Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Rock brands - from Clapton to clapped out

As usual this morning, I was professionally negligent while driving to work. As a communications bloke, I should have taken advice presented at a seminar run by Don Chipp's brother and former Melbourne PR doyen, Alan, while I was a young PR turk.

Alan told us that, as public affairs practitioners, we shouldn't be listening to pop music as we commuted, but rather ABC Radio's venerable morning current affairs, AM, or an informative chat show on 3AW - OMG, has Neil Mitchell been around that long?

So this morning, I was negligent, iPod playing Cream of Clapton through the car sound system. This is music played by a rock icon - a 'Guitar God' of the 1960s and 70s. Eric Clapton was a walking, talking rock brand and it got me thinking about the lifecycle of his 'brand' rather than his band over the years.

It started with a wailing, yet thoughtful electric guitar. The man nicknamed 'slowhand' (watch a video clip!) and who released an album by that name, giving his all to drive the guitar sound over the top of Ginger Baker's drums in Cream. Cream gave way to Derek and the Dominos, then 'God' moved into a solo phase, then to participating in big London-based charity gigs accompanied by other stars in decline like Bill Collins, who hit his heights in partnership with Peter Gabriel (he of Sledgehammer fame) in Genesis before going solo.

And finally, we have Clapton mainly doing 'unplugged' gigs - slipping quietly into the night. In fairness, I'm probably doing him a disservice, as the fraught and heartfelt Tears in Heaven after the tragic death of his son was a fine and, no doubt, enduring acoustic piece. And after all, with some exceptions, we do like more peace in our lives as we age.

How does this relate to brands? Well, at their height, there are no brands bigger than rock celebrities but, no matter how talented a la Clapton, they fade with changing tastes and styles. I try to tell my daughter this about Justin Bieber! They try to reinvent over time, but the boundaries of their success are defined by talent and adaptability. And there are many times you wish they'd just stop trying to look cool at 65. In the rock world, there is such a thing as 'shelf life' for personal brands and I wonder whether this also applies to corporate brands.

Sure, many have stood the test of time. Coca-Cola is still one of the world's best-known, but has battled to adapt to changing tastes with all kinds of hybrid products - to the point where the product around which it was built is just one of a stable. Apple is enjoying a resurgence but, after Jobs, how well will it keep adapting and is it only one breakthrough innovation away from being threatened?

The hot brands of the moment, Google and Facebook, operate in one of the most chaotic and anarchic environments ever created, the internet. What are the threats to their longevity? How far away is another breakthrough product from someone else? I've even heard the suggestion that the 'internet is dead' and apps are the way of the future. Personally, I think that's a little way off and it depends whether you regard the internet as communications infrastructure, or as the user interface, but that's for another discussion.

Should companies recognise that brands really have a defined lifespan beyond which the resources required to sustain them become unviable? Look at the auto industry. How much money has been invested to keep Saab alive? What about the Rover saga, the brief foray into reviving it in the 1990s was an abject failure, with only Land Rover surviving as a BMW subsidiary?

Baby boomers are the sole reason that many brands and bands survive. When our generation goes, the Beatles will be about as popular as Tchaikovsky and perhaps less well known. As one of that generation, I am doing my bit in February to keep the flag flying for old rockers, taking my 13-year-old daughter to Roger Waters' The Wall. (For non-cognizentia, Roger Waters was a key figure in Pink Floyd. Who's Pink Floyd? Forget I mentioned it!)

How I convinced her to attend with me, I don't know. I suspect it's something to do with the fact that she wants to remind me that 'We don't need no education. We don't need no thought control.' She loves Another Brick in the Wall for those words. I suspect that sometimes we might be better letting old brands and ideas fade into the sunset, lest they return to haunt us.

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