|Publisher:||Tantor Media, Inc.|
|Edition description:||Library - Unabridged CD|
|Product dimensions:||6.70(w) x 6.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Noah Kerner is the president of Noise, a marketing firm featured on 60 Minutes.
Gene Pressman is the founder of Gene Pressman LLC, a creative consulting firm serving corporations and personalities with brand development.
Johnny Heller has earned multiple Earphones Awards from AudioFile magazine, including one for Closing Time by Joe Queenan, and has earned two Audie Awards and many more nominations. Named one of the Top Fifty Narrators of the Twentieth Century by AudioFile, he has recorded over five hundred titles.
Read an Excerpt
A killer application is a powerful thing, which is why people are always looking for one.
In the age when more and more people believe there is a shortcut to cool, however, companies are increasingly frantic in their chase for one of those killer apps. And as a result, they're more likely than ever to be looking in someone else's backyard.
Of course, companies have always looked longingly into other company's yards. "In the '50s you wanted to be the General Motors of something," adman and Adweek columnist Tom Messner told us. "In the early '60s you wanted to be the Xerox of something, then it became the IBM of something, then the Nike of something, and the list goes on and on. At one point people even wanted to be the Japan of something. My friend Bill McGowan, CEO of MCI from 1968 to 1987, said this to me: there's always something that somebody wants to be the something of."
Today, the paradigm has shifted to another popular brand, and everyone wants a piece of it. What used to be about being like IBM or Japan has been replaced by something white, plastic, and highly portable. Today, everyone wants to be the...iPod of their industry!
How many times have you heard someone utter that phrase or a phrase just like it? And how many times have you thought to yourself, Like, who doesn't, dude?
Of course people want to be the iPod of their industry. Who doesn't want to be behind an amazing, original idea that single-handedly revolutionizes a business model?
(Exactly how revolutionary? Here's one eye-opening stat: according tothe New York City Police Department, after years of falling numbers, subway crime recently went up 18 percent. The cause? iPod theft.)
But as Martin Puris, an advertising legend responsible for such campaigns as BMW's "Ultimate Driving Machine," told us, this Peeping Tom approach is usually the first step to not being the iPod of your industry. "Looking in another person's backyard is usually a replacement to thinking for yourself -- and unless you can execute better than your neighbor it's a surefire way to be second-best."
The next time someone says they want to be the iPod of their industry, ask them this: before he came up with the iPod, did Steve Jobs walk around telling people he wanted to be the Sony Walkman of his industry?
Think different is what should define every company, not Me-Too. The question is, How do you operate according to that philosophy? Do you give consumers what they want, what they're already expecting? Or do you give consumers what they don't yet know they want?
We believe that you give consumers what they don't yet know they want -- just when they're ready for it. In order to do that, it's necessary to go to market with a perfectly timed disruptive idea that breaks from the norm and fulfills an unmet need.
Fortunately, there are different ways to get there. Sometimes creating what feels as original as an iPod is a manicured illusion. Sometimes it has to do with change in the face of popular wisdom. Sometimes it's about being first to market; sometimes it's about being second. At times, it's both, or neither. And other times, as they used to say in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, it's just a step to the right. The trick is seeing the difference between that surefooted side step and the flatfooted chase for consequence.
AN ACQUIRED TASTE
There is nothing quite like the story of Grey Goose vodka to illustrate the complexities of creating a killer app. Consider for a moment the plight of the clear spirits industry. Modern vodka brands suffer from the same dilemma that plagues all digital audio players that aren't iPods. Not only are they peddling an often indistinct product that has very little color, taste, or character, but they must also compete with the iPod of their industry: Grey Goose.
By any objective standard, in less than seven years since it hit the market, Grey Goose has drowned the competition. Walk into any nightclub in New York City and you'll see the "it" vodka on about 80 percent of the tables. Goose can be found at all the high-end fashion events. Meanwhile, its urban cred is massive: rappers namecheck it while guzzling it down in videos. After rap duo 8Ball & MJG's Almost Famous came out in November 2001, sales of Grey Goose went up 600 percent. Goose is "super-premium." Sometimes, it gets upgraded to "ultrapremium." Just the feel of the brand name slipping past your lips -- "Goose, rocks, two limes, please" -- is considered prestigious.
Yes, there's no doubt that Grey Goose has succeeded in becoming the iPod of its industry. The fascinating part is how it got there.
A Matter of Taste
Is Grey Goose really the world's best tasting vodka? Is the iPod the best functioning portable music device? It doesn't matter. As the infamous expression goes, print the legend.
But let's seriously consider the question for a minute. Or, better yet, let's respond with another question: what, exactly, makes a vodka taste great?
The fact is that the appeal of a premium vodka is more about the absence of taste, the lack of any notable distinction: the less a vodka tastes like "liquor," the more likely one will be to guzzle it down. It was this very reason why the flavored-vodka market soared: all those peach and vanilla vodkas happened to taste even less like straight vodka. Vodka, for most consumers, is about mixing. The so-called "highly sophisticated" vodka drinker will scoff at that notion. But as Mr. T used to say, "Who the fool?" For is there really such a thing as a sophisticated vodka drinker (as opposed to, say, a sophisticated Bordeaux drinker), or is this a personal branding device?
Does anybody "taste" vodka when they're drinking it with cranberry, orange, tonic, or the ever-so-delicious Red Bull?
The factors that make vodka palatable are highly subjective. You can hang the prestige of your brand on taste, but there will always be yet another taste test, with a brand-new champ -- as the following well-documented New York Times study makes clear. If you're one of those lucky people who can actually discern the putative superiority of Grey Goose, the winner of this study may surprise you:
It was not exactly a victory for the underdog, but chalk it up as a triumph of the unexpected. The idea for the Dining section's tasting panel was to sample a range of the new high-end unflavored vodkas that have come on the market in the last few years in their beautifully designed bottles and to compare them with a selection of established super-premium brands. To broaden the comparison, or possibly as a bit of mischief, our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch, added to our blind tasting a bottle of Smirnoff, the single best-selling unflavored vodka in the United States, but a definite step down in status, marketing and bottle design. After the 21 vodkas were sipped and the results compiled, the Smirnoff was our hands-down favorite.
Wait? Smirnoff? The best-tasting vodka? As the Times wrote, "Shocking." They concluded by adding, "[by] the end of our tasting it was Smirnoff at the top of our list, ahead of many other names that are no doubt of higher status in stylish bars and lounges. Some of those names did not even make our Top 10. Grey Goose, from France, one of the most popular vodkas, was felt to lack balance and seemed to have more than a touch of sweetness" (italics ours). Clearly, there's a critical lesson to be learned here: in a category that is based almost exclusively on a bland product -- a commodity like, say, vodka, tissues, water, whatever -- to truly break through, your point of difference often needs to be engineered. The late Sidney Frank, the man who built Grey Goose, crafted his great idea with a simple plan based on gut instinct, personal vision, and the notion that perception is an incredibly powerful elixir. He used a frosted bottle. He shipped Goose in wood crates, as wine bottles are, so it appeared more valuable. He produced his vodka in the "great vodka region of France," an association that certainly doesn't hurt when you're trying to communicate prestige. He priced his product at thirty dollars, which was two times the price of a bottle of Absolut -- the most expensive vodka at the time and another former iPod of its industry. Frank gave away Grey Goose to any charity or society event that wanted vodka poured -- a shrewd way to reach the exact target audience he was pursuing. And he named his vodka Grey Goose, a moniker that certainly didn't carry much perceived cachet at the time.
Frank went out of his way to indoctrinate distributors and bartenders, which meant of course that bartenders would in turn indoctrinate consumers.
But most important, Frank very shrewdly coopted the tagline "The World's Best Tasting Vodka" after it was awarded that distinction by the Beverage Tasting Institute, and it developed an entire advertising campaign revolving around the phrase. That "World's Best Tasting Vodka" positioning statement subsequently led to Goose being officially enshrined as the best by tastemakers and followers alike.
We had planned to talk to Mr. Frank for this book but he passed away shortly before our interview. So his publicist, Sarah Zeiler, shared Frank's thoughts on the matter with us: "Sidney believed that France was the perfect place from which to import a vodka because he loved the country and so many other luxury items that came from it. He felt that the best food, wine, champagne, and fashion came from France and so should the world's best vodka."
All of this seems perfectly logical in retrospect but it was totally radical in the mid-'80s. After all, who ever heard of a vodka-making region of France? Shipping vodka in wooden crates was considered perverse. Who would have imagined that consumers would suddenly pay double, and how in the world could someone possibly name a superpremium spirit Grey Goose?
