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Prince has died. David Bowie passed away. Natalie Cole. David Rickman. 2016. Wow- it feels like a long list of goodbyes. When a celebrity dies, we instantly become the age we were when we most enjoyed their work. For Prince, I was in high school- 11th grade. For David Bowie, seventh grade. Natalie Cole, fifth grade. David Rickman, age 33 and mom to three children under the age of six and just then a budding Harry Potter fan.
When Michael Jackson passed away, I heard about it on a TV in the dressing room of Macy’s in Bend, Oregon. I was going to try on a new jacket and stood paralyzed in front that screen. I never tried that jacket on. But I bought it and still have it and think of him every time I wear it.
It’s funny, isn’t it? How our minds press tight against memories in a way that can instantly transport us back to vivid recollections.
This introspection comes to us at hallmark moments, but when you work in marketing, it should be remembered every day. Since I work in higher education, I am astounded by the number of universities who “forget” what it was like to apply to a college, get accepted (or rejected), pack up your family car with limited belongings and move away for the first time. It seems like some of the most impressionable years of anyone’s life starts senior year of high school. Suddenly, choices are real- they make or break, in some ways, the rest of your life direction.
I believe that I too once forgot. I worked at universities so long it seemed like an endless, repetitive cycle. Students came and went; graduated; became alumni I saw at reunions or football games. But now that I am not so immersed in the “business” of college, I am able to be a better marketer – one who celebrates all those moments and works hard to ensure that all my clients remember and reflect when they produce their work.
When I am assisting with admissions materials, I try to inject the enthusiasm of a new client seeking a new service. I try to be 17, feeling excited, scared and unsure of myself. Instead of lovely photos of campus that, no matter what the geography, look like New England in the Fall, or that expected shot of pretty girl with a book or laptop sitting under a tree, I try to keep it real. Transporting ourselves back to the moment in time that we made a decision about the very thing we are marketing, cuts through the cookie-cutter approach I am seeing so often in my consulting.
Too often, when universities are thinking about their fund-raising materials, they leap to the assumption that alumni had common experiences. Universities are so large and diverse that rarely do any students have the same kinds of exposures. Some connect to social lives, but many connect to the academic program in which they are enrolled. Some have a place that they will always associate with their alma mater because it was the place that they met their life partner, or where they ate lunch with girlfriends every Friday, or where every Saturday they had pizza and beer with friends. A one-size-fits-all approach is not practical, but it is easy, cost effective and when not tied to specific ROI (and very rarely are my clients expressing metrics for the help they are seeking), it becomes the simplest means to an end.
No matter what area of marketing, it is challenging to not let the bottom line influence our thinking. The best and most long-standing brands evolve their messages. Think of Coke – from sweet polar bears to the peace movement to personalized cans. They change according to their audiences. Harley Davidson’s famous consumer research gives them authentic feedback on how to keep rebuilding their motorcycles. Their marketers live with and go on the road with riders and bring the feedback right from the experience. Just like my trip down memory lane with Prince’s passing took me on a journey, a road trip to Sturgis creates memories for riders that last a lifetime. Good brands know these experiences and bring them to life in how they talk about themselves.
I guess I have been particularly motivated by what feels like a rash of highly visible celebrity deaths. I am conscious of how much I slip back in time when I hear of their passing. And, this introspection is making me a better consultant. It is a wonderful reminder that we cannot take anything for granted when working for our clients. To be mindful that our role is to serve as the conscience that helps them stay honest and authentic when connecting to their audiences.
The purple tribute that we are seeing is also a tribute to the power of the man and the brand that Prince built. As a marketing consultant, I am grateful for the lessons I can learn from the way he conducted himself and his business. As a human, I am going to forever be 17 when I hear his name, his songs and see his signature color.