Radiohead Makes Noise by Going Silent
There’s been mainstream and marketing buzz lately about an alternative rock band from the UK. Last week, Radiohead erased some of its social media channels ahead of the release of its newest song, “Burn the Witch.” For a band with a rabid but niche fan base, the strategy worked: the band created fame and new fans all at once.
The “go dark” stunt worked for Radiohead. We all know that when brands do stunts, they need to be authentic to their essence, to make sense for their audiences and to mitigate criticism. I can see creating a “pyramid of authenticity” that we can check with brands or clients to know if a certain risk or stunt would be true to the core, and therefore more advisable. First, you must look at the industry, then the brand (or in this case the band!) … and then your customers, or fans, to evaluate the new marketing move, risky moment, or message.
I recently shared some thoughts on this topic with Diana Bradley of PRWeek (http://www.prweek.com/article/1394016/going-dark-web-worked-radiohead-wont-work) and now have a few more unique takeaways to share:
- Look at your industry and peers first – Radiohead is in the music industry and is expected to be creative. You don’t need to look far to see other examples; from Beyoncé’s surprise release with “Lemonade” to Gwen Stefani performing a new, live video at the Grammys, we can all think of our favorite musician who at one time or another took a stand on an issue, gave us something we have never seen before, or truly innovated.
- Consider your brand history over the years – What you do today needs to tell a story, but also fit into your macro narrative. This band, or brand, has a history of creative launches and innovation. My favorite was the “In Rainbows” release: it was pay-what-you-want, which brilliantly drove sales but also sparked a conversation about the accessibility of music online, the industry business model, and how music is valued. Radiohead has taken risks before and achieved great reviews.
- Always think about your core consumers – Brands need their most loyal fan base to buy, share and sometimes advocate for them. Radiohead enjoys acclaim and a rabid fan base. Brands lucky enough to have this can more easily take some calculated risks. After reviewing the above pyramid critically, and if you were advising Radiohead on whether or not it’s smart to take away assets in a content- and celebrity-obsessed world, you can see that its risk was minimal because it had authenticity within its industry and a strong fan base to support this move, or defend it if it landed as a misstep.
I talked to a Radiohead fan who said the launch annoyed him a little (he felt played with), but he also appreciated the band, thought they were cool, and recognized that “Burn the Witch” was getting a “ton of buzz.” I think this move goes beyond great PR and selling an album. It challenges us to think about the meaning and the purpose of owned content – especially when the product itself is content. Radiohead didn’t just go dark, like a quiet period before earnings; it literally erased some of its brand history by wiping the social channels. This silent act raises larger questions about the value of owned storytelling, and Radiohead challenged the status quo of constant content creation and has provoked us marketers (well, me) to reconsider how to get consumers to focus on the right content: your actual product.
As someone who regularly counsels amazing brands on how to engage audiences and gain sales, I see and hear all of the dialogues about being a disruptive brand. But in this case, it’s a low-cost, high-return example where the disruption led directly to discovery, and that’s worth listening to.
MD, NY Market Lead