While companies typically spend countless hours deliberating over product names, Frank called his vodka Grey Goose, ironically enough, because he already owned the name and didn't want to waste money on a new one. He believed in what he was selling and it was his passion and the disruptive nature of his strategies that inspired consumers to follow his vision, not some well-manufactured name.
Grey Goose took the iPod of its industry title away from its older rivals by imbuing a perception that every brand dreams of -- a perception that consumers think they have taste by virtue of the fact that they're consuming something associated with good taste.
Or, as Zeiler put it, "Mr. Frank said that ordering Grey Goose gave a person the opportunity to make a statement about who they are and that they like the very best."
Today, of course, every vodka wants some of that juice.
I can say this because I've worked closely with several vodka brands and we wanted it bad. In fact, one of them, TURI vodka, was owned by Bacardi USA, the same company which now owns Grey Goose. Everyone interested in becoming the new "it" vodka over the past several years, of becoming the iPod of their industry, crafted strategies based around seemingly new ideas. There were new stunning bottle designs, innovative distillation techniques, fancy claims about unique heritage, exclusive deals with nightclub promoters, partnerships with high-end fashion brands, distribution muscle, strong press, support from spirits experts, and so on. Ciroc, for example, is made from "fine French grapes" and is "five times distilled." Elit vodka, Stoli's new luxury brand, uses a freezing filtration process and pushes luxury positioning. Effen pushes the indie cred that comes from being headquartered in Chicago. Pravda was "voted the best vodka," according to its ads. Even the designer, Roberto Cavalli, launched a vodka. His point of difference was the concept of serving "luxury on the rocks," a niche that might have been unique if liquid luxury wasn't also part of Elit's point of difference.
On the surface, each new entry appeared to be doing everything right. There was only one problem: in essence, we were chasing after Goose. It doesn't take a sommelier to smell what's different: nobody is entering the market with a completely disruptive strategy, one that could totally shake up the market or create a new category as Sidney Frank did. Everyone seems to think that one new modification or a slew of semimodifications is the route to market share. To think this is to misunderstand Frank's vision, which was about a wellconsidered step to the right, where no one else was at the moment standing. Thinking you'll achieve specialness by emulating someone else's terms (or simply inverting them) isn't much different than applying a coat of paint to a cracked wall.
Is the number of times you distill a vodka a disruptive strategy? When I first started working on spirit brands it seemed logical enough. But, time and time again, I heard conflicting views from experts about the relationship between quality and times distilled. Some say it shouldn't be distilled more than three times. Others, like Ciroc, say more is better. Who knows? Who cares? As we've seen from two different award results, our taste buds, especially when vodka is involved, are seriously subjective. Moreover, when new vodka brands push nothing more than a distillation metric as a way of laying claim to having a better-tasting vodka, it raises another question: Aren't they forgetting that someone else already owns that positioning?
Without a truly unique point of difference, even if it has to be based mostly on perception, it's fairly impossible to become the iPod of any industry. In the end, Bacardi USA acquired Grey Goose, which may be the smartest way to be the iPod of an oversaturated industry.
CHANGE AGENT If Grey Goose illustrates that you can manufacture a great idea out of thin air, there's nothing that quite reveals the dividends of change in the face of popular wisdom like the story of Us Weekly.
When Jann Wenner, legendary founder of Rolling Stone -- and publisher of distinctly less legendary Men's Journal and Us magazine -- decided to take Us from a monthly to a weekly, it is largely forgotten, now that Us Weekly is such a force of nature, that the magazine's first year was defined by almost abject failure.
Actually, it was a disaster -- a magazine that had no understanding of who its reader was, and a stubborn unwillingness to be that reader.
A little history first.
Us, for almost a decade, was a borderline success: an entertainment (or, more accurately, info-fluff) publication that usually found itself coming in third behind Entertainment Weekly and People. Its reason for being was almost impossible to articulate, and its point of difference -- it was actually a lot smarter and better written than People -- was almost entirely unclear to the layperson.
So Us sputtered along, never winning, rarely placing, content with its steady if low-rent collection of Subaru and Wella Balsam ads.
But Jann was restless. People magazine was printing money for Time Inc. Inside meeting rooms at Wenner Media, the mantra was "If we can just take away 10 percent of People's business..."
