Let's say you manage a venerable but aging brand with a huge, rabidly loyal customer base. Your merchandise sells on name alone, and there's strong cash flow from a product lineup stretching back 30 years. But the growth of your enterprise has slowed, and your core customers—once the highly coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic—are getting gray and paunchy. What's your strategy for staying relevant?
I've asked plenty of top executives questions like these, regarding Maytag washers and IBM computers and Chevy sedans. For a different perspective, I decided to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Madison Square Garden in New York City—you know, to study how the 58-year-old rock legend keeps his product portfolio fresh. In between dancing and singing and shouting and cheering, I learned a few tricks about how the best in the business stay intimately connected to their market:
Never let your customers rest. When Springsteen performs, most of his songs end like this: "1-2-3-4!" That's because he's starting the next song before the current one has even ended. The Boss continually races to the back of the stage to change guitars, so there's no lull in the cadence of the show. In the audience, nobody sits down or gets a breather until the man on stage decides it's time. By keeping the crowd on its toes, the band keeps demand at a fever pitch—kind of the way Apple does, with its rapid flow of new gizmos pushing older products out of the way. But with way better buzz.
Innovate. Don't worry, there were no sitars or operatic flourishes at the concert, but Springsteen is brilliant at expanding his brand image without ever shifting his center of gravity. His songs rarely stray from rock-and-roll territory, but at the Garden, he enriched the familiar with fiddles and other folksy touches. One standout song was "Reason to Believe"—an old ballad completely reimagined as a harder-edged blues riff. Springsteen's knack for turning old material into something completely new seems like a magic touch compared with all the lame efforts to create hip, modern variations of old TV shows or movies. Instead of copying success, he creates it all over again.
Give the people what they want. Experiments get a more welcome reception when mingled with something familiar. Throughout the show, Springsteen deftly blended unembellished hits like "Badlands" and "Born to Run," performed pretty much the way everybody knows them, with darker, topical music from his new disk, Magic. He also spouted about 30 seconds of commentary on "rendition," "illegal wiretapping," and other controversies related to war and terrorism. But few people came to hear that, so after appeasing his conscience, he quickly reverted to happier songs like "The Promised Land" (irony intended, I presume) and "Dancing in the Dark." The result: His message of protest got across, without turning anybody off.
Share credit. There's been a lot of hype about Springsteen reuniting with his famed E Street Band for the first tour since 2003, but come on—Springsteen, the man, is the draw, pure and simple. Still, this is one maestro who spreads the glory across the stage. Not once during the show does a spotlight shine on Springsteen alone. He continually calls out "Steve," "Clarence," and the other band members. And when they bow at the end, they bow together. It's a pretty neat marketing trick to create a cult of personality around somebody known for humility. Quick—can anyone name a CEO able to pull that off?
Set expectations. Then reset them. And reset them. And... The Garden concert ended after about two hours—prompting groans in the crowd, even though it was an electrifying show. "He's getting old," one fan fretted. There were jokes about Metamucil and Geritol—not because the Boss ever seemed tired but because this wasn't the kind of marathon, three-hour-plus jamfest he used to play in his heyday. Springsteen has driven customer satisfaction so high that he can deliver a great product and still disappoint his customers. I don't know what you do about that, but it's the kind of problem most corporations would love to have.
Love what you do. Just a hunch, but I have a feeling that Springsteen thoroughly enjoys his job—not something you can say about a lot of people asking you to spend $15 or $100 for their products. We all know that enthusiasm is contagious, and if you're pumped about what you do, those around you are more likely to twist and shout right along with you. And keep on spending.