." You can add to the list of "ten ways to ruin a sandwich," all of which use Marmite. The site even includes a suggested recipe using roadkill to mask the taste of Marmite! Of course, the "I’m a lover" version of the website is much kinder to the controversial product. But both versions of the website facilitate discussion about the brand, and the very fact that they outwardly acknowledge that many people hate their product is grounds for discussion. 

A point to consider about honesty in branding: We human beings are wonderfully imperfect creatures, and we can only relate and bond with other wonderfully imperfect creatures. We can’t possibly form a bond with something that has no flaws because flawlessness simply doesn’t exist. If you are attempting to create a bond between a human being and a product or a giant faceless corporation, you are going to have a tough time. On the other hand, creating a bond between a human being and an imperfect, living, breathing brand is much easier.

Excerpted from Brand Like a Rock Star: Lessons from Rock ‘N’ Roll to Make Your Business Rich and Famous, by Steve Jones. Published by Greenleaf Book Group Press, Copyright ©2012 . All rights reserved. 

[Image: Flickr user Andra Veraart]

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5 Comments

  • Art

    I'm sorry but I have to correct you. "Beach Boys Party" was not at all spontaneous. It's completely fake, designed to sound like an improvised party set. The album was recorded in multiple sessions to a standard of perfection - there are studio outtakes you can hear of this - and the crowd noise was added in seperately.

  • Loraine Antrim

    Authenticity and open discussions are not limited to brands. (Your post is VERY insightful). When speakers are presenting to ANY audience, an authentic speaker who has a conversation (discussion) is much more accepted than one who gets branded as a "lecturer." Loraine Antrim, http://twitter.com/loraineantr...

  • Steve Jones

    Good point Loraine. No need to limit the value of authenticity just to branding and marketing. As a public speaker, I always work hard to make sure I personalize and localize everything I do. If you share a piece of your life in an honest and real way, you open yourself up for people to embrace you and, by virtue of that, your message.

  • Steve Jones

    Thanks Kymberlaine! Hearing "Barbara Ann" is a different experience when you discover the story behind the song.

  • Kymberlaine Banks

    thanks for promoting one of my favorite virtues so eloquently... now I have to go listen to Barbara Ann again... who knew!