Was U2’s Free iTunes Launch The Year’s Biggest Brand Fail?

Adweek (Adfreak) has pronounced U2’s Songs of Innocence album release the number 1 brand fail of the year. It is very easy to nod your head yes after reading this, yet I challenge you to go a little deeper and determine what “brand fail” really means. I respect Tim Nudd’s point. Placing automatic download on 500 million people’s phones, whether they wanted it or not, did draw a backlash. I wrote about this U2 and Apple criticism when it first happened. Nudd says, “The criticism was swift and merciless, and Bono later admitted that his “beautiful idea” with Apple might not have been so beautiful after all. “[We] might have gotten carried away with ourselves,” he admitted in the understatement of the year.”
This was a bold move and bold moves hardly ever go perfectly, but before we pronounce this the brand fail of the year let’s dig a little deeper. Think about the challenge of getting through the clutter, trying to keep an older band (sorry Bono, but you’ve been around for four decades) relevant and trying to reach new audiences. What is the objective of most advertising campaigns? To make everyone happy? I would say most brands want to sell product. In this case U2 wants to get their music out into the world and make some money doing it.
Irish Central presents another point to consider in their recent article “U2 Have the Last Laugh with Massive Sales of New Album.” iTunes reported this week that 26 million people have downloaded “Songs of Innocence” in its entirety since they released it at the beginning of last month – nearly double the 14 million who previously had purchased the group’s music through iTunes since it launched in 2003. Mark Farragher says, “I’d say the publicity stunt paid off as U2 achieves their ultimate goal: a global reach of their new music in this world of fractured attention spans with so many entertainment choices.” This article includes a different Bono quote, We were already annoying people, it was already divisive, it was already, ‘I can’t stand them, I want to kill them.’ It’s the job of art to be divisive.”
Before pronouncing the U2 album release a brand fail I also point you to another article recently published about their concert ticket sales. Live Nation reported that U2’s iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour 2015 was sold out in every city where it went on sale the same morning. They continue saying, “Following overwhelming fan demand, including a record-setting 118,000 fans queuing online to purchase tickets in New York, two new shows have been confirmed in New York, Chicago, Boston, Montreal, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Berlin & Paris.” If your objective is to keep a 40 year old band relevant and sell albums and concert tickets then it seems to be producing real business results.
It may not have been perfect, but to pronounce this the biggest brand failure of the year may be an overstatement. What are your thoughts? Perhaps I am just seeing it through rose color Bono glasses because I am a U2 fan.

What We Can Learn About Social Media, Disruptive Innovation & Marketing From U2’s Biggest Album Launch of All Time.

U2’s Songs of Innocence has not had a very innocent launch. It has been quite disruptive. Disruptive innovation is a term that has been very popular in the technological economy. Clayton Christensen first introduced this theory that holds established companies, acting rationally and carefully to stay on top, leave themselves vulnerable to upstarts who find ways to do things more cheaply, often with a new technology. To stay on top for a technology company or even a rock band, they must disrupt the market improving a product in ways that the market does not expect.

U2 front man, Bono said in a recent interview, “Part of the DNA of this band has always been the desire to get our music to as many people as possible.” How does a band in their 38th year continue to live up to that goal when more current acts like Maroon Five, One Direction and Taylor Swift are topping the charts and drawing traditional and social media attention? You creative a disruptive innovation.

Unless you were off the grid, you know that U2 launched a surprise new album at the Apple live event on Tuesday September 9th. More surprising was the fact that it was gifted to all iTunes users as a free download. U2’s manager Guy Oseary says the band wanted to reach as many people as possible. Apple reportedly paid the band an undisclosed direct payment for the exclusive iTunes release and will be running a 100 million dollar ad campaign to promote the album. That is a big promotion budget for a single album, but for Apple, the campaign also ties into promoting iTunes and their new iPhone 6 and iWatch. Apple is no stranger to disruptive innovation when it comes to the music industry and the wireless phone industry turning disruption into profits.

Ben Popper from the The Verge says this may be the future of music promotion, “Time was, the recipe for a superstar artist to create a Big Event Album was well known—a few teaser ads in the music mags, a lead single for radio, some late-night talk show appearances, then sit back and watch the fans line up at the record store on release day. But now that basically every entity in that sentence has been culturally marginalized, and the propeller churn of social media refuses to tolerate slow-burn marketing, the best—and, perhaps, only—way to get everyone talking about your record at once is to release it with no warning.” Popper goes on to say U2 crossed the line by inserting their new album into our libraries without consent. True, but the definition of disruption is “to interrupt the normal progress or activity of (something).” Isn’t that exactly why we are all writing these articles, and posts and updates and tweets about U2? To be honest, no one outside of their preexisting fan base would notice a regular album release by four Dubliner’s in the 38 year of their music careers.

Why is this release so disruptive? Apple is giving the album away for free to 500 million iTunes users around the world. On one day 7% of the planet had one button access to the songs instantly. But the band is also thumbing its nose at traditional music industry signs of success. Because Songs of Innocence has been released free at first, it is ineligible to appear on the Billboard 200. Also, because of the delay of the commercial release it will not be eligible for this year’s Grammys. It is also disruptive because a lot of iTunes users are angry that they got a free album. People are talking all over social media about getting the album off their playlist– free or not. But doing something that people don’t expect (causing a disruption) always causes a stir and a big stir is exactly what U2 and Apple wanted.

What kind of stir or buzz? SocialMention reports a 45% strength, 43% reach and 34% passion in the term “U2.” At the time of this writing sentiment is running 6:1 positive versus negative. Some top keywords are “album,” “iTunes,” “Songs,” and “Innocence.” Top Hashtags related to U2 are “Apple,” “U2songsofinnocence,” “applelive,” and “U2tour.” I saw a big spike in #U2 on Twitter from the site hastags.org and Google reports “U2” was the 7th hottest trending topic in search on Tuesday, September 9th.

Is this free, surprise album launch meeting business goals? Not even a week since the launch the data says yes. The album was downloaded over 2 million times in 3 days. And most likely, an even larger number of people have sampled some of the album by streaming it from iTunes or iTunes Radio. What’s more, the band’s back catalog is selling

17 of U2’s old albums have suddenly jumped up on the iTunes top 100 charts; including The Joshua Tree, their 1987 release, which is at number 12. There are also a lot of tweets out there from kids who are 14-18 saying this is really good and are discovering the band for the first time. But didn’t they mess up the commercial release? Why buy it after October 13? The record company promises a deluxe version with 4 new songs and up to 5 acoustic versions of released songs.

Still many critics say giving away an album is bad business. Before agreeing, consider that U2’s last album release lead to the 360° Tour which is the highest grossing concert tour of all time – netting over $736 million. To put that in perspective, One Direction’s 2014 tour grossed $230 million. With those numbers, giving away some albums for extra social media buzz and exposing the band to new listeners for an upcoming concert tour doesn’t seem like it will disrupt the band’s earnings.

Do you agree? How can you too disrupt your industry to build social media buzz and exceed business goals?