People, for the record, generates approximately $200 million in annual ad revenue. Us, in 1999, the year before it went weekly, was bringing home, according to industry sources, less than a paltry $1 million. Jann's thinking was hard to fault. Ten percent of People would mean an additional $20 million. Rolling Stone, though something a bit less than its former glory, was doing okay. Men's Journal, though a perennial also-ran, had carved out a reasonable niche. The foundering Us needed something -- or it needed to be shut down.
So the word went out that the slow-moving Us was going on a brief hiatus, after which it would reemerge from its cocoon as a lean and mean weekly.
Yes, lean and mean was the plan. It was going to be smarter than People and EW. Yes, it was going to have better writing, finer photographs, and a more intelligent architecture. It was going to be assembled by a crack edit staff, with thoughtful critics who would shine new light on the popular culture it was covering. It was going to feature ironic epigraphs from the likes of Oscar Wilde! This, so the thinking went, was just what the readers of People were looking for. A smarter, slicker People.
Readers of the competition would appraise this fine specimen and abandon the opposition. The publishing industry would bend over backward to praise all this ambition.
In theory, it was going to be a step to the right, but it was really more like a Me-Too that misunderstood what attracted most people to the market it was trying to improve on. In essence, it was pushing heritage branding.
So, fast-forward a few months. After a long drumroll, the new, improved, and accelerated Us arrives at the American newsstand and supermarket checkout line.
And the response from readers was immediately apparent. They hated it.
On the surface, there really was nothing wrong with the new Us Weekly. The editor, Terry McDonnell, had staffed the magazine with smart and seasoned editors who brought a worldly sophistication to the pages and a sharpness to the copy; there was a healthy feature well with reported articles; critics, many of whom had distinguished themselves at other notable publications, turned in trenchant reviews of film, television, music, and books. The art direction was crisp and contemporary. Expensive photography glammed up the pages. In execution, it was in many respects as good as EW and superior to People.
At any rate, a few weeks after launching, Us Weekly had achieved a level of professional competence and distinction that should have identified it as indeed superior to People. Just as Elit is theoretically superior to Grey Goose. Except, nobody was buying it.
The problem, or more accurately, the big problem, was this: Us Weekly magazine was being produced by people who could easily achieve professional competence, but who had no genuine passion for the content they were producing in the magazine. It was a mercenary undertaking, motivated by the worst reason to go into a business: a sense that they could make a quick buck on the wishy-washiness of the customer.
And the marketplace could tell.
Not only did Us Weekly have no real point of difference, it had a hollow tone-deafness that reflected its complete lack of relevance.
It was being made by people who were less interested in communicating with the customer and more about producing a lifeless piece of wax. It was the consummate Me-Too.
Magazines, like so many objects of desire, are not desirable unless they form some sort of attachment with the reader. In the magazine business they call this engagement. But what it really means is that the product is relevant. At least that's what happened at Us Weekly. The Terry Mc- Donnell regime didn't last. As on any ship that's sinking, people started jumping off; blaming fingers were pointed; the thing looked to be on its last legs.
Then Terry McDonnell, recognizing that he was a good man but not the right man for this job, went to Sports Illustrated...
...And along came an editor named Bonnie Fuller.
Many people think Bonnie Fuller simply dumbed Us Weekly down to success. In some respects this is true. She got rid of the long features, and cut the critiques to little blurbs.
But what she really did was to ask herself how this magazine might become relevant. And what she came up with might seem banal if it wasn't totally genius. She made a magazine for herself, and in doing so, carved a sort of relevance that was only possible, like it or not, in the celebrity-obsessed, post-reality television age. As Fuller told us, "I wanted to create a magazine that I really wanted to read. I was the customer. And Us subsequently became the magazine that I was dying to read."
Whereas the first Us Weekly offered earnest criticism on the likes of Species 2 and thoughtful interviews about politics with Tim Robbins -- subjects exactly no one was interested in (or that one could easily find elsewhere) -- Bonnie decided that the relevant mood of the moment, when it came to celebrity, was realism and approachability -- via paparazzi.
Thus she came up with what may be the single most brilliant magazine innovation since typeface: "Stars -- They're Just Like Us!"
