A Lesson In Long-Term Branding From Radiohead

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If I brought your brand a promotion that, while it might be a little off brand, would nearly guarantee a huge spike in sales, would you do it? Most marketers in this age of short-term-or-no-term would say yes. Make the money now and worry about the brand later. Radiohead would have said no. In fact, they did exactly that back in 1997 rejecting a certain hit, "Lift," because it would have taken their band (brand?) into the wrong direction.

While the marketing of corporations is more complex and bureaucratic than it is with a rock band, there's an inspiring brand lesson here nonetheless.

Radiohead actively managed its arc of popularity.

First, let me flesh out the Radiohead story so we can see more clearly the difficult decision the band made. The song "Lift" was written and recorded during the "OK Computer" sessions. Stories are coming out about these sessions because the band is re-releasing the classic album along with several outtakes this month. Included are several outtakes of "Lift."

In an interview with the BBC, Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood said about the song:

If that song had been on that album, it would have taken us to a different place...We'd probably have sold a lot more records... [But] I think we subconsciously killed it because if OK Computer had been like a 'Jagged Little Pill', like Alanis Morisette, it would have killed us."

Imagine that. A song gets killed by a band because it would be too popular. That's some serious restraint in deference to the Radiohead brand.

I can see where they're coming from, however. A few years before OK Computer the band released the song "Creep," which was a massive debut hit. Good for the band financially but bad for the brand's identity, as it took them years to get out from under the expectation that song set for them. An expectation that didn't align, apparently, with who the band wanted to be. They wouldn't make that mistake again.

Upon hearing this story I wondered if a corporate brand ever show this much restraint in support of its brand's long-term integrity?

To Radiohead, the brand's long-term integrity is more important than short-term sales.

In fairness, and as alluded to above, Radiohead is not a major corporation. It's five guys. And, while that might be enough creative complexity to destroy a band (see The Beatles), it's not like Radiohead has shareholders to worry about, a board, approvals from the CEO or any such corporate hurdles. The five guys in the band decide what the band wants to be and that's that.

But let's look at what Radiohead was really doing here. By not including "Lift" on OK Computer they not only were managing their brand long-term to the sacrifice of short-term sales, they clearly had an intimate understanding of their brand in the first place. While I couldn't begin to articulate Radiohead's brand idea myself, though I'm a fan of their music, the band clearly could. How else would they know that "Lift" was wrong for them at that time? Even if it was just a gut decision--perhaps a collective groan from the five members of the band--that's all that was needed.

Radiohead was protecting their brand's longevity by sacrificing short-term gains. Who does that anymore?

It only works if your brand can hear you.

If you have a powerful, well-articulated brand idea, then you can effectively "ask it" what it wants to do in the marketplace. If it doesn't answer back, then you probably don't have a powerful, well-articulated brand idea. If it does answer back, you are as powerful as Radiohead in navigating your brand's future.

The decision to pursue short-term sales even though it may degrade the brand is like a biblical temptation. You are selling the brand's soul, literally. The result is a boost in sales but a dilution of the brand idea. Resist!

Because good marketing isn't only about saying yes. It's about saying no. Saying no to any idea from any agency--no matter how promising it may look on paper--that your brand, as articulated, simply would not otherwise do. There are plenty of financially beneficial things your brand wants to do that will increase sales and further prove its integrity.

Thank you, Radiohead, for a reminder on brand (band?) integrity.

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If I brought your brand a promotion that, while it might be a little off brand, would nearly guarantee a huge spike in sales, would you do it? Most marketers in this age of short-term-or-no-term would say yes. Make the money now and worry about the brand later. Radiohead would have said no. In fact, they did exactly that back in 1997 rejecting a certain hit, "Lift," because it would have taken their band (brand?) into the wrong direction.

While the marketing of corporations is more complex and bureaucratic than it is with a rock band, there's an inspiring brand lesson here nonetheless.

Radiohead actively managed its arc of popularity.

First, let me flesh out the Radiohead story so we can see more clearly the difficult decision the band made. The song "Lift" was written and recorded during the "OK Computer" sessions. Stories are coming out about these sessions because the band is re-releasing the classic album along with several outtakes this month. Included are several outtakes of "Lift."

In an interview with the BBC, Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood said about the song:

If that song had been on that album, it would have taken us to a different place...We'd probably have sold a lot more records... [But] I think we subconsciously killed it because if OK Computer had been like a 'Jagged Little Pill', like Alanis Morisette, it would have killed us."

Imagine that. A song gets killed by a band because it would be too popular. That's some serious restraint in deference to the Radiohead brand.

I can see where they're coming from, however. A few years before OK Computer the band released the song "Creep," which was a massive debut hit. Good for the band financially but bad for the brand's identity, as it took them years to get out from under the expectation that song set for them. An expectation that didn't align, apparently, with who the band wanted to be. They wouldn't make that mistake again.

Upon hearing this story I wondered if a corporate brand ever show this much restraint in support of its brand's long-term integrity?

To Radiohead, the brand's long-term integrity is more important than short-term sales.

In fairness, and as alluded to above, Radiohead is not a major corporation. It's five guys. And, while that might be enough creative complexity to destroy a band (see The Beatles), it's not like Radiohead has shareholders to worry about, a board, approvals from the CEO or any such corporate hurdles. The five guys in the band decide what the band wants to be and that's that.

But let's look at what Radiohead was really doing here. By not including "Lift" on OK Computer they not only were managing their brand long-term to the sacrifice of short-term sales, they clearly had an intimate understanding of their brand in the first place. While I couldn't begin to articulate Radiohead's brand idea myself, though I'm a fan of their music, the band clearly could. How else would they know that "Lift" was wrong for them at that time? Even if it was just a gut decision--perhaps a collective groan from the five members of the band--that's all that was needed.

Radiohead was protecting their brand's longevity by sacrificing short-term gains. Who does that anymore?

It only works if your brand can hear you.

If you have a powerful, well-articulated brand idea, then you can effectively "ask it" what it wants to do in the marketplace. If it doesn't answer back, then you probably don't have a powerful, well-articulated brand idea. If it does answer back, you are as powerful as Radiohead in navigating your brand's future.

The decision to pursue short-term sales even though it may degrade the brand is like a biblical temptation. You are selling the brand's soul, literally. The result is a boost in sales but a dilution of the brand idea. Resist!

Because good marketing isn't only about saying yes. It's about saying no. Saying no to any idea from any agency--no matter how promising it may look on paper--that your brand, as articulated, simply would not otherwise do. There are plenty of financially beneficial things your brand wants to do that will increase sales and further prove its integrity.

Thank you, Radiohead, for a reminder on brand (band?) integrity.

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I am a Brand Consultant and CEO/Creative Director of virtual-idea company, Ideasicle (www.ideasicle.com). Prior to founding Ideasicle, I worked at some of the most creat...