Friday, September 07, 2018

What U2 and Madonna can tell corporations about innovation

Let's get this right out there early:  I am a huge U2 fan.  From their earliest albums like October and Boy to their latest efforts, I'm a big supporter (well Zooropa not so much, but every great artist has at least one significant flub).  On the other hand, I've never much cared for Madonna.  Too packaged, too commercial, too much a formula it seems to me.  But both U2 and Madonna have something to tell major corporations about how to stay relevant for decades:  reinvent yourself.

Let's do a brief history lesson of U2 and see exactly what this means.

U2 - the early years

U2 started out as a punk band in Ireland, but with a twist - their lyrics were informed by their Christian beliefs and ethics.  They came on the scene just at the end of the punk era, where no one sound or formula dominated.  I think they became popular with their War album because of their commitment to social justice, their rock sensibilities and the way they came across as a fresh new voice. War was a breakout album and placed them on a path to success, but it did not define their sound in later albums.

And now for something completely different

U2's next album was the Unforgettable Fire, a major departure in sound and theme from the previous albums.  The Unforgettable Fire was a significant departure from War, and was somewhat controversial among fans.  It focused on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, so the band was staying true to its social conscience but the music was different.  U2 quickly followed up with The Joshua Tree, where they pursued, like many European bands before them, the roots of the blues in the US.  The sound was different from their earlier albums, a bit more harder edged, more bluesy, but still with a social conscience.   Fans of Boy and October were disconcerted by War.  Fans that came of age with War were uncertain and sometimes estranged by The Unforgettable Fire.  Joshua Tree and the live album Rattle and Hum seemed to embark on an entirely different focus and sound. But it was the same band and underneath it all were the same sensibilities, just repackaged and repurposed, trying out different methods, constantly reinventing themselves.

The Electronica Period

U2 then entered my least favorite era - an era full of exploration, mostly of different forms of music that was more electronic, more synthesizer based, a major departure from their rock and roll, stadium-oriented sound.  But who can blame them?  You can only make the same record with the same sound so many times.  Albums like Actung Baby and Zooropa were less appealing to me as an original fan of U2, but followed the course and sensibilities of new types of music that emerged.

Return to the roots

Many of us who were early fans were really pleased by All that you can't leave behind, which combined some new sounds and ideas with a return to more guitar based rock, a more straight ahead sensibility. 


After All that you can't leave behind U2 has been in an experimental phase, with several albums that explored different sounds and genres.  These albums seem to be searching for the right sound and focus, the right audience, and to me don't quite sound or feel like the U2 of old.  But perhaps that's because the U2 of old is now old.  After living in the limelight for 40 years, it's probably difficult to create new music.  Paul Simon had to go to South Africa to revive his sound and career after decades in the music industry.

Thanks for the history lesson

So, you may be thinking to yourself, thanks for the history lesson but what's the point about innovation?  Simply this.  If Madonna can shift from "Like a virgin" to Vogue to Material Girl to whatever the persona is this week, and if U2 can shift from Christian anthems to bluesy guitar based rock to synthesizers while remaining exceptionally popular, there's evidence that you can be in the same business but constantly reinvent yourself, your product and your persona.

Most businesses fail to appreciate this - reinvention isn't just important for musicians or actors or celebrities, it's vital for everyone.  Becoming too boring, too staid, too stuck in one way of thinking or one business model means you become less interesting and attractive.  There are a number of reasons the length of time corporations spend in the S&P 500 has been cut in half in recent years, and the lack of reinvention is an important one.

How do we reinvent?

If reinvention is important, how does a corporation reinvent itself?  You'll understand that since this is a blog about innovation, innovation will rear its head here.  To reinvent or remake a band, an actor or a company, we need to focus on keeping what is important and 'core' to the original and examine what is changing and what new customers want and need, as well as respecting the needs of employees who want both links to the historical past and new and refreshing ways of working.

U2 reinvents its sound, the way its packages itself (Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum is all bluesy influenced, down to the way they dress while during Zooropa Bono takes on an entirely new persona) but underneath their songs and their sensibilities about righting wrongs and social justice remain fairly similar.  U2 went further with a controversial album release directly to consumers' iTunes accounts - innovating in a channel and in a business model.

Likewise, corporations need to reinvent themselves - constantly improving their offerings, products and services while thinking about how to interact and reach customers, how to revise and revamp customer service, how to leverage emerging channels and how to explore new business models.  Recognizing that it's a bit easier for a four man rock group to reinvent itself than a large corporation doesn't excuse the lack of reinvention that most corporations exhibit.

Corporations need to think more broadly about what they are good at, what their strategic intent is, why they exist and why they are important to customers.  Further, they need to shift with the times, and not just with a new logo or new branding but with renewed purpose and focus.  They need to do far more innovation outside of the core product, to reinvent themselves in new relationships with customers and prospects, in new channels, new service offerings and new business models.  Failing to do so leaves far too many options on the table, waiting to be exploited by new entrants.  My favorite examples are concepts like iTunes and the iPod, which probably should have been created by Sony, or the concept that became Airbnb, which could have been implemented by any major hotel chain.

Sticking to your guns or reinvent yourself

There's a sort of false equivalence here, the thinking that a company needs to either "stick to its guns" and stay true to itself or become a chameleon and constantly change with the times.  This is one of those times when we should choose the and rather than the or.  A company can be true to its capabilities and roots while reinventing itself to remain interesting and relevant to its customers.  An insurance firm can still do an awesome job selling and servicing life, auto and home insurance while completely reinventing itself in how it communicates with, serves, bills and attracts customers.  It can create new business models and experiences while continuing to provide similar services and products.  The sooner large corporations understand the need for reinvention, and the false equivalence of sticking to history or cosmetic reinvention, the better off we will all be.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:55 AM


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