For STJLU, Bonnie had her photographers collect images of, say, Catherine Zeta-Jones picking her nose, or Britney Spears showing a beer gut and dirty fingernails. It was a revolution. In one fell swoop, she inverted the reigning model: the story was no longer about the product (or about the stars as product), but rather about the reader's -- i.e., the customer's -- perceived relationship to the product. Bonnie Fuller opened the door for a journalistic Rupert Pupkinization of the fan magazine. Wow, Linda Carter has irritable bowel syndrome, just like me! By doing this, she anticipated The Osbornes, The Surreal Life, and other myriad other media that thrived on train-wreck charm. The changes kept coming. She added features on poorly dressed stars. She had headlines hand-drawn in what looked like purple crayon where modern -- i.e., elitist -- type used to be. The list of garish bon-bons goes on and on.
And what happened? The readers loved it. Here, at last, was a magazine that gave them exactly what they craved, a product that succeeded in every way to communicate to its core customer a sense of devotion to their needs that made it indispensable. Today, Us has a circulation of 1.6 million and growing. Its 2005 ad pages topped 1,300. The rebirth of Us Weekly is clearly a metaphor. Bonnie Fuller's Us Weekly is the classic example of giving the people something they wanted by creating a product she wanted. The genius was in the subtle step to the right, rather than a craven chase for cool, and how that step conveyed specialness. Like crack on newsprint, it made an entirely dormant segment into a monster loyal audience.
And in doing so it became -- you guessed it -- the iPod of its industry. People is still a lot bigger, but in that respect it's Microsoft. And like any iPod of its industry, Us Weekly has spawned myriad Me-Toos (some of which, in a twist of fate, had come first to this market).
BEST TO MARKET
Grey Goose and Us Weekly shared something in common. Neither was first to market, per se, but both became best of breed. Nevertheless, people will tell you that first place is the only place.
During the Internet boom, the idea of being first-to-market achieved new prominence as a key catchphrase. Nothing was valid unless it was first. But as anyone over twenty can tell you, most of the companies that came in first ended up going out of business first. First ended up meaning that you had cool ideas with no business model. Remember Boo.com, the first-generation Internet fashion site that burned up in a blaze of glory? When the smoke cleared it was the bigger companies, the slow-moving leviathans who'd watched ploddingly from the sidelines that ended up winning.
There are few triumphs in the business world as chestpoundingly gratifying as being able to claim that you were first to market. Being an honest-to-God first-to-market innovator means you were, like, first. The original. There's always a new trail, and someone has to blaze it -- since most people lack the courage to take on that type of risk, the bragging rights that come with really being first are hard to fuck with.
Ian Schrager is a visionary known for being first. He pioneered the boutique hotel business in the United States when he opened Morgan's Hotel in New York. After Morgan's came the Royalton, the Paramount, the Delano in Miami, the Mondrian in L.A., the Clift in San Francisco, the Sanderson in London, and so on.
Schrager's great innovation was that he identified a new traveler, someone who wanted a hipper, younger, more fashionable venue. Someone like him. These travelers wanted to hang out in the bars and restaurants instead of spending time locked in their rooms, so Schrager spent a lot of his efforts on his new hotel's common spaces. He was obsessed with aesthetic so he created beautiful façades. And he was driven by his desire to create a hotel for his generation. He opened places he wanted to stay in and, as expected, they ended up looking more like lounges than hotels. In doing so, he created a real buzz: his hotels were the place to be.
He even attracted locals to hang out, which seems obvious enough today, but was highly unorthodox then. Schrager was first to market in America with his boutique hotel concept. He was also first to market with the Studio 54 concept.
In fact he has a mantra: "There is no second to market, there's only first." And, of course, in certain industries first is an imperative. Pole position gives a leg up. It means a great deal, especially when it's possible to file a patent.
But if the previous Us Weekly story illustrates anything, it's that there's often a gold medal for those who come in second. Remember, even third place gets a nice medal.
Let's not deceive ourselves: the iPod was far from the "first" portable digital player. How many people are swooning over its most notable predecessor, the portable MP3 player known as the Diamond Rio? They're not much more than a footnote on eBay today. The Rio got there first, and the company that created it fell off the face of the earth.
Leading New York nightlife and creative entrepreneur Serge Becker said it nicely: "There are a lot of people who are too far ahead of the curve and are unsuccessful because of it. Success happens when a person like me, who looks at those types of people, can create a business that works." Serge's newest opening, La Esquina, is often hailed as the coolest lounge in New York.
