Three Things You Can Learn From Metallica About Marketing Strategy

When it comes to marketing strategy, there’s no lack of books, podcasts, TED talks, and more to give you the basics. But we’re not interested in those lessons. You can head to your local library for that information (and we suggest that you do that. Libraries are precious. Use them).

Instead, we’re going to share with you an insight we had while driving south on I-29, headed home from Omaha, Nebraska.

(Hey, we don’t write the rules on where and when inspiration and insight will strike, k?)

sunset in mo shot from a car

This all came about while driving home through the dewy, sunset-laden, tail end of Iowa. We were just before you enter into Missouri and start the long, straight shot to Kansas City and we were listening to the radio, see. The World Cafe was interviewing Lars Ulrich of Metallica and they were revisiting the band’s long history and talking about their overall success and world-wide fan base.

Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that Metallica is one of the most influential and long-lived bands of our time. And they’re still making music and filling up stadiums (when we’re not in a pandemic. RIP live music) despite having a 40 year career.

Heading down 1-29 that evening, listening to this interview it all seemed kind of surreal. How do they do it? How did they do it back in 1981, well before Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and all the things that most business owners consider to be their primary marketing tools and methods of communication?

It was through Lars’ response that we realized that Metallica, in addition to being a badass rock band, might be marketing geniuses without even knowing it.

cover photo for marketing strategy blog

The Three Things Metallica Can Teach You About Marketing Strategy:

1. Don’t Be Afraid To Spoil Your Clients And Fans:

Metallica started out by playing gig shows and small dive bars like literally every other band on the planet (minus maybe Miley Cyrus and other children-of-famous-people). At each of those shows they would bring handfuls of their CDs and would give them away for free. Seems straightforward–except that they kept this up for years after they’d become relatively successful. As Lars put it in the interview, they were deeply dedicated to the fans that kept showing up for them at every show, in every grunge bar, year over year. Despite whole Napster debacle aside much later in their lives, Metallica kept their dedication to the fans. Taking the idea of physical goods out of it, they poured everything they had into each and every show they played–whether that was for 4 people or 400,000.

The Lesson: Don’t save your “best stuff” only for that “someday client”. Give it now–whether that’s in sharing your knowledge freely or putting your best work into every opportunity you’re given.

We can hear the objections now — “but if I give my best away for free, no one will value me”. I want to be clear about something: when I say give your best stuff away for free, I don’t mean that you don’t charge for your brilliance. I mean that if you see that person who really needs what you have, give them 30 minutes of your brilliance. It will always come back to you 10x. And, hard truth: if you exhaust your entire brilliance in a free 30 minute call, maybe you need to cultivate a bigger brilliance.


2.  Keep It Simple – Let The Good Stuff Shine

Like everyone starting out, James Hetfield and the crew had idols that they looked up to and admired (hey Dio). You can see this influence in their first (really) early album covers and, especially, the album artwork. Lots of lightening and silly fonts. They said themselves that they spent a lot of time trying to emulate their heroes in the way they dressed, sounded, and acted. But that only gets you so far. Especially in a market that is always changing and getting more crowded with each passing day. When they released what is colloquially called The Black Album, they said that they wanted to strip away all the nonsense (Lars’ words) and just make it about the music. The genius in this is two-fold: they leaned into who they were and became immediately more authentic and they made it easier for the album to become timeless. By not conforming to the latest trends and fads and “rules” for their market, The Black Album remains relevant 30-ish years later.

The Lesson: Don’t worry about what every other business is doing. Get clear on what you’re doing and then remove the distractions. Especially if you’re creating products that you want to last–think about how you can make it timeless so you don’t go the way of most fads. 

When building out a marketing strategy this can often be the hardest part–the getting really clear about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It’s easy to feel like you have to rise to every trend (NFTs and Clubhouse, anyone??) but a lot of those trends are just noise and distractions. If you can iterate quickly and spin content and support for those iterations up quickly, great. Go for it. But if you have limited time and resources, you have to be pickier about where you apply them. And that takes not falling victim to #fomo and #trendwhoring in your business and marketing strategy.

3. Partner Up

When Metallica released their S&M album in 1999, people kind of thought they were crazy. This was Metallica, at the height of their metal and rock careers, pairing up with the symphony. It was a weird partnership from the outset, for sure. But it turned out to be a brilliant idea. And there’s a lot to learn from this ballsy, bold, and ultimately successful experiment. For any business (or band) to stay fresh you have to experiment and you have to find new and creative ways to get what you do into the hands (or ears) of other people who might love what you do, if only they knew who you were. So partner up! Find a business, partner, genre or product that makes sense for your business and that you feel aligns with enough of your audience that you can find some overlap. And then make something really fucking cool together.

In the case of S&M, it was pretty unprecedented. Go watch some of the live videos of recent versions–it’s telling. You can see that each person on that stage is showing up with the highest level of professionalism and ability that they have and aiming to produce the best product they can make together. It’s weird. It’s kind of uncomfortable if you’re really into one genre over the other. But we’ll tell you what–it absolutely exposed some grungy/metal kids to classical music in a way that they could relate to for once. And conversely, it may have rekindled a love for dirty guitars and gritty vocals in folks who had forgotten how much they really love rock music.

The Lesson: There are a lot of people in this world that want what you have to offer and, more specifically, need your brilliance. You just have to find them. There’s no reason that you can’t do that in a way that is based in relationships, partnerships and a real sense of community and bringing worlds together. Whether you play the french horn or the bass guitar. