Can U2 Be Cool Again?

U2 has something in common with its corporate partner Apple: they both make a lot of money. And they both struggle to be cool.

U2 earns gigantic paydays with high-profile concert tours that appeal to its Baby Boomer fan base. According to Forbes, U2 was one of the highest paid musical acts of 2016 based on the success of its latest tour, Innocence + Experience, which earned $55 million.

But the band’s songs have barely put a dent in the Billboard charts throughout the 2000s (how many U2 songs from the 2000s do you listen to regularly?) and U2 has become joined at the hip with Apple, a brand that has been about as exciting as vanilla ice cream since Steve Jobs passed away.

U2 wants to change that perception. In 2017, U2 will hit the road for a tour that will celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, thus introducing one of the group’s coolest works to the digital generation. Reportedly the tour will include an appearance at Bonnaroo, one of the key music festivals for establishing credibility and coolness with digital natives and millennials. And for entertainers, especially musicians, being relevant to the present-day generation of tastemakers (digital natives and millennials today) is important to being cool. Led Zeppelin is cool. Chance the Rapper is cool. Coldplay is not cool.

Artists can lose and regain their coolness for many reasons. In the late 1960s, Frank Sinatra lost his coolness when he tried too hard to connect with a younger audience by recording horrible cover versions of songs like Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” He regained his coolness when he stopped trying to be cool and focused on being Frank Sinatra. In the 1980s, Johnny Cash lost his coolness when he rejected his inner rebel and slipped into a comfort zone of touring as a feel-good gospel act. He regained his coolness when he partnered with producer Rick Rubin to make the American Recordings series of albums, which re-established his contemporary relevance through covers of rock songs such as “Hurt.”

U2 defined cool in the 1980s and 1990s by making music with bite, emotional depth, and boldness. Throughout the 1980s, U2 was the defiantly soulful and socially conscious alternative to the synth-heavy sound of the second British invasion, and The Joshua Tree demonstrated that you could be spiritual and cool at the same time. In the late 1980s, U2 suffered a temporary lapse of coolness during the Rattle and Hum tour, when the group’s pious tendencies turned into messianic self-indulgence. But U2 regained its equilibrium by recording experimental, edgy works such as Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop. Even if those albums were not always critically successful, U2 was challenging and pushing its audience in new directions.

But in the 2000s, starting with the release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000, U2 committed the Johnny Cash mistake of settling into a comfort zone — in U2’s case, by churning out straightforward pop songs, all of which have pretty much sounded the same. According to U2: The Definitive Biography, by John Jobling, the commercial success of All That You Can’t Leave Behind helped U2 emerge from a financially troubled time — which might help explain why U2 has tried to repeat that album’s formula ever since, resulting in music that no longer resonates.

U2 also hurt its own coolness by falling out of touch with the listening habits of digital-era consumers. In the post-Napster era, U2 relied on the record album to tell its story and in doing so clung stubbornly to a dying format. When U2 realized that people no longer buy record albums, the band infamously tried to force an album on unsuspecting listeners by collaborating with Apple in 2014 to distribute U2’s Songs of Innocence as a “gift” download through iTunes. The unwanted distribution of Songs of Innocence caused U2’s social media sentiment to plunge by 41 percent in one week and exposed how irrelevant the band had become to the digital age, with Twitter users asking questions such as, “Who is U2? And why do their songs keep popping up in my iPhone?”

Since The Songs of Innocence debacle, U2 has continued to struggle with a perception of no longer mattering. In 2016, U2 offered to play a private concert as part of a promotion for (RED), which Bono cofounded to eradicate AIDS in Africa. The private concert promotion on Facebook has inspired plenty of laudatory comments from fans, but you don’t have to search very hard to notice the snarky pronouncements proliferating among the fan reactions, such as “I wouldn’t open the curtains if you were playing in my back yard. And don’t foist your mawkish MOR noise on my iPod ever again either while we’re at it!” (via Facebooker Cathy Smith).

So how can U2 reestablish its relevance and coolness? Here is what I’d do if I were managing the U2 brand:

