Thursday, November 6, 2008

Promos That Rock

By Matthew George & Kenneth Hein

After all of these years, Madonna is still a master marketer. Here’s how the pop star, and her counterparts in the music world, use promo products to stay fresh.

Madonna has always done things her own way whether it comes to fashion, music or in-your-face sexuality. So why should her recording contract be any different? The longtime pop star made headlines by signing a $120 million deal, not with a record label, but with concert promoter Live Nation. Live Nation will not only handle her tours, they will also be responsible for selling merchandise bearing her likeness and licensing her name.

Madonna knows the power of a well-placed image. Part pop-star/part pinup girl, keeping her image front and center though posters, shirts and other merchandise has served her well. Her current “Sweet and Sticky” tour in support of her release of the album “Hard Candy” (which hit #1 on the Billboard charts in May) stays true to this formula. There is no shortage of posters and promotional materials featuring the Material Girl looking the part of a dominatrix. For her release parties attendees were given giant lollipops with the image of her album cover on it.

“The Madonna deal with Live Nation, in this case acted like the merchandise item. It got her a lot of attention,” says David Katznelson of Birdman Recordings, who spent 11 years at Warner Brothers.

And it seems as if her fans will do anything to get their hands on Madonna memorabilia. At the annual amfAR Cinema Against AIDS benefit, Madonna auctioned off a 334 diamond-encrusted black alligator bag donated by Chanel, but it was what the bag contained that made it sell for $472, 000. When she emptied the purse to reveal a magnifying mirror, hair clips, skin blotting tissue and some used lip gloss, the bids began to skyrocket. Pretty impressive, although she failed to beat out George Clooney who sold two kisses raising $700,000 for AIDS research the year before.

Still, most artists can’t make headlines by auctioning off personal belongings because, well, they aren’t Madonna. That’s why promotional products serve as an important weapon in a band’s marketing arsenal. “They serve three roles,” says Katznelson, “to stick in the minds of retailers, to work as incentives to get people to buy early and to garner press.”

Some of Katznelson’s favorite promotional items have been logoed rolling papers distributed by the drug-friendly band the Black Crowes and miniature body bags that read “Cop Killer” in support of Ice-T’s band Body Count. “The guy who created the body bags almost lost his job. It helped sell records, but people said ‘If you get pulled over, don’t tell the cops you work for Warner Brothers.’”

But that’s not the only unique way to increase album sales. The rock band White Stripes customized USB drives to resemble the rock duo and had their full-length album on them. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor went a step further by placing data storage devices that contained unreleased songs from his album Year Zero in restrooms where the band performed. This smart marketing campaign would have fans that discovered these drives buzzing about what they’ve found.

And it doesn’t hurt to have a strong logo. Whether it is Kiss, the Rolling Stones or Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, “it is visual branding,” says Carianne Laguna Brinkman, vice president of Blackheart Records. “It goes beyond brand recognition to conveying a lifestyle, an energy or even a history.”

For other bands, the name in and of itself plays right into the merchandise space like The Plain White T’s. To promote the Sept. 23rd release of Big Bad World, the platinum-selling band partnered with retailer Aéropostale. When teens buy the record at Aéropostale locations they received a free T-shirt. “Hollywood Records and Plain White T’s are always looking for innovative ways to connect to their audience,” says Ken Bunt, senior vice president of marketing of Hollywood Records in a statement. “Aéropostale offers an exciting and direct link to a consumer that is passionate about style and music.”

But for solo artists, sometimes you have to attract your fan base with a different approach. Hip-hop artist Juvenile’s record label found an interesting way to promote his album Reality Check. With each purchase of the rapper’s CD, fans would receive checkbook covers with the album name on it. Of course, fans wouldn’t receive his bank account with the free gift, but the purpose of creating some media hype for the release was accomplished.

When it comes to reaching the media, even concert promoters rely heavily on promotional products to get the word out. Comcast-Spectator, owner of the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, is no exception. To promote Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters’ show it sent out commemorative bricks and custom-made cigars – a nod to Pink Floyd’s songs “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Have a Cigar” respectively.

For the Genesis reunion tour “Turn it on Again,” it gave out light switches. “We find dropping gifts to the media creates a visual and reinforces the importance of the event,” says Ike Richman, vice president of public relations for Comcast-Spectator. “The gifts are often collectors’ items or something that makes an impact when delivered.”

Matthew George is editorial intern of Successful Promotions and Ken Hein is a contributing writer based in New York.

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