Dave Grohl is best known as lead singer of the rock band Foo Fighters and as the drummer for the famous grunge band Nirvana in the early 90s. He’s also a film-maker – he was the creative force behind the HBO mini-series documentary Sonic Highways – and has even given an eloquent and inspirational keynote speech. Whenever I hear Grohl talk (or sing), I marvel at his intelligence and zest for his craft.
Recently, I got to thinking that he’s more than an artist … he’s actually a pretty savvy marketer. And thus, here are 10 marketing lessons from the career of Dave Grohl.
#1 Know your core competencies.
For Grohl, this means music. He’s a self-taught musician and a natural behind both the mic and drum kit. He’s also an enthusiastic speaker, gifted at rallying crowds and engaging fans. Grohl is confident in his own shoes. He knows who he is, and that naturally extends to his “brand.”
As he said in his keynote speech at the 2013 SXSW conference: “It’s YOUR voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s [obscenity] gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last. …”
Do you know what your company is good at? If not, there are ways to find out. Try looking at what sells best and what your customers say about you, for example. Once you discover what those things are, cling to them.
#2 Try new things.
As much as Grohl knows his core competencies, he’s also not afraid to push the envelope a bit and try new things. He was a drummer first. When Nirvana ended due to singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, Grohl was quiet. He re-emerged a year later with a new album, Pocketwatch, on which he sang the main vocals and played not only the drums but also all the other instruments. He clung close to his core competency of music, but extended his brand.
Years later, after many popular albums and arena tours, Grohl looked at another brand extension: film-making. He and the Foos were the subjects of the documentary Back and Forth, a behind-the-scenes peek at the band, including a look at their recording process for Wasting Light. After that came a Grohl-directed documentary on legendary Southern California recording studio Sound City.
No doubt inspired by Sound City, Grohl embarked on yet another jump-off idea: a documentary of historic recording studios around the United States. The show and album of the same name was called Sonic Highways.
As you can probably see, each project gave way to another. Grohl’s career has naturally evolved, with the roots all tracing back to his drumsticks.
Has your brand done the same? If not, could it? You don’t have to start with a big concept. If someone had told the young Grohl that someday he’d be making an HBO mini-series, he probably would have scoffed. But with each project, his dreams evolved and grew naturally. Your brand’s R&D can do the same.
#3 Don’t be afraid to fail.
That album created for Sonic Highways wasn’t particularly well received by critics, who knocked it for being more concept than album. As a music nerd and fan, I was fascinated. I love listening to the songs to pick up cues and clues of the places that influence and infuse the material. But I understand the critics’ point. When holding up the tracks from that album to some of the stronger earlier records, I can see Sonic Highways is more theory than substance.
But the sheer fact that Grohl and the Foo Fighters released the album speaks volumes to me. It was a strange idea to write and record a track in each of eight cities and studios. The band could have stopped at just the documentary. But they extended the concept, brought in their core competency of music, and went for it. To me, that isn’t a failure at all – it’s a demonstration of bravery and also a learning experience. For one thing, I suspect they discovered that it’s incredibly challenging to write a new song on demand and then record it, on equipment you’re not used to, in a relatively short amount of time. Maybe if they do a second season, they’ll allow themselves more time in each place.
Let’s think back to marketing and branding. What mistakes have you made – and how can you learn from them? It’s always wise to hold “post-mortems” after a big project, whether it ended positively or not. Take stock of what went down, and take notes on what you can do better next time.
#4 Look to the past.
As evidenced by his interest in American recording studios, Grohl’s a student of his craft. He wears his influences unapologetically on his sleeve, and has reverence for legendary musicians and venues. Most recently, Grohl and the band announced they are resurrecting Cal Jam, which was a historic outdoor concert in Southern California in the 1970s. In order to stir interest and drive ticket sales, Grohl and Foo’s drummer Taylor Hawkins posted a rogue social media ad on the band’s accounts. In it, they talked about the past Cal Jams, the epic stacked lineups, and what they had planned for 2017’s event.
“He’s an appreciator,” says Dave’s mother, Virginia Grohl, in a Rolling Stone article. “He has a respect for history and roots.”
