You “Wanna Be Around” Years From Now? Ask Tony Bennett

By Dr. John Tantillo, - In Marketing

Picture of Tony Bennett and Susan Crow

Photo Credit: Jeremiah Garcia via Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in Issue 006 Of Fridge Magazine.

Tony Bennett’s 90’s rebranding himself is an example where we discover marketing’s basic rule—ABB–Always Be Branding!

If you “wanna” be around years from now, consider how American singing icon Tony Bennett did it—branding and then rebranding his artistic skills. It’s this very personal branding experience that can assist us when facing our very own stagnation” that every business eventually encounters over time. His approach gave him and his co-collaborator Lady Gaga, the number one selling album (Cheek to Cheek) status and placed Bennett as the oldest vocalist ever to attain this coveted feat. This career accomplishment, however, hasn’t been easy for the 88-year-old who just years ago was considered a “talent whose time had passed.”

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This negative perception was seen first-hand in the early eighties, when this writer was working for a New York state politician’s campaign and was approached by Mr. Bennett to perform a fundraising concert for the candidate. The consensus: Tony was a “has been” and any association with Bennett, would position the upstart officer seeker as “out of touch” with popular culture. Yes, we passed on this offer and years later would realize how short-sighted we were for not accepting this magnanimous offer. You see this was part of Bennett’s long term strategy to bring back his brand. By using creative and different venues as well as “reaching out” to a different audience, Bennett could display his true brand characteristics. This in turn would change the singer’s negative image to a more desirable positive one.

Bennett’s son Danny felt that the way back for the elder Bennett was to target younger audiences who were unfamiliar with his father brand in places where they would frequent. He believed that young folks would respond if only they heard Bennett sing. Yes, Danny knew the value of sampling that many experts feel is the most effective sales promotional tactic. Central to this re-brand roll-out to the new demographic was no changes to Tony’s formal appearance. His singing style, musical accompaniment (The Ralph Sharon Trio or an orchestra), and song selection would generally be the Great American Songbook. These were the imperatives that were not to be altered so that Bennett’s brand could be consistent over appearances.

Danny began this comeback, by regularly booking his father on Late Night with David Letterman, a show with a younger, “hip” audience which was later followed by appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Simpsons, Muppets Tonight, and various MTV programs. In 1993, Bennett played a series of benefit concerts organized by alternative rock radio stations around the country and in 1994 career gold! The MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett, special, the “game changer” for the brand that connected Bennett with a contemporary audience. He quipped on the show, “I’ve been unplugged my whole career.”) Featuring guest appearances by rock and country stars Elvis Costello and k.d. lang (both of whom had an affinity for the standards genre), the show attracted a considerable audience and much media attention. The MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett album went platinum and, besides taking the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance Grammy award also won the top Grammy prize of Album of the Year.

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The plan worked; as Tony later remembered, “I realized that young people had never heard those songs. Cole Porter, Gershwin – they were like, ‘Who wrote that?’ To them, it was different. If you’re different, you stand out.” 1 The lesson for all entrepreneurs to keep in mind as they consider how best to implement the ABB mantra.

With this Bennett branding model in mind, here are five “can do’s” you can implement to ensure long-term marketing success.

Know Your Brand

Columbia Records’ Clive Davis suggested that Bennett sing songs made famous by younger artists at the time.. Bennett was very reluctant, and when he tried, the results pleased no one. This was exemplified by Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! (1970), before which Bennett became physically ill at the thought of recording. It featured misguided attempts at Beatles and other “songs of the time” and a silly psychedelic art cover. This clearly was not part of the Bennett brand and this misstep helped define “once and for all” what his brand is today—singer and interpreter of the American Songbook.

All of us have had consultants advise us to change our respective brands to reflect the changing, competitive market place. We must be reminded from time to time, that we are the ultimate “brand managers,” who know best about the brand. And it is us who must decide like Bennett, the appropriate course of action to be taken. The question then becomes how do we meet the current needs of customers without destroying a brand that has worked so well at another point in time. Bennett’s recalcitrance in performing American musical standards only prompts us to value the importance of being sure before implementing any recommended changes to your brand.

Be Consistent

After Bennett deciding that he was a singer who performed the American Songbook with a suit/tie or tuxedo (depending on the venue), it was relatively easy for him to execute a consistent rebranded identity. This is why it is so important for us as entrepreneurs to know our brand and the needs that it satisfies for our customers. Delivering products and services that truly meet the demands of our target market “time after time” (like the popular Bennett song) make our brand even more desirable in the minds of customers. Providing quality “over and over” only supports the perception that our brands will never go away because customers can never live without them. Simply take note of the qualities that your brand does for others, remind them of this in your promotional materials, and you will well be on your way to successful branding.

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Be Adaptable

In 2011, Bennett did his Duets II album with young artists like the late Amy Winehouse, his current collaborator Lady Gaga, Queen Latifah, John Mayer, Michael Buble and many more. .xx Link. An interesting fact that we can glean from Bennett is that he went to their respective cities to record the Duets II cd instead of the reverse. As he said in a PBS interview promoting Duets II, he said: “We decided to go to them because they were nice enough to be on my record.” If one wants to win the long game, one must be malleable so that changes can be made expeditiously. This means placing your needs second to those who can assist you achieve your goals no matter how smart and wonderful you think you are. For Bennett, these artists had something that he wanted— their younger demographic fans and they—performing with the legend Tony Bennett. Remember the marketing golden rule: “The person with the gold rules.” And, of course, the ”golden rule” we were taught as youngsters: “Do onto others as you would like done to you.” Both important shibboleths depending on your current circumstances and goals you wish to attain.

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Always Be Branding (ABB)

Bennett in his eight decade is still performing. He expresses it this way” “If you are creative you get busier as you get older.” For all of us, these are inspiring words which we can use to motivate ourselves to always be on the lookout for new trends; changes in our customer needs; and a determination that our brand or a new modified brand will help us best respond to customer demands. This always constantly means refining your brand from your client’s perspective not yours. Remember it’s not about you— it’s all about your customer. And when you do this you will be surprised at the results.

Just Do It!

After a near-fatal cocaine overdose in 1979, Bennett called his sons Danny and Dae for help. “Look, I’m lost here,” he told them. “It seems like people don’t want to hear the music I make.” Bennett realized that he could not do this rebranding himself. The moral here: don’t be too proud to ask for help when “things are not going well..” And by all means do something. Many of us (this writer included) have delayed making decisions only to have them cost dearly, in the long run. When one acts, you can modify decisions if the ideas don’t seem to be working. Try to remember that actions are better than non-actions because you will be receiving valuable data based on an active decision-making process rather than passively doing nothing. Not a good think for the “Just Do It” demographic which you as a competitive business professional are part!

Yes, there are great many celebrity artists that teach us about marketing and branding. However there is only one, Tony Bennett who can challenge us with the question: “do you ‘wanna be around’ years from now,” and provide the practical formula needed to accomplish that very real goal.

Branding Editor

Branding and Marketing Expert, Speaker, and teacher who writes about branding