If you “wanna” be around years from now, consider how American singing icon Tony Bennett did it- branding and rebranding his artistic enterprise. This personal branding experience can assist us when facing the “maturity stagnation” that every business eventually encounters. His approach gave him and his co-collaborator, Lady Gaga, the number-one-selling album (Cheek to Cheek) status, placing Bennett as the oldest artist to achieve this coveted achievement. This career accomplishment, however, hasn’t been easy for the 88-year-old artist who just years ago was considered an “artist whose time had passed.”
This “finished artist” perception was seen in the early eighties when this writer worked for a New York state politician and was approached by Mr. Bennett to perform a fundraising concert for the candidate. The consensus was Tony was a “has been” and would position the new, hip officer seeker as “out of touch” with the popular culture at the time. Yes, we passed on this offer and would realize how short-sighted we were years later for not accepting this generous offer. This was part of his long-term strategy to bring back the Tony Bennett brand by using creative and different venues and “reaching out” to a new audience where Bennett could display his actual brand attractive characteristics.
Bennett’s son Danny felt that the way back for the elder Bennett was to target younger audiences who were unfamiliar with his father’s brand in places where they would frequent. He believed young folks would respond if they only heard Bennett sing (sampling is often considered the most effective marketing tactic). Central to this rebrand rollout to a new demographic were no changes to Tony’s formal appearance, singing style, musical accompaniment (The Ralph Sharon Trio or an orchestra), or song choice (generally the Great American Songbook). These imperatives were not to be altered (talk about brand consistency).
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 benefits concerts organized by alternative rock radio stations around the country, and in 1994, career gold! MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett, the “game changer” for the brand that “could” connect 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. 2
The resulting MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett’s Album went platinum and won the top Grammy prize for Album of the Year, besides taking the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance Grammy award. 3
The plan worked; Tony later remembered, “I realized that young people had never heard those songs. Cole Porter, Gershwin was like, ‘Who wrote that?’ To them, it was different. If you’re different, you stand out.” 1 The lesson for all entrepreneurs to remember as they consider how best to implement the ABB mantra—Always Be Branding!
As Bennett was seen at MTV Video Music Awards shows side-by-side with the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Flavor Flav, and as his “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” video received MTV, it was clear that, as The New York Times said, “Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it. He has solidly connected with a younger crowd weaned on rock. And there have been no compromises.”
We can learn many tutorials from celebrity artists, especially when one confronts us with whether we “wanna be around years from now.
And let’s not forget that it is always easier when you have marketing in mind.