Sometimes, according to Richard Branson, "The time to go into a business is when it's abysmally run by other people." Was Virgin Mobile first? Or Virgin Records? Or Virgin Megastores? Or Virgin Atlantic? Or any of the hundreds of businesses he owns? As he forays into the American airline industry, with Virgin America, Branson is being criticized for entering a business that has no hope. Which is exactly what they said when JetBlue entered the market.
"A lot of people don't want to be first on the beach 'cause it's a risky place to be," as advertising legend Martin Puris told us. "Being a creative leader is a really out-there place to be. By definition, it's a step beyond where people have been and so there's no path. But if you can come second and make something better, that's no less valid. You're gonna take first place by doing the same thing with 20/20 vision. There's something to be said for watching and learning. P&G are masters at the process of having a process, of being second. They don't often go out on a limb. They follow other company's footsteps and have obviously been pretty successful at it."
First place can even be a bitter place. I remember having lunch at Peter Morton's house, the former owner of the Hard Rock, with Ian Schrager. We were all sitting around the table complaining. Morton was complaining about Planet Hollywood knocking him off. Schrager was complaining about some hotel chain knocking him off. And I was constantly complaining about Bergdorf Goodman for trying to steal our designers. Back then, we were pissed by all that imitation. Today, I have a different feeling on that matter: don't complain when they copy, complain when they don't.
As with everything, it's all about the execution of the vision. And execution is a lot easier when you can look back on someone else's mistakes. A lot of Schrager's followers made a lot of money co-opting his ideas.
Indeed, the sort of path you take to be the iPod of your industry is immaterial. It really doesn't matter if you're first, second, third, or fifty-seventh: what matters -- if you're interested in sticking around longer than Boo.com -- is that you find a point of difference that makes you relevant.
STEP TO THE LEFT
"At a recent electronics seminar, I watched in horror as major cell phone companies presented their new products -- not a single one of which introduced any significant innovation to the market," leading industrial designer Yves Behar told us. "Any sign of original thought or unique strategy was completely absent from their Me-Too products. The main reason for their failure is their lack of marketing and engineering vision. By letting the hardware dictate the internal workings of the units, designers are reduced to making endless new book covers for the same story. In contrast, look at another product in another category -- the Apple Shuffle. The designers did more than just remove features, they created a new category of MP3 player with a totally new story -- and inevitably another hit for Apple."
Yves doesn't tell this story just to bang cell phone companies -- hundreds of companies play the same Me-Too card. Look no further than the mass co-optation of the iPod: the HP makes an iPod with their logo on it. Everybody's giving away iPods in sweepstakes and contests. U2 shares its own equity by partnering with iPod; so does Eminem. Cars advertise iPod connectivity. Levi's is creating iPod-compatible jeans. The word podcast has long since entered the dictionary. Stopping this iPodification is like holding back a tidal wave with a USB cable.
But this frenzy raises an interesting question: can the type of thinking that drives a brand to co-opt the iPod create a culture that invents something as revolutionary as the iPod?
And this all begs the question: how relevant can you really be if you're a slave to today's trends?
As acclaimed designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli told us, "As designers, we live to design things that are never 'in' -- so they're never out." Their furniture now appears in art galleries and museums, and is sold for breathtaking prices to discerning buyers.
The moment a company focuses too heavily on what's going on around it is when its products become Me-Too. That's why great design, for instance, can't have anything to do with trend. As Behar told us, "In the design profession, the notion of 'today' really means tomorrow, because product innovation also takes years."
Me-Too products also reveal a common misperception in the business world about what the word modern actually means. Modern often seems to be misunderstood as meaning "trendy."
But as celebrated fashion designer and former Gucci head Tom Ford told us, "Modern means contemporary, not of the moment." Anything that is considered modern today was created by someone who had enough vision to build something that lasts.
"It means something is simple and classic today and will have the same power ten to twenty years from now," added designer Doug Lloyd, whose company Lloyd (+ co) handles branding for such entities as Gucci, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Yves Saint Laurent, and Vitamin Water.
As we interviewed experts about this subject, we consistently heard one unifying theme that always rang true: never create for today.
To that point, there must always be a careful balance between influenced and original, between what's out there and what's not yet been done. The best innovators are, of course, always influenced by other innovators, whether past or present. Shakespeare from Marlowe, Miles from Artie Shaw, and Eminem from Dre.
Speaking of Eminem and Dre, when it comes to originality and influence, it's hard not to think about the hiphop movement. Why? Because let's face it, hip-hop has become...the iPod of the music industry!
