Three Lessons from Eddie Van Halen That You Can Apply To Marketing

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Eddie Van Halen has been considered one of the top guitarists in rock history since early in his career but what does that have to do with marketing and public relations (PR)? Turns out much more than you might realize.

I wasn’t going to write this post originally and but I’ve consumed with Van Halen since Eddie’s unexpected death.

Van Halen was one of my favorite bands growing up as they are now and Eddie’s guitar wizardry never fails to amaze me.  

I’m a former drummer and when Neil Peart from Rush died early this year I poured out a blog post in which I managed to tie marketing and PR to Neil and Rush. 

When Eddie died I thought to myself, “There isn’t going be an Eddie Van Halen inspired blog post like the Neil Peart/Rush piece that I did.”

In all honesty I was going to publish a completely different post that I’ve been working on but that article will wait until next week.

I’ve been listening to Van Halen non-stop since the news of Eddie’s passing. I’ve read numerous tributes from musicians and I guess it kind of seeped into my system (bonus points for whoever tells me in the comments which song I just referenced). 

I saw a video of Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony a few days ago. It was a tribute to Eddie. When I was through I went to take a shower and as I was walking down the hall to the bathroom my brain then went down a path of how Eddie Van Halen changed the instrument and how we can look to him as inspiration as we do our work. 

Eddie Van Halen is arguably the greatest guitarist in the history of rock but his work provides lessons that we can apply to marketing.

Know The Basics And Execute Them Well

People focus on Eddie’s technical prowess on the guitar but they miss that he did the basics extremely well.

I remember an interview that he did with LL Cool J years ago in which they talked about that for a song to be listened to all over the world, it needs melody and rhythm. There are other things that are a part of music but melody and rhythm are two of the most important.

Eddie was a great rhythm player but he was also good at creating melodies. For all the guitar wizardry that he was capable of, if he couldn’t have done either of those two things well, we would have never heard of Eddie Van Halen. He would have just been some flash guitarist.

One of the biggest misses for a campaign or product is the audience. You need to know who you are trying to reach. This is basic but it’s often a problem area.

Too often when I ask a client who their audience is the answer is, “Everybody.” If this is your answer, I can promise you that you’re going to waste a lot of time and money.

Van Halen sold over 80 million albums worldwide. They are one of the biggest rock bands in history and they didn’t even come close to reaching “everybody”. We have a population of 7 billion people. Put into perspective, 6.92 billion people haven’t bought a Van Halen album. That’s 98.6% if the world’s population.

You might be thinking, “Well, that doesn’t mean people haven’t heard of Van Halen or heard a song by them.”

True enough. So let’s play that out. Say a billion people have been touched by Van Halen in some way meaning they’ve heard a song or have heard of the band at some point. That’s still 5.92 billion people who haven’t. 

If one of the biggest and most popular rock bands in history can’t reach everybody, guess what? You won’t either.

The reality is that most people are not going to care about what your company has to say. It doesn’t matter whether you have media saturation or not. It won’t matter if your running ads on every digital platform and in the traditional media 24/7. Most people just won’t care. My advice to you is to find who does care and talk to them. 

Pay attention to your 1200 followers on social and 50 people who signed up for your newsletter. They’re listening to you they are likely amplifying what you say.

They are also the canary in the coal mine. Their reaction to what you say and do will give you clues about your audience and what they care about.

You need to do the basics and do them well. Not just some of the time but all the time. It’s when you have the basics down that you can add that those extra layers of nuance and flair that are different than what everybody else is doing. 

Innovate Your Way Out Of Problems

Over the weekend I rewatched a video on YouTube where Eddie was speaking at the Smithsonian. I’d seen the interview before but it’s been a few years. I was reminded that he built a guitar and developed his style out of necessity and experimentation.

He talked about the fact that there were only two guitars he could buy early in his career, a Les Paul or a Fender. Neither one really did what he wanted them to do so he got the parts he needed and built his own guitar.

In regards to his playing, Eddie said that he couldn’t afford the guitar equipment that big-time guitar players such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page were using which meant there were sounds that they were getting that he couldn’t get. He started experimenting with getting those sounds with his fingers. Out of that this experimentation came a style that is unique to him.

What we are really talking about is innovation. He innovated his way out of his problems through experimentation. In doing so he created new vocabulary for the guitar.

I talk about PESO (paid, earned, shared, and owned media) frequently and the idea that you need to integrate these four different pieces of media to supercharge your results. But, what if you don’t have a very big budget for paid media?

You are going to have to find ways to use earned, shared, and owned media to develop the awareness that you need. That’s likely going to take some experimentation to see what resonates with people and what doesn’t.

Even if you have a big budget for marketing and PR, it’s wise to set aside some money and resources that focus on experiments.

The one thing is certain is change and if you’re doing some strategic experimentation, you’re more likely to find the next thing before anybody else does.

Know Who You Are

In the Smithsonian talk that I referred to earlier, it was brought up that Van Halen had three different singers. That led to a question how the band changed when a new singer came in. Eddie’s response was that Van Halen didn’t adjust to the singer, the singer adjusted to Van Halen.

I think it was kind of a tongue in cheek answer but it hit on something bigger. Do you know who you are? What you do? What you’re about?

At the end of 2019 into the beginning of 2020, I started to realize that the path that I was trying to follow wasn’t mine. It was somebody else’s.

I had somebody I saw as a role model and I was trying to be like them. The person I was role modeling is smart and successful and I could certainly do much worse. I wanted to be like this person but it was never going to work because we are two different people.

This plays out all the time. The 80s were full of guitarists trying to be Eddie Van Halen. Many of them were great guitarists in their own right but trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen was futile because they were never going to sound like him. They sounded like them trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen.

Much of this comes back to the social construction idea that I talked about a few weeks ago. The experiences that Eddie had are what made him Eddie Van Halen and influenced him to play the way he does.

Trying to emulate my role model worked to a point but in the bigger picture, it was a fool’s errand. Our experiences and the way we see the world has some similarities but also many differences. The best I could have been was a generic imitation of this person.

This doesn’t just apply to you as a person, your business group, or your company. It applies to your marketing and public relations as well.

At the end of the day, it’s not about what works for your competitor. It’s what works for you.

This doesn’t mean you won’t do some things that others are doing. What it does mean is that you are doing it because it is right for you not because you are copying somebody hoping to get the same results.

Don’t try and be another version of something. Find the things that make you and your organization unique and embrace them. You will do you much better than you will do somebody else.

Final Thoughts

Eddie Van Halen was one of those people that comes along once in a generation. Revisiting his story was a reminder to me that even if we don’t have big budgets to work with we can still make an impact.

Just because you have a problem doesn’t mean there is only way to fix it. Sometimes you just have to be able to do what nobody else is doing.

Eddie Van Halen did that and he became a legend.

Will you? Probably not but that doesn’t mean you can’t take these lessons and do something great.

Thank you for reading and have a great day.

Here’s some Van Halen to send you on your way.

Shane Carpenter
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