The Press, May 2009

Scottish singing sensation Susan Boyle has spurned a mini-industry. Fan clubs, webzines, t-shirts, CDs. An Auckland bar even named a cocktail after her, all to cash in on the fame resulting from a stunning appearance on a British TV talent show. I’d like to ride on her coat-tails a little too, and suggest we could all take a bit more of a Susan Boyle approach to marketing.

For those who have managed to avoid the story, the West Lothian maestro astounded the crowd and judges on Britain’s Got Talent several weeks ago. Belying her amateurish appearance, Boyle transfixed a skeptical, even contemptuous crowd with a powerful rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from the musical Les Miserables. Sniggering viewers turned tearful, and the weary judges looked delighted. It was absolutely incredible TV.

Only 18 video clips in history have cracked 100 million views on the internet, according to an article on Boyle’s clip has garnered 186 million views and ranks fifth overall after only three weeks. This compares to Paul Potts, another common person turned star on the same TV show, who ranks 15th with 118 million views 20 months since his appearance.

The Susan Boyle phenomenon shows a fundamental challenge for the music industry. Looks have become so important it seems almost as critical to success as possessing musical ability. When is the last time you saw a less-than-beautiful singing star (excepting the example of The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan)?

Imagine if the same rule applied in professional rugby? Our tight five ranks would be decimated. Luckily there is an overriding emphasis on ability rather than appearance in the game. Not so in the musical world, and it must rob us of some brilliant performers.

Susan Boyle’s performance attracted such a following because our expectations were so low. The experience she delivered so exceeded them that her brand exploded, to become what one newspaper rather ambitiously labelled “one of the world’s hottest celebrities.”

Some have said it was all manufactured for television, and although that would be sad, it is beside the point. It is the fact that our preconceived view was so completely eclipsed. It was a bit like thinking you’re going into KFC for a bucket of chicken and being sat down for a first class silver-service dinner.

It is a good lesson for all marketers. A big part of our job is to set expectations about our products and services, but we need to be careful they are consistent with the experience delivered to the customer. Strong brands, like Susan Boyle, are built around delivering more than you expect.

Too often we promise our products will transform your existence, boost your sex life, turbocharge your profits, make the world love you etc. The gap between the promises and the reality can be quite large.

There are famous examples like Ribena in 2007, where GlaxoSmithKline were found to have misled people about the vitamin C content of their product, costing them over $200,000 in fines. This was just part of an overall trend to this ‘overpromise and under deliver’ model of marketing.

Complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority have jumped 51% between 2005 and 2008, increasing from 461 to 699. And these are just the promotional activities people actually complain about, the tip of an iceberg of hyperbole and nonsense.

A local company more from the Susan Boyle School of Marketing is computer services provider Datacom. Their revenues were recently reported to have increased 27 per cent to $570 million for the year to 31 March 2008, on the back of a 55 per cent increase in Australian sales. The company has over 3000 staff and is now the country’s second largest technology exporter behind Fisher & Paykel Healthcare.

Datawho? You might ask. The company chooses to do little promotion, and generally has a low profile in the broader community. But given its exceptional performance it must deliver results for its clients.

Does this mean every company should modestly go about their business, only focussing on exceptional customer experiences to grow? No. It has to be matched to the market you are targeting and your position in that market. In some it is quite appropriate, even critical, to try and raise profile.

Presumably Datacom don’t need to as they generally sell directly to larger companies, something that can be done based on good selling relationships and a long history of good performance.

Contrast that with Christchurch software company Particle Systems. The award winning provider of software for creative companies like advertising agencies has been very aggressive with its marketing into its chosen niche. It spent very heavily on promotion as it launched into the Australian and UK markets over the last 18 months, with considerable success.

Aggressive promotion was appropriate in Particle’s case, as they were an unknown company with an unknown product in highly competitive market places. But it was also advertising that created a reasonable expectation, an expectation the company could deliver on with a good product.

The temptation with marketers is to always stretch the promise as far as they can, and probably more so in the music industry than any other. Trying to give people something far better than they expected can actually be a great marketing strategy, as the unstoppable Susan Boyle has shown us.

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