23 September 2008

Listening at Maximum Volume: NIN’s Trent Reznor Connects

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Former Music Industry Marketer…

Burn your copies of Harvard Business Review. Forget anything you’ve ever read by Al Ries or Seth Godin. And skip that conference on best practices. If you want to see how marketing is really done, follow the rock stars….

Consider the fact that rock bands are the very model of cult branding:

  • Their fans are die-hard loyalists who would never stray to a competitor.
  • They develop distinctive identities that fans will literally wear on their sleeves.
  • They can generate a buzz with just a rumor, since their fans are eager for every bit of news.

Only a few corporate brands generate this kind of loyalty and kinetic energy — Apple (with Steve Jobs on lead guitar) is the obvious example.

Last year, the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails made business news by severing ties with the corporate side of the music industry and releasing NIN albums independently. Earlier, to promote the album Year Zero, they integrated mysterious clues on tour merchandise with dedicated websites. In addition, they leaked songs from the new album on USB flash drives hidden at concerts. This created a buzz among fans and the mainstream media, while pissing off the RIAA. And just now I’ve received a mass email from NIN’s front man Trent Reznor — not to sell anything, but to touch base and gather info:

Message from Trent:

Hello everyone.
I’d like to thank everyone for a very successful year so far in the world of Nine Inch Nails. I’m enjoying my couple of weeks off between legs of our Lights In The Sky tour and got to thinking… “wouldn’t it be fun to send out a survey to everyone that’s shown interest in NIN?” Well, that’s not exactly how it went, but regardless – here it is. As we’ve moved from the familiar world of record labels and BS into the unknown world of doing everything yourself, we’ve realized it would benefit us and our ability to interact with you if we knew more about what you want, what you like, what you look like naked, etc. I know it’s a pain in the ass but we’d truly appreciate it if you’d take a minute and help us out. As an incentive, everyone who completes the survey will be able to download a video of live performance from this most recent tour (and I know what’s going through your little minds right now: “I’ll just grab this off a torrent site and not have to fill out the survey!!!” and guess what? You will be able to do just that and BEAT THE SYSTEM!!!! NIN=pwn3d!!!)
BUT
What if we were to select some of those that DO complete the survey and provide them with something really cool? I’m not saying we’ll ever get around to it, but if we did maybe something like signed stuff, flying someone to a show somewhere in the world, a magic amulet that makes you invisible, a date with Jeordie White (condoms supplied of course), you know – something cool. See, you’d miss that opportunity AND be a cheater.
Do the right thing – help us out. You’ll feel better.

Thank you and I’ve had too much caffeine this morning,
Trent

Visit here to take the survey:
https://www…….

What’s so great about this message?

1. It’s personal. No, the letter doesn’t address me by name, but fans are savvy enough to know that no rock star can personally address millions of fans, so Reznor simply avoids that pretense. (Junk mailers take note: just because you use my first name in the salutation doesn’t make me think it’s personal.) At the same time, he writes in first person, addresses the reader as “you,” and speaks to them in a casual, uncensored way. Compare that to the emails many of us get from corporations: “Dear Freddy, We at Humongoloid Bank Inc. want to thank our customers for another record year…”

2. It speaks in their language. This reads like it was written by a real person, not some middle manager. It’s funny, a touch facetious, somewhat disorderly, and completely hip to the way the fans speak and think (I love “NIN=pwn3d!!!”). At the same time, it doesn’t sound forced or pandering.

3. It makes the reader complicit in the struggle. It’s us against them — them being the “record labels and BS” — and he wants the reader’s input. Compare that to solicitation letters from other organizations that just ask for money or an outright purchase.

4. It’s gathering consumer data. The survey helps Reznor know his audience better. The link he provides is a dedicated URL just for that recipient. And the survey asks for everything from basic demographic info to media preferences to favorite NIN song.

5. It provides incentives. I often get corporate surveys that offer nothing in return for my time. Then they wonder why the response rate is so low. Reznor offers a smart incentive: a unique item with high perceived value — an exclusive concert video — that doesn’t cost him anything, plus the chance to enter a contest for “something really cool…”

It’s smart marketing through and through.

