June 23, 2010

Way Past Bedtime

How far can you take brand loyalty?

Earlier this month, we went to see one of our favourite musicians, Natalie Merchant, at Dublin's Helix Theatre. We've been listening to the music of the one-time 10,000 Maniacs vocalist for some time now, since she went solo back in 1994 with Tigerlily; and as far as we were concerned, she's one of the world greats, a true original who can do no wrong.

The singer was in Dublin to promote her latest recording, Leave Your Sleep, a series of children's poems set to music, and given her gorgeous reworkings of traditional songs on The House Carpenter's Daughter, we thought we were in for a real treat.

Instead, we had to sit through a mini-lecture on the poets who wrote the original rhymes and on Merchant's songwriting process, complete with slideshow portraits, and interspersed with what felt like only snatches of song. Even the author didn't seem terribly interested in what she had to say or sing, delivering her seminar with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that suggested she herself found the format less than compelling.

What was remarkable about the evening was the good humoured indulgence of the audience, many of whom faced a long trip home before bedtime and sat half-dozing through the slideshow. It seems that the artist has built up such loyalty in her brand that we were prepared to allow her this sleepwalk through her latest project, like old friends sitting uncomplainingly through pictures of first day at school, scenes at the beach, and darlings in first holy communion splendour, stifling a yawn but too polite to make excuses and leave.

Only towards the end of the evening did we grow audibly restless, and the singer responded by finishing with five of her crowd-favourites, which brought the audience to its feet and sent us out into the night finally feeling we'd been at a concert. Or perhaps she'd always intended to reward us for our patience?

Speaking with friends afterwards, it seems that everyone there was similarly disappointed with most of the evening and I found myself wondering whether a brand can take uncomplaining loyalty too far.

Of course, Natalie Merchant is not the first artist to test her faithful's patience in this way. I remember hearing stories of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and other greats, wilfully refusing to indulge their audiences when they had a new project to promote. Something about the set of Merchant's jaw, even from the distance of the thirty feet or so that separated us, suggested that she too was not inclined to pick up on the restless cues of her audience.

Those of us who work hard to build a devoted following for our brand can count on a certain tolerance from our customers but when this spills over into self-indulgence even the greatest loyalists will have their doubts.

No more bedtime stories for me, thanks!


Padhraig Nolan said...

Interesting - but isn't there a 'brand contract' too - especially between creative artists and their audience - which requires some element of risk in the offering? i.e. the brand requires its audience/market/consumer to meet it at some point along the road - in this case that meeting point being closer to the artist than the audience? As opposed to MacDonalds say, which practically steps out in front of its market?

Gerard Tannam said...

Hi Padhraig -

Thanks for your comment. Yes, I think you're right when you talk about a brand contract and part of the attraction of Natalie Merchant's music lies in her ability to create meeting points that are closer to her original view of the world than to much of the formulaic offerings elsewhere.

I'm not sure that Natalie created that meeting point at the Helix event - at least until the encore. My impression was of an audience that was ready to take some of the risk with Natalie but grew frustrated when there was no payoff.

Great to hear from you and congratulations on your Scalderverse project; I'll follow the contributions with interest.

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