In Marketing, It’s Evolve or Die
How does one market to a demographic that is completely cynical about the whole idea of marketing? That was the dilemma faced by Stan Cornyn, the now legendary creative head of Warner Brothers Records back in the beaded, Nehru-jacketed ‘60s.
After years of stagnation, WB had grown a roster of money-making artists that included everyone from Neil Young to Joni Mitchell to James Taylor. The label was killing it in the marketplace and finally had the wherewithal to pursue and indulge quirkier newcomers including Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks.
As talented and groundbreaking as they were, initial releases from both Newman and Parks tanked in the stores. Cornyn’s unorthodox, tongue in cheek ad campaigns, which bundled these and other artists as the company’s “loss leaders,” struck a nerve with the anti-commercial crowd, helping to establish WB as the hippest of labels. The music fans loved it, but the featured artists? Not so much.
When Newman’s debut failed to sell, the label took out a full-page ad in Rolling Stone (cost: $300) offering to give away the album for free. Mr. Newman was not happy. When Parks’ 1968 “Song Cycle” album turned out to be a critic’s choice but a commercial bomb, Cornyn created an ad for Billboard that read, “How WBR Lost $35,009.50 on the Album of the Year (Dammit).”
Cornyn understood that he was targeting a new kind of music consumer that shunned commercialism in any form. They were openly suspicious of anything that smacked of “sell out,” their chosen term for “overly sales-y.”
Today’s Internet visitors share that same aversion to being overtly “sold,” and companies and entrepreneurs gain far more marketing traction by offering free education and advice that establishes their expertise and avoids the aggressive sales pitch. As a wise mentor once explained to me, if you’re sharing information with your online audience and doing it right, you are not working for free. Like Cornyn, you’re adapting to an evolving marketplace and the changing priorities of your audience.
In a sea of formulaic, “record biz” ads, Cornyn’s creations stood out and grabbed the attention of his target consumers as well as the music business as a whole. Not surprisingly, his competitors followed suit, and marketing music would never be the same.