Could there be an MBA or an advertising exec hiding behind the curtain here? Perhaps, but this doesn’t read like anything I’ve ever seen from any corporation — not even from preternaturally savvy Apple.

My marketing colleague Patrick Byers, who writes the Responsible Marketing Blog, just penned a piece on how advertisers are failing to communicate (“Are you looking for love in all the wrong places?”). Most companies still haven’t figured out how to use “new” media, which (as Patrick notes) isn’t exactly new anymore. And they’re still talking at consumers rather than with them.

Leave it to a rock band to show the professionals how to listen.

Update 4/7/9: So two of the cult brands I mentioned in this post, Apple and Nine Inch Nails, are coming together. NIN is launching their own iPhone app. CrunchGear writer John Biggs notes, “All of this came about when Reznor left his Interscope contract, allowing him to do odd things like ‘giving away music’ and ‘listening to his fans.'”

Update 5/2/9: Uh-oh, it appears that we have a clash of the marketing titans, with Apple rejecting an update of the NIN app for iPhone because of “objectionable content” — apparently over the lyrics to “Closer.” But the explicit version of the song is available on iTunes so… uh, Apple, what’s the difference?

Update 5/7/9: Apple changed its “standards” to accommodate NIN. Oh, the power of celebrity…

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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nullvariable
nullvariable
15 years ago

I question how you can quantify the video as “free” There is the cost of formatting the video to appropriate internet formats and then you’ve got to pay for the server that handles distributing the video… Still absolutely brilliant, just like they did with giving away their last album. If you wanted to pay a certain amount for it you could but there was no actual set price.

Freddy’s Comments: You’re right, it’s not “free,” but it’s negligible compared to virtually any other giveaway. Formatting and hosting in 2008? Cheaper than sending out stickers.

Daneboe
Daneboe
15 years ago

You gotta love Trent. He knows his fans and the trends, and uses them to his advantage. Of course, would he be as successful at bucking the system if he were a no-namer just starting out? No. But his popularity affords him the opportunity to do some pretty awesome things…and it actually feels like he cares about his fans.

Patrick Byers
15 years ago

Freddy,

I’m not huge NIN fan, but I am a fan of their marketing. This post is spot on.

Your point about “personalization” really struck me. As marketers we’ve been struggling to make everything personal.

Now that it’s become the norm, it’s borderline meaningless.

I smell a blog post here.

Cheers,

Patrick

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[…] Freddy Nager wrote an interesting post regarding the way rock bands, and in the case, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails connects with his […]

vwmgds
vwmgds
15 years ago

DEAR TRENT REZNOR,
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF PEOPLE WHO ARE DIRTY ENOUGH TO KILL LEAVES, TREES AND FLOWERS, MY INCARNATIONS AND MY VEHICLE. WE ALL ACTUALLY PASSED AWAY AND GOD AND NATURE GAVE US BACK OUR LIFE. I HATE THE WAY SOME PEOPLE HAVE TREATED ME, MY INCARNATIONS AND MY VEHICLE. WHAT MY INITIALS STAND FOR? I WILL TELL YOU NOW…. I AM THE BABY VAMPIRE, THE BABY WITNESS, MESSENGER AND GUIDE AND THE BABY DIVINE SPIRIT. IN ACTUAL FACT, I AM BABY NATURE WHICH IS THE ORIGINAL FORM. WHO IS BABY NATURE? LEAVES, TREES AND FLOWERS. ONE OF MY INCARNATIONS PASSED AWAY FROM BIPOLAR DISORDER. HE IS A DIE HARD NINE INCH NAILS FAN. HE HAD COME BACK TO LIFE JUST A FEW DAYS AGO, JUST EARLY NOVEMBER THIS YEAR. MY VEHICLE WHO IS ACTUALLY MY PET PASSED AWAY FROM GASTRIC TROUBLE SEVERAL MONTHS AGO JUST EARLY THIS YEAR. GOD AND NATURE HAD BEEN GRACEFUL ENOUGH TO BRING ME, MY INCARNATIONS AND MY VEHICLE BACK TO LIFE.