7 Marketing Lessons from Jack White

Visiting Nashville over the holidays, my super-cool niece Bridget took me to Third Man Records. I was impressed. My visit inspired this entry, which originally appeared on Summit Social.

As we’ve been working with our client Union Station Kansas City to promote their awesome Science of Rock ‘n Roll exhibit this winter, our minds have been on music.

And there are few figures in modern music as compelling, inventive, and unusual as Jack White.

Jack White
Jack White is finding new ways to cash in.

Best known as leader of massive-selling blues-rock duo the White Stripes, White has recently struck out on his own as a solo artist, producer, label owner and collaborator.

His signature sound is rooted in American blues and folk traditions, spun through with a contemporary sensibility that makes hits like “Seven Nation Army” and “Sixteen Saltines” appropriate for venues ranging from sports stadiums to your niece’s iPod.

But apart from his gift for songwriting, White is an expert marketer. Highly conscious of branding, White goes to great lengths to preserve and protect his creative identity and values. As a result, he has ascended in a music industry that has all but imploded over the past decade as file-sharing and downloading have caused physical album sales to flatline.

Here are seven lessons marketers can learn from the inimitable Mr. White.

1. Develop a vision early and stick to it.

White is famous for his obsession with color – primarily white, red, black, and yellow. As the New York Times’ Josh Eells reported, before White was a working musician, he owned an upholstery shop in his native Detroit called Third Man Upholstery. Everything in that shop was yellow and black, from the power tools and sewing table, to the uniform and business cards, which bore the slogan “Your Furniture’s Not Dead.”

Now, White owns a record label called Third Man Records. Its slogan: “Your Turntable’s Not Dead.” And its colors? You guessed it: black and yellow.

2. Don’t compromise your vision for perceived gains.

White has always vehemently defended his brand against outside interests who would change it. Early in the White Stripes’ career, they were close to signing to a small Chicago indie label. But there was a problem: the label wanted to put a green logo on the CD spine. White wasn’t having it. He would rather find another label than compromise his signature color scheme.

This wasn’t just artistic eccentricity but savvy marketing acumen. And the result is that, for music fans of a certain age, it’s impossible to see solid blocks of red and white without thinking of Jack White and the White Stripes.

3. Find what hasn’t been done and do it.

White has forced his love of blues and dusty Americana into a mainstream market weaned on urban dance beats and fresh-faced, American Idol– ready anthems. He’s done this by marketing himself as a kind of Elvis for the Anime generation – a loud, brash cartoon character your parents will never understand. And even though he is a virtuosic guitarist, White rips out screaming riffs on a plastic Airline guitar manufactured in the ‘60s and sold at Montgomery Ward.

4. Reinvent and adapt.

Recognizing perhaps that the White Stripes was not a solid enough vehicle for his career, White has launched a number of successful side projects, including the Grammy-nominated Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, and, most recently, his debut solo album, Blunderbuss. For that, he even added a new color to his palette: blue.

5. Amid all that creative genius, don’t lose sight of business realities.

Unlike artists who rely on labels to handle the business side while they focus on their creative output, White manages his own business decisions, one of which is to keep his master recordings locked behind a thumbprint-activated vault door at Third Man Records. He retains artistic control of his sonic brand and keeps revenue out of the hands of labels and other middlemen.

6. Pick the platform and tools that are authentic to you and your audience.

In addition to his quirky plastic guitar, White wholeheartedly embraces vinyl albums and analog recording techniques. Now, you might think magnetic tape and black vinyl obsolete in the age of the MP3, but sales indicate otherwise. White has helped give rise to a new generation of hip young consumers for whom vinyl records are a fashion accessory.

His methods, though anachronistic, make products that connect emotionally with customers, move units, and influence the industry around him. If he changed his methods, his products would suffer, and fans would reject him.

7. Surround yourself with collaborators who challenge you.

If White had left it at the White Stripes, he’d still have been vastly more successful than most artists. But he has always sought out unexpected and unusual opportunities to work with artists who challenge his mindset and keep him from getting stuck, and the results have paid off.

White’s first big collaboration was with country great Loretta Lynn. The resulting album, Van Lear Rose, topped the country charts in 2004. The ambitious furniture upholsterer from Detroit has also teamed up with the likes of Beck, Wanda Jackson and even shock rappers The Insane Clown Posse.

In conclusion, we can’t all be as cool and swaggering as Jack White, but we can learn a few things from an artist who has remained doggedly focused, never compromised, and made his chosen industry conform to him – not the other way around.

What famous creative innovators, musical or otherwise, have you learned good marketing sense from?

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