Last night I went to a Local H show at a small venue in Boston.  If you aren’t familiar with the band, it’s a two guy gig from Chicago, filled with intensity and angst, and found most often playing to a crowd of male 20 and 30 somethings throwing themselves into one another.  (check them out here:

So what does this have to do with building great companies?  Watching the difference between the opening band, The Dig, and Local H, got me thinking about what makes a band “make it” and what makes a band stuck playing in people’s garages.  This is much the same way that some companies succeed and are rocketed to superstardom while others fail.   As a music junky often seen frequenting the smaller clubs around Boston looking for the next new thing, I’ve noticed a few key traits that artists who make it big have.  Companies could learn alot from the Gaga’s of this world.

1) A consistent and unique brand. Think about the biggest stars you can think of, Madonna, Elton John, KISS, Grateful Dead, Green Day (these were the first that came to my head).  Regardless of the performer, they all have a common thread- they live their brands from start to finish.  The Dead play in what seems to be whatever they rolled out of bed in that morning and are the same on stage and off, Gaga wears crazy outfits 24/7 when she goes out.  When is the last time Lady Gaga was seen just wearing a polo shirt and walking into a Whole Foods? Probably not recently.  One of the differences between The Dig and Local H last night was that Local H lived their brand, and were consistent with their look, while The Dig, did not.  Great companies are like this as well.  Every single detail of the corporate brand needs to be consistent and constantly executed.  Whole Foods can’t have energy guzzling stores or bag only in plastic.  Customers, like fans, notice inconsistencies.  The same way you would feel cheated if Tool played a concert in khakis and a polo, companies must make sure everything about their brand matches the expectations of the customer.

2) They have to be bigger than their music/product. The artists that succeed go beyond just creating music, they create a mood, an attitude, and a lifestyle that give their fans a sense of belonging.  The same way Gaga has “Little Monsters” or The Dead has “deadheads”, great companies need to convey a message and lifestyle people can identify with.  Subaru, REI, Timberland, John Deere, all do a great job of this. Customers and fans don’t just want to listen to songs or buy a product, they want to feel like they are part of a community.

3) They engage their fans and play for them, not for themselves.  Although every band needs to love what they are doing, they also have to remember in a live show that they are not just playing for themselves, but are entertaining and connecting with their fans as well.  Great bands take time for audience participation, they have them sing a part of the song, clap along, go out in the crowd, pull people on stage, etc.  Mediocre bands play their music the same way in their garage as they do on stage.  (caveat, unless you are a jam band where you make up for it by simply playing for hours, but, that’s also true to their brand, so it works).  Companies are like this as well.  The great companies spend time learning from their customers and getting them involved in the process and really building a connection, not just a product.

4) They’re passionate and give 110% to their audience. The great bands give everything they have to their fan base, delivering the best show and the best songs they can, and letting their fans know that they gave it their all to keep them happy.  Great companies should be like this as well.  A customer needs to know that the company is doing everything they can to deliver a top-notch product and solve their customer service needs.  A customer, just like a fan, should never leave feeling like a company only gave it 70%.  Enterprise-Rent-A-Car is a great example of this, they built a loyal base by ensuring they give it 110% to make their customers experience as great as possible.

So, what does this mean?  It means if you want to be the corporate equivalent of  playing Madison Square Garden, you have to create a consistent and unique brand that should be reflected in your products, your PR, your office layout, and how you as CEO live your daily life (aka, an eco-friendly company should have corporate hybrids, not SUVs). The little details make a big difference in brand consistency. You want to create a company with a mission and community bigger than it’s products (think Timberland, Subaru, etc). Remember that you built your company to solve a pain point for your customers, and keep them constantly involved in the process to build loyalty (i.e. the Mountain Dew campaign for a new flavor is an example). Finally, give your all to your customers and never leave them wanting more (Enterprise Rent-A-Car model).

Next time you are at a show, think about the differences between the headliner and the opener.  I’m sure there are a bunch of things I missed on this list, I’d be curious to hear what others think!