Last week James Blunt gave me a lesson in marketing. I might not have realised just how good he is at marketing, if I hadn't seen Alfie Boe a year ago. I don't go to concerts very often so it was lucky I had something to compare with.
The story begins a couple of years ago. My wife and I have enjoyed James' music for many years but we had never seen him live in concert so we decided that the next time he toured, we'd try and get tickets. I figured the best idea would be to join his email list in the hope of getting a heads up. This worked and in fact I was able to take advantage of fans' priority booking to get some excellent seats.
Okay, it was a means to an end but following James meant I got an insight into his marketing strategy. He doesn't post regularly but he does let you know when he has a new video or other significant news and he does it in a very conversational way (or possibly some PR person does). The point is, he clearly has a rapport with his fans.
Which brings me to his concert. First off, the support was recommended by a fan- James hadn't seen them himself. Then James Blunt himself- not acting like a big star, more like an old friend. Lots of singing along, even to songs on his brand new album. It was like a family get together. He gave us the old favourites like You're Beautiful and Goodbye My Lover. He joked about how miserable his songs are. He treated us to his new album Moon Landing which is his best yet, as miserable and melodic as the previous ones, only more mature. I doubt there is a better singer-songwriter among his generation. If you think you don't like James Blunt, try Bonfire Heart, a perfect love song.
The marketing point is, he doesn't try to be everything to everyone. He knows what he's good at and ploughs that furrow brilliantly. He accepts that there are many people out there who hate him and his music. He laughs about it because he knows that enough people like him to keep him in the top ten and make him a multi millionaire.
Now I'm not saying this is a deliberate marketing tactic but it's one that works. The best brands stick to what they're good at and only change subtly, if at all. Think of BMW or Kelloggs. Remember what happened to Coca Cola when they changed the formula? The outcry that followed saw them beat a hasty retreat.
On the other hand, an occasional new product or a little tweek can keep a brand fresh. Just as Marmite made a huge marketing success from the way people apparently love or hate it, so it is with James Blunt. Stuck with an image of being posh, wet and miserable, he nows exults in it by responding to abusive tweets with witty and often coarse rejoinders which are the talk of the Twittersphere. As a result, his following has soared to 800,000 (to add to his six million Facebook likes) and people who might hate his singing now think he's a good bloke. Here's a clean example. He retweets 'My dog could do better' and adds the comment 'Then your dog should try harder.'
And so to Alfie Boe. We went expecting the Alfie we know and love but instead of the outstanding operatic singer of Nessun Dorma and Les Miserables, we got an average country rock singer. I understand that he may feel trapped in the operatic genre. We all feel trapped sometimes and want to try something different. But I paid to see the Alfie Boe I knew. So did most of the audience judging by the fact that when he returned briefly to his operatic singing and performed Bring Him Home, he got the biggest reaction of the evening.
The result is, I wouldn't go see him again and I wouldn't recommend him. Unless he follows the example of Coke and goes back to what made his name. Better still, he should have a word with James Blunt.
This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the marketing consultancy Seven Experience and former Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.