  • Maximize the value of The Joshua Tree. Digging into the past is a wise move, as Guns N’ Roses proved through its successful Not in This Lifetime tour, which reestablished GNR’s relevance in the digital age. Playing at Bonnaroo would be a start. U2 should also hit the millennial music circuit with stops at venues such as Coachella and Lollapalooza. Surprise shows at smaller millennial-friendly gigs would help U2 connect on a more personal level with younger generations of fans.
  • Unleash The Edge. As a standalone figure, The Edge is way cool. (Check him out as he slays the guitar in It Might Get Loud.) I’d create a stronger narrative about his status as one of the great guitar gods, through advertising, social media posts, and music trailers promoting the upcoming shows. Putting a bigger spotlight on The Edge as the great guitar innovator that he is would demonstrate that even if U2 has not always progressed musically, he’s always been on the vanguard of guitar, similar to the way Slash has symbolized all that is good and cool about GNR.
  • Be visible in the right places. The band’s takeover of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2015 reminded the world of how funny and cool U2 could be. Jimmy Fallon is the kind of personality whom Baby Boomer musicians cozy up to in order to be relevant. U2 has plenty more opportunities to shine in the right shows, especially via digital — how about Bono appearing on Carpool Karaoke, for example?
  • Release great music. The most important step U2 can take is to create music that is relevant and interesting, which Songs of Innocence was not. In 2017, U2 will release its follow-up, Songs of Experience. Certainly the time is right for U2 to recapture its fire and grit if U2 wants to do so. We live in very uncertain and troubled times, which could make that socially conscious side of U2 more relevant again, as has been the case with Roger Waters and The Wall

For rock and roll acts, growing older does not mean losing your coolness quotient, as AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Neil Young have demonstrated. But you do have to state a case for your relevance when you continue to play music for decades, as I’ve discussed on my blog. By announcing a series of shows celebrating The Joshua Tree in 2017, U2 has taken a step in the right direction, as The Joshua Tree will never grow uncool. But will U2 create new music that resonates in 2017?

How DJ Khaled Uses Visual Storytelling to Sell His “Keys”

Even though album sales continue to decline, album cover art is more important than it was during the days when vinyl ruled the world.

As I have discussed on my blog, today album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories. By contrast, back in the glory days of the album, the primary role of cover art (from a marketing standpoint) was to make the work stand apart in record store bins. An excellent demonstration of the new role of the album artwork is DJ Khaled’s Major Key, one of the most memorable album covers 2016.

DJ Khaled released Major Key in July 2016. The album received generally positive reviews for delivering his distinctive blend of dance and hip-hop with guest artists such as Drake and Jay Z. Major Key also featured the most imaginative album cover of his career. It takes a special kind of self-assurance and badassery to have yourself photographed on a throne next to a lion, and DJ Khaled pulled it off. The cover is not only visually striking, but it also makes a statement about the artist: the lion suggest power, and the flowers, elegance. Like a Pharaoh, DJ Khaled is unsmiling. He doesn’t need to. The successful musician and producer rules his universe his way.

But the album and the music inside it are linked to a bigger story. DJ Khaled fans instantly recognized the name Major Key — stylized as a golden key emoji — as an extension of the DJ Khaled brand on Snapchat. He is easily one of the biggest names on Snapchat, where he dispenses life lessons that he calls “major keys to success.” He typically uses the key emoji to accompany his little snippets of wisdom, which focus on living positively.

The album cover was a code for his fans as well as an attention getter for more casual listeners of his music. If you liked what he was selling on Snapchat, Major Key was a clarion call to get even more immersed in his own brand of wisdom through song. And it turns out that the cover was a harbinger: in November, Khaled published the book The Keys, which collects his wisdom into lengthier essays on successful living, categorized under themes such as “Stay Away from They” and “Don’t Deny the Heat.” Released just in time for the holidays, The Keys also features a familiar image: a majestic lion, resting on the same purple bed of flowers scattered about the album cover.

In context of DJ Khaled’s brand as a pop culture sage, the Major Key album cover acts as a brilliant touchstone. Khaled and that lion are everywhere, ranging from his Instagram feature photo to his Facebook banners.

On his home base of Snapchat, he continues to rely on the key emoji to express his personal brand.

It remains to be seen how successful The Keys will be, but Major Key is DJ Khaled’s first Billboard Number One album. Meanwhile, the book is receiving positive notice from the likes of The New Yorker, which is the kind of attention that will make his brand as digital self-help guru more mainstream. His ability to brand himself through visual storytelling is the key.

Note: check out my SlideShare, Memorable Album Covers of 2016, for insight into more compelling visual stories from the year.

Memorable Album Covers of 2016

The success of Adele’s 25 triggered speculation that maybe, just maybe, record albums were coming back as an art form following years of declining sales. But by July, album sales figures released by Nielsen Music brought those hopes crashing down to an ugly reality. Consumers had purchased 100.3 million album units, down 13.6 percent compared to the same period in 2015, putting 2016 on pace to be the worst selling year for albums since Nielsen began tracking the data in 1991.

But fortunately, musicians didn’t give up on albums. Beyoncé and David Bowie were among the artists who created albums meant to be experienced as complete song cycles, not as chopped up morsels of content. Beyonce’s Lemonade challenged our notions of what an album could be, released as a “visual album” aired via an HBO special along with the songs themselves. And the music inside Lemonade was a brilliant statement about race and femininity.

