Could there be anything more U2 than dropping a nine-song album--for free--on 500 million iCloud accounts? Who cares? When it comes to corporate branding, no band does it better than Bono & Co., and they wouldn't have it any other way.
Sure, people complained when U2's 13th album Songs of Innocence mysteriously appeared, unrequested, in their iTunes libraries on Tuesday, and yes, Sasha-Frere Jones of the New Yorker dubbed it the "Forgettable Fire" in a scathing review. But there's a reason the band has remained culturally relevant for 38 years and counting: branding. Here's how you, too, can take a page from their playbook.
1. Have a Vision
This one is particularly true of U2, a band that has always known where it stood (despite that awful detour into electronica with Pop). As Lisa Scully O'Grady recalls in her marketing blog, Bono himself admits "we set up the band first and then learned to play." He even told a journalist his mission early on was "not to be crap," which is about as authentic as you can get. Authenticity resonates, especially when "not being crap" really means connecting through the prism of music, a distinctly Irish identity, and a keen desire for social justice.
2. Capture Their Minds--and Their Hearts
As Visnja Cogan writes in her book, "U2: An Irish Phenomenon," what separates most rock fans from fans of U2 is their intellectual connection to the band. "The fans have an emotional relationship with the band but they also have an intellectual relationship," she explains. "They are not blind and ready to play sycophants to the members of U2. They are, 'serious' fans, serious about U2's music, which is something they hold dear, which part of them and of a youth identity that many have kept, despite now being U2's age."
3. Create a Look
Who can imagine Bono without his glasses? Or The Edge without that black beanie cap? No one, that's who. Just as eighties fans couldn't picture the band not in front of a joshua tree, it's hard to think of U2 in anything but black (with a dash of purple). In fact, as one record company executive told Cogan, "You never saw a picture of U2 if it wasn't in front of a joshua tree. Bono was out there [clenching his fist]." Own your or your product's unique style, and you're guaranteed to make an impression.
4. Sell Out on Your Terms
U2 is well aware the halycon days of Achtung Baby are over. But the band also knows the U2 brand has plenty more power left to tap. Unlike some rockers who jump at the opportunity to plaster their likeness across a kiddie toy, the band has leveraged its name to donate proceeds from singles to causes they believe in. Earlier this year, U2 donated $1 to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria for each download of their single "Invisible," which they performed in a Super Bowl ad.
5. Work With People You Trust
It's no surprise U2 worked with Apple this year to promote the iPhone 6 Plus. In 2004, the band got the tech firm to promote its album Vertigo with a co-branded iPod, in a deal that proved to be fruitful for everyone involved. In exchange for exclusive rights to sell all songs from Vertigo through iTunes for the first few weeks following its release, the band shot a commercial for the single "Vertigo," which dominated TV. Even better, U2 worked out a deal with Interscope so that it received a standard royalty for each song downloaded (roughly 60 cents each). U2 thrived on the publicity, Apple reasserted its cool factor, and Interscope was handsomely paid. U2 also discovered whom they could trust: Apple, who made it all happen.