What about you? Do you look to the past – of your own company, as well as your industry? What can you learn or try or pay homage to?
#5 Know how to stay relevant.
Despite his reverence for the past, Grohl also knows how to stay front and center in our minds. He and the Foos put out new releases – albums, documentaries – like clockwork, and they tour regularly. They also make funny stunts, such as recently Rickrolling the audience of a festival show in Asia. Grohl and his bandmates always seem to have something in the headlines.
Does your brand stay relevant? Do you use the latest tools – and, more importantly, are you constantly reminding your brand fans of your products and existence? No one wants to be out of sight, out of mind. Yet, with all the distractions and competitions on our time, it’s an easy place to fall into.
#6 Be good at surprising people.
Grohl delivers on his promise, but finds a way to keep his customers – I mean audience – guessing how he’ll do it. Case in point: The band was said to be on hiatus in 2015. Speculation was they were breaking up, or Grohl was going solo. Then, out of nowhere, they showed up in 2017 with a surprise track, video, and revelation of a new album and tour.
What has your brand done lately to surprise and delight your customers?
#7 Care … genuinely.
Grohl’s enthusiasm is infectious. He’s genuinely interested in music and film and creativity. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who stands for BS or fakery. Not only that, but he puts his money (lots of it, I’d imagine) where his mouth is. Consequently, his actions inspire deep devotion around the world. Recently the band gave a concert in Cesena, Italy, after the town’s fans put together a viral campaign pleading for the Foos to play there and organized 1,000 local musicians to perform the song “Learn to Fly” en masse.
“People follow him because they believe Dave is sincere. That comes across in the music. It’s like the guy down the street made it,” says Butch Vig, the band’s frequent producer, in Rolling Stone.
At the end of the day, Grohl seems like just another dude, someone I’d like to talk to at a party. He feels authentic.
What about your brand. Is it authentic? If not, what can you do to ratchet up the sincerity level? At this point in the late 20-teens, it’s critical to be real.
#8 Be a doer.
Grohl’s got deep roots in the punk scene, which has a strong tether to the do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality. In his aforementioned SXSW keynote speech, Grohl talks about his love for punk DIY and the dawning of his realization that crafting a punk career was possible and he could make it happen with his own scrappy hands:
At 13 years old, I realized that I could start my own band, I could write my own song, I could record my own record, I could start my own label, I could release my own record, I could book my own shows, I could write and publish my own fanzine, I could silkscreen my own T-shirts . . . I could do all of this myself. There was no right or wrong . . . because it was all mine.
Much like the many hats a marketer wears, Grohl isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves, show off his feather-tattooed arms, and get to work. That same 13-year-old kid grew up to write and record an entire record – the Foo Fighters’ first album – flying solo.
So what about you? What can you just do, rather than waiting for someone to give you an invitation? What can you try … and, yes, maybe fail at? What project or test can you run from start to finish and truly own?
#9 Keep on learning.
Grohl comes across as innately curious. As an example, he asked honest questions – things he truly wanted to understand – of his interviewees during Sonic Highways. This natural curiosity and willingness to accept that you don’t know all the answers can lead you to unchartered territory … but in a good way.
What do you want to know about your customers, your industry, your competitors? Can you start to ask those questions, and see where it leads?
#10 Give the people what they want.
No matter what Grohl does, it seems he keeps his past successes – and his fans – in mind. He knows what works and what people want. And during all his trials and re-inventions, he always throws us a bone.
Following Sonic Highways, Dave and the band released Concrete and Gold. It’s tinged with vintage Foo songs that harken to the band’s earlier hits. Emotional and nostalgic, “The Line,” for example, has a sentiment akin to the Foos’ mega-popular “Everlong.” “Run” and its cheeky video are right in line with classic, hard-charging, goofy Foos material.
What can you do for your customers? What products or services are you known for – and can you keep providing those things that your customer truly want? What can you create to satiate those desires – and keep them coming back for more?
And, if you feel stuck or need a little inspiration, you might take a moment to ask yourself: What would Dave Grohl do?