It's a funny paradox. The genre is in many respects the ultimate convergence of innovation and imitation. It's also a genre famous for co-opting existing musical styles and pushing them into uncharted territory.
Since many hip-hop producers, for instance, are not musicians per se, they've always been forced to create music based on sampling, based on borrowing from the past. But the samples are embellished, tweaked, mashed, chopped up, and screwed so well that an entirely new form of musical composition has evolved. As a result, a lot of the best hip-hop songs have brought a totally new vibe to older classics that would never have been appreciated by newer generations. Biggie's "Juicy" revived Mtume's "Juicy Fruit," just as Kanye West's "Through the Wire" revived Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire."
It would be easy, as many people have, to write off hiphop for its overreliance on Other People's Music. How can it possibly stay fresh? And, for that matter, doesn't an iPod of an industry always eventually get old?
Part of the reason the iPod, for example, shows no signs of relinquishing its dominance is that Steve Jobs doesn't stand still. He keeps fearlessly stepping to the right, shrinking sizes, tweaking aesthetics, adding downloadable video, etc.
Hip-hop, in a similar vein, has taken more side steps than choreographer Savion Glover. If you look at some of the major swing shifts in the genre, it seems like there's always been somewhere new to go.
LL Cool J starting doing R&B-style hip-hop when it was cool to be hardcore hip-hop. Public Enemy started doing politically charged hip-hop when most rappers were making party tracks. Tupac hit every end of the spectrum when rappers were prescribing to one particular style. OutKast can do basically anything and still be cool. Eminem infiltrated hip-hop culture when nobody ever thought it could be cool to be white.
There's always another way to break through.
As hip-hop artist Talib Kweli told us, "For as long as I can remember, people have been saying that hip-hop isn't going to last -- it's not serious, it's destructive or it's ridiculous, whatever. Ironically, the critics made artists like Tupac or Snoop superstars in the process. All that heat made them more rebellious and more like outlaws to their fans, which is why their fans listened to them in the first place.
There's always somewhere new to take hip-hop and the more heat it gets, the farther it will go."
So the big question is: how do you become the iPod of an industry?
GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT -- WHEN YOU WANT IT
Breathe, watch, listen, and spit it back in your own way.
What's out there today creates parameters. External influences should provide inspiration. But what's out there is not a blueprint, it's a sketch waiting to be interpreted and redrawn.
Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary founder of Atlantic Records, spoke to us about this point: "Record executives don't try to teach people what to like," Ertegun told us, "we try to find out what people like and give them what they like. And if we can't give them what they like, we're out of business."
Russell Simmons spoke to the idea of watching the culture as a prerequisite to reshaping it: "Timing is everything," he told us. "I've actually been slow to recognize trends. By the time I recognized comedy -- Chris Tucker, Martin Lawrence, Dave Chappelle, Jamie Foxx, and Steve Harvey -- all those guys had already built a fan base. When I exposed them through Def Comedy Jam, America was really ready for them. Spoken word had been around for a long time; I didn't recognize it until it was more popular. When we created Def Poetry Jam, it was a hit because it was what people were waiting for. Same thing with Def Jam and rap music. It's funny, I've always been lucky enough to be slow enough. When I get hold of something, I'm like a lot of consumers. I don't recognize things until they are ready. I didn't start actually anything from the beginning. I got there just in time."
Bonnie Fuller puts this another way. "Before I create something," she told us, "I figure out what consumers want based on a combination of gut instinct and research. But the key thing to remember about consumers is that you can't just do what they say. They don't always know what they want. They can't imagine what the next better thing could be. Sure, you have to listen to what their needs are. But they can't tell you how to fulfill their needs."
To translate: Give the people something you're certain they'll want because you're certain they're ready for it. Or as it's more commonly phrased: trust your gut.
The beauty of the iPod story -- and all these other iPods of their industries, from Sidney Frank to Bonnie Fuller -- is that it's not about originality per se. It's about originality in the form of staying one step ahead -- or one step to the right. Or left. Or both.
It's about changing the rules of the game, in your own way. So step up.
Copyright © 2007 by Noah Kerner and Gene Pressman
Table of Contents
The iPod Of My Industry
Disruptive For Disruption's Sake
Don't Fill Up Your Cup
What People are Saying About This
"Johnny Heller does a professionally 'cool' job." -AudioFile