I may not be a very good musician yet, but I already know how to make a hit record. Erica Ehm taught me.
It was the summer of 1989, and MC Hammer was successfully plundering older pop songs as samples for Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em. As Ehm explained one day on MuchMusic, it was a successful
strategy because the rapper took the basic elements of successful songwriting one step further. The songs that reach No. 1 almost always employ a short chorus that is repeated throughout the song. The song, if it gets a lot of airplay, then becomes more and more familiar to us, and that’s why we like it. With a little more talent, I could use this information to one day reach the top of the charts. Or maybe I could just become a media trainer.
Technology companies thrive on vision; without it, no one feels the sense of momentum necessary to keep improving products and gaining market share. The best companies try to distill these visions into a single line, but that doesn’t mean they remain hidden behind the company’s walls as an internal mission statement. They also get broadcast wherever and whenever the opportunity arises, particularly in front of the media or at public speaking engagements. Sometimes this works, if it helps explain what the company is trying to do. Oftentimes it doesn’t work, because spokespeople substitute the catchphrases for genuine conversation.
Perhaps the worst example of what I’m talking about came from the mouth of former Microsoft Canada president Simon “”digital nervous system”” Witts, who shared his comparative anatomy lesson for several years before he was moved to another part of the world. There was also Carol “”network of networks”” Stephenson, who used her slogan as head of Lucent Canada relentlessly, without making many customer connections. Today, the primary culprits are IBMers, who cannot open their mouths without using the phrase “”on-demand e-business.”” There is a lot of interest and potential benefit in Big Blue’s utility computing strategy, but the whole thing is getting ridiculous.
We all know how this works: spokespeople are trained to keep the message in mind, then formulate their responses to questions by adapting it to the message. If you’re “”on message,”” it doesn’t matter whether I ask you why you’ve laid off 1,000 employees in the last six months, or why your competitor has managed to usurp your place in IDC Canada’s ranking of top PC manufacturers. All these circumstances are part of the plan, and “”the message”” is the way you articulate that plan. There must be something very Zen about handling interviews this way — in some cases, we’ve heard the same message so often I could practically answer the questions myself.
There will always be reporters, usually fairly junior ones, who haven’t been inundated enough to recognize someone who’s “”on message”” and will innocently transcribe it into their story. In their PR post-mortems, this might be considered a kind of victory, but it’s a hollow one. If experienced journalists get bored by the message, readers will certainly follow, and that’s not good for anyone.
To keep things fresh, you have to get beyond the message by isolating current examples of customer stories that illustrate the logic behind the company’s strategy — think of these as the remixes. The emphasis is on fresh and not the same customer case study that’s been bandied about since the last Comdex. If there are no new success stories to report, maybe it’s time to get a new strategy. That’s the difference between an artist with staying power and a one-hit wonder.