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Marketing Lessons From Bob Dylan

I love Bob Dylan’s music. I once tried to turn in a paper relating “Like a Rolling Stone” to colonialism (it didn’t go over so well). For most of college, I lived and breathed his story, his music, and his life. There’s something so hopeful, so invigorating about some kid from Minnesota moving to New York with nothing but a guitar and a head full of ideas and somehow succeeding. His music always spoke to a greater understanding about the world than one person could ever have; the melodies he creates and words he links together evoke the past, present, and future of America. Here are a few lessons about marketing that you can learn from Bob Dylan.

Tell a Great Story

If you’ve ever read any of his lyrics, you know Bob Dylan is a natural storyteller. Often, his stories are about real people who went through hardships. He tells stories of the downtrodden, the forgotten, the over-privileged and the less fortunate. In every album, he’s just weaving together tales of love, loss, heartbreak, and wandering into an interesting story. Dylan has stayed relevant for the last 50 years for a number of reasons, one of which is that he tells amazing stories that the public enjoys and can relate to.

Smart brands are also great storytellers. When you boil it down, most ads tell a captivating story. Great advertising usually involves people and conflict that creates a need or desire for a “hero” (your product or service) to come in and make everything better. Telling great stories is paramount to your success as a brand.

Don’t Be Afraid of Change

An amazing quality of Bob Dylan is his ability to switch personas and to become someone else. He started off emulating old folk music, eventually became a protest singer and “voice of a generation,” and then became a surrealist poet in an amphetamine haze. And that’s just in the first five years of his career. Over time, he became a recluse, a country music singer, a born-again Christian, and everything in between. In the movie “I’m Not There,” five actors (and one ACTRESS) were tapped to play him in various periods of his life. He has continued to change and evolve over time, something any brand should take note of.

As a company, don’t be afraid to rebrand. Switching it up allows your brand to stay current and interesting. Change is good. There are many brands that have evolved over time because they were beginning to become outdated and stale; you don’t see Sony advertising its Walkman anymore, do you? Brands need to adapt to culture to survive. In today’s cluttered atmosphere, it’s either adapt or die. Of course, if you don’t want to play by the rules, you can always make your own rules and let the consumers/fans come to you.

Invent Culture

Dylan invented trends and introduced others into pop culture; he is a huge reason the folk revival of the early 60’s took off. He consciously or unconsciously knew the power of being an innovator, and was always a step ahead of everybody else (even John, Paul, George, and Ringo). He knew that you don’t have to follow the rules if you create them.

45 years ago this summer, Bob Dylan reinvented rock and roll. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival (long a safehaven for lovers of traditional, old-style music), he did the unthinkable and plugged in his guitar. He broke all of the rules and played his now-legendary song “Like a Rolling Stone” to a set of fans ready to hear another version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and caused a near-riot. He rebelled against the establishment and won in the long run. At that moment, he showed the population that rock and roll could be smart and cerebral filled with layers upon layers of melody. He invented a new music genre that blended the smart songwriting of folk music with the rowdy, electric fury of rock and roll.

Brands can also invent culture. Look at Apple. Apple created a loyal legion of brand ambassadors through its products, and it nearly invented the culture of the “hip geek” (which used to be an oxymoron). Look at Cirque du Solieil, which rebelled against the circus industry as well as the high-art theater industry, mashed the two together, and invented a whole new form of entertainment. Creating culture through innovation isn’t easy, but if you do it correctly it will pay off in the long run.

Bob Dylan has been creating music for 50 years now,  and he’s still playing to this day. Any brand would kill to be relevant for a half-century, and very few actually stick around that long without adapting. If more brands took a lesson from Bob Dylan’s School of Brand Management, they would not be “Blowin’ in the Wind” on “Desolation Row” with “No Direction Home.”

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