I must confess, I am a huge Michael Jackson fan. But not for the conventional reasons fans love him for. Yes, his music is timeless and he is probably one of the best performers of all time, but that’s not why I’ve been fascinated with Michael practically all my life. Let me explain…
One of my earliest memory was when I was 3 years old walking with my sisters to the school bus stop. I was too young to go to school but I would walk with them with our mom, pretending I was going with them to school. I remember my sisters standing on the bus stop with their friends, about seven or eight young kids ranging from 5-9 years old. Michael Jackson’s Thriller had just come out and every kid on that bus stop (including my sisters) had a Michael Jackson button pined to his or her jacket. Some of them had Michael Jackson notebooks and bags. One kid actually had a red ‘Beat-it’ jacket on. I remember my sister, who was 6 at the time, asking one girl that had a Michael Jackson button on, “Oh! You like Michael Jackson too?” The girl replied, “Only crazy people don’t like Michael Jackson.”
I honestly believe that that statement encompasses exactly why Thriller is still, till this day, by a long shot, the best selling album of all time. Yes, he was a perfect storm of great talent and training but the dude wasn’t an idiot either. He knew what it took to build an audience of raving fans. Heck, look at me at on my 4th birthday. I was hooked.
People forget that he was an icon, a brand for over 2 decades in the music world and in popular culture. After all, he is called the King of Pop. That doesn’t happen by accident. He knew it takes more than great talent to be legend. It takes daring to be different and carve out your own brand in a sea of brands.
People forget that when he was on top of the world in the 80’s he was competing with music greats like Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Whitney Houston. He did it with his brand. Let’s roll the footage, shall we?
Most say Michael’s ‘star’ moment, when he shook the world and claimed his spot in history forever, was during Motown’s 25th Anniversary special. Most don’t know that when he was asked to perform with his brothers in a Jackson 5 medley, he was hesitant. He had just released Thriller and he didn’t want to make the same mistake with his previous album Off The Wall where people were still not sure if he was a permanent solo artist and brand now, or not. He wanted to make sure people knew that the young Michael from the Jackson 5 is no more and wanted to confirm his new direction and identity. He agreed to perform with his brothers on one condition; that he gets to perform his latest single from the Thriller album, Billie Jean.
After performing the medley with his brothers, before performing Billie Jean he actually talks to the crowd. What does he say? He says, “Those were good old days. Those were good songs. I like those songs but I especially like the new songs.” And the bass line of Billie Jean kicks in. The man is wearing one glove, covered in sequins. Who wears one glove? Who cares! It’s cool because Michael is cool. His socks are sparkling. He fakes he is combing his hair after he tosses his hat. He holds the mic sideways at times. No one does that. And then he stuns the world with the moonwalk, a dance move that no one is really sure what they saw, when they saw it the first time.
Michael understood in order for his brand and business as an artist to thrive he had to be more than a singer with an incredible vocal range and a groundbreaking dancer. In order to stand out from the pack he had to differentiate himself. He understood that the delivery of a product is as important as the product itself.
Michael knew the power of video marketing. Creating short films as he called them, he never called them music videos. He knew that film/video is a powerful medium to deliver your brand. He believed in the power of story telling in his short-films so much that he hired award-winning directors like John Landis to direct Thriller, Martin Scorsese for Bad and Spike Lee for the They Don’t Care About Us. He put in the work and worked with the best. He took things seriously. He knew everything counts. He didn’t half-ass anything.
His brand equity was so huge large organizations wanted to leverage it. Pepsi wanted to appeal to a younger demographic as a part of their ‘A Choice of a New Generation’ campaign. They knew the good vibes people got when they listened to Michael’s music. They wanted people to associate those same great vibes to Pepsi so they made marketing history in 1983 when they signed him up for a 5 million dollar contract; an insane amount at the time for a commercial deal. They also had to pay an undisclosed amount to his brothers to appear in the commercial too. Ironically, as a part of the deal, Michael made sure that it was explicitly stated in his contract that he does not have to claim he drinks Pepsi. He was a fresh juice kind of guy.
In 1993 the National Football League and the television network NBC we’re extremely concerned about their ratings as viewers were dropping during and after the half-time show on Super Bowl Sunday. They noticed most viewers would change the channel and watch something else when the first half was over and half-time started. Many competing television networks would run their best programming during the half-time show. They found that over 35% of viewers would never go back to the game. They needed people to stay on and watch the half-time show so they would continue to watch the game. They realized they needed to invest in the Super Bowl half-time show and bring in an act that would appeal to everyone, especially the non-football fans in the house that changed the channel at half-time. The league needed a game-changing half–time show. They called upon Michael Jackson for the job.
When the rival television network Fox heard that MJ will be performing during the Super Bowl half-time show, because of Jackson’s star power, the Fox network declined to broadcast counter-programming against the half-time show like they did in previous years. It was the first Super Bowl where the audience figures actually increased during the half-time show and the first time a single act took up the entire half-time show. His performance is still considered today as one of the most watched television broadcasts in American television history. Yes, that is insane!
So get this, after Michael appears on stage after being blasting into the sky on the que of a blast of pyrotechnics, he then stands still for a full 1 minute and 45 seconds. He stood on the biggest stage in the world and didn’t move for more than 90 seconds. The crowd was loving it! They’re going nuts in anticipation. Michael knew when you got something great to offer, don’t just give it to them immediately. You let it sizzle, you let them want it. The dude ran a product launch sequence in a performance.
So the question is, what else about YOU do you offer other than your products or services? What makes you more desirable than your competition? Why would they call upon you for what you offer? When working with you and being associated with you is a benefit in itself, that’s when you’re playing on a whole new level.
That’s what I learned most from Michael Jackson. People want to be a part of something greater than themselves. Michael understood how to build a thriving audience. He understood that if you want people to pay attention and hang around, you have to be more than just good at your craft. You have to be great at delivering it as well.