Lemonade was also notable for its simple yet powerful cover depicting a spent-looking Beyoncé in fur and golden cornrows, hinting at the statement inside the album. Lemonade was one of many examples of albums that intrigued not only because of their music but also because of their cover art. As I’ve written before, album cover art is alive and well even as album sales decline. In the 21st Century, album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories.

Ironically, album covers have even more reach than they did back in the days of album-oriented art for the very reason that the artwork can reach music fans through so many digital and offline channels and devices. The best of the covers do what album cover art has always done:

  • Capture your attention through striking design.
  • Express the essence of the artist.
  • Say something about the musical content of the album itself.

The examples I’ve chosen from 2016 consistently live up to those three functions of a cover, ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Loretta Lynn’s Full Circle. Check out the best examples from my new SlideShare to restore your faith in the power of album cover art to tell visual stories.

Uber’s Future: Snapchat on Wheels

I recently received an invitation to check out some behind-the-scenes Rogue One: A Star Wars Story videos and watch cartoon images of Star Wars X-Wings fly through the streets of Chicago. There was only one catch: the experience was available exclusively on my Uber app and viewable only after I had requested an Uber ride. I believe the Rogue One content points to a new future for Uber: one in which the app serves as a content-sharing platform for brands, like a Snapchat on wheels. Soon, musicians will launch new song videos on Uber before anyone else can see them. When Wes Anderson creates another slick short-form holiday film, Uber riders will see it first. Get ready for Uber to become a hot media brand.

Uber has been blurring the lines between ride sharing and entertainment for some time. In July, Uber hosted a secret concert with musician Wale, and the only way to attend was to unlock the location through Uber. In September, Uber introduced Rider Music, through which riders can tap into their own Pandora and Spotify playlists through Uber — in essence, taking their favorite curated music with them while they’re getting an Uber ride. Rogue One marks a first: branded entertainment content embedded in the app.

And there’s no reason why Uber needs to limit itself with entertainment experiences. In fact, Uber already offers branded content through relationships with other businesses, just not in the slick, in-app way that Disney does with Rogue One. In January, Uber launched “Trip Experiences,” which relies on integrations with third-party apps to make it possible for brands to serve up content ranging from restaurant reviews to news. It’s taken some time, but businesses are figuring out how to take advantage of the functionality. The Washington Post recently launched an integrated viewing experience through which readers can browse content on The Washington Post app while checking the status of their Uber ride. Moreover, Uber recently announced that users could order Uber rides off the websites of nearby businesses and receive branded content from those businesses en route. Cole Haan and Guitar Center have already beta tested the functionality.

Becoming a more full-blown media app for content sharing makes perfect sense for these reasons:

  • Uber is sitting on a treasure trove of data about the 50 million people who have taken 2 billion Uber rides, including who they are, where they are going, and what they’re doing. (Uber has received criticism over its use of customer data, too.) The company can offer advertisers very targeted opportunities to reach segments such as millennials. And Uber regularly puts its customer insight data to use, forming partnerships with brands such as Starwood that want access to Uber’s customers to provide offers such loyalty program points for customers that use Uber.
  • Uber could use from the revenue the app could gain by forming relationships with brands. The company lost a reported $1.2 billion in the first half of 2016, with a failed expansion into China proving to be especially costly. The company is eager to show that it can monetize effectively in advance of an expected IPO.
  • By its nature, Uber is a utility that people have to open in order to use. The downtime that users experience during Uber rides is a natural moment for brands to share content to keep users engaged with Uber so long as the content is engaging. Picture those annoying screens that play in the back of taxicabs (if you still take taxicabs anymore) only with content that is more interesting and useful — because Uber is consistently an interesting and useful brand. Rogue One, for instance, is not a randomly curated piece of content. Uber has timed the sharing of the behind-the-scenes video plus the playful in-app Star Wars space craft experience during the run-up to the official opening of Rogue One to capitalize on a time when users are going to be more naturally interested in viewing the content. The Rogue One/Uber experience is all about relevance.

Uber also consistently demonstrates a willingness to adapt its business. As I’ve contended on my blog, Uber’s core business is disruption, not ride sharing. Uber has entered markets ranging from food delivery to healthcare by wedding technology with a keen understanding of consumer behavior, by the creation of partnerships with other brands, and by consistently trying new models. Uber tests, learns, and corrects its model quickly. Right now making a content push is Uber’s latest test-and-learn initiative.

Businesses can play in a number of fascinating ways. In addition to serving up exclusive content, brands could provide broader experiences that span the online and offline worlds. The next musician who offers a secret concert via an Uber relationship could also provide exclusive music through Uber while fans ride to the concert. Imagine a hotel offering rides to its guests via Uber and providing exclusive in-app games for riders en route to their destination.

Uber is a palette for content. Businesses just need to figure out the right kind of branded content that engages riders. Rogue One offers a glimpse of how that content will look.

How a Swedish Grocery Store Beat Amazon Go to the Punch

The Internet is buzzing about Amazon Go, Amazon’s new self-service grocery store. At the flagship Amazon Go in Seattle, opening in January 2017, anyone with an Amazon account, a supported smartphone, and the Amazon Go app will simply take what they want from the store and leave with no check-out required. Customers will then receive a bill from Amazon, which uses a technology called Just Walk Out to detect when products are taken or returned to a shelf. The excitement over the disruptive potential of Amazon Go is justified. But a small grocery store in Sweden named Naraffar beat Amazon to the punch nearly a year ago. Naraffar’s story illustrates how small businesses can innovate quickly — but how big brands like Amazon can refine an innovation and make it mainstream.

Since January 2016, Naraffar, located in the small town of Viken, near the southern tip of Sweden, has been providing unstaffed 24-hour self-service. Customers use a smartphone app to unlock the store’s entrance, take groceries, and leave. Customers receive a bill later. Customers can also influence how Naraffar stocks its inventory by requesting items not in stock.

https://youtu.be/F5NHWZ58vKY

An enterprising Viken resident named Robert Illijason opened Naraffar after he noticed an unmet customer need: his own. After dropping his last bottle of baby food by accident, he needed to replenish his supply pronto. But the accident occurred when all stores were closed in the 4,200-town of Viken. Only after driving miles to another town did he find a store open.

In the aftermath of the experience, he wondered: why not open a 24-hour store in Viken? But the cost of hiring people to operate the store around the clock turned out to be prohibitive. So he designed a store that requires no people — not even to open or close the front door.

So far, Naraffar has succeeded as a small-scale, 7-11 type convenience store that offers staple items on demand, such as diapers and milk. Ilijason reports no issues with shoplifting. Customers need to identify themselves through Sweden’s BankID system. Security cameras monitor the store, and if for some reason the front door remains open for longer than 8 seconds, Ilijason receives an alert.

As noted by Tarunika Tolani of the Harvard Business School, Naraffar is a natural progression from click-and-collect buying, in which customers order what they want online and pick up goods in brick-and-mortar stores. The number of click-and-collect points in Europe grew by 20 percent in 2015, especially in the United Kingdom, where London alone can accommodate several collection points. Whether he realized it, Ilijason was tapping into a larger trend in consumer behavior by opening a store that removes a layer of friction from an increasingly popular click-and-collect approach.

But Naraffar lacks scale. Amazon possesses the scale, brand strength, and resources to make the Amazon Go model a mainstream experience. As is so often the case, start-ups can experiment and innovate. But the big brands such as Amazon can take innovation to another level. Amazon can test, learn, and refine an idea, whether its own or someone else’s. For instance, Naraffar requires shoppers to scan items with their smartphones and then confirm purchases — a two-step process. Amazon Go customers literally pick up their inventory and leave without any scanning their devices.

Naraffar offers limited inventory in a small location. Amazon Go’s flagship facility resembles a convenience store (with 1,800 feet), but already Amazon is exploring multiple grocery store formats, including much larger facilities, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Even Naraffar required the cooperation of a big brand to launch: Apple needed to approve its app for the smartphone technology to work.

In the United States, retailers are experimenting with several models that might exist alongside each other, including self-service stores of various sizes; variations of click-and-collect (see Walmart’s Pickup and Fuel concept stores, where customers order online and then drive to Walmart to have their groceries loaded into their cars by employees); and delivery on demand (which Walmart has been famously piloting with Lyft and Uber). An independent self-service store relying completely on an app might be a better fit for a remote small town that requires fewer goods and exists. But I could see Amazon building larger Amazon Go stores (certainly larger than 1,800 square feet) in cities where a critical mass of shoppers and infrastructure exists to support a bigger store.

Retailers such as Walmart and Amazon will continue to experiment with different store formats. 2017 is already shaping up to be an exciting year.

Lead image source: geeksnewslab.com

Related:

Business Insider, “This 24-Hour Convenience Store in Sweden Doesn’t Have a Single Employee — Here’s How,” by Chris Weller, 29 February 2016.

The Huffington Post Canada, “Naraffar, Unmanned Swedish Grocery Store, Open 24 Hours,” by Emma Prestwich, 16 March 2016.

Reuters, “Broken Baby Food Jar Leads to Sweden’s First Unstaffed Grocery Store,” by Ilze Filks, 14 March 2016.

Brian Solis (via LinkedIn), “Amazon Go Brings Retail Experience into 21st Century,” 6 December 2016.

The Wall Street Journal, “Amazon Working on Several Grocery-Store Formats, Could Open More Than 2,000 Locations,” by Laura Stevens and Khadeeja Safdar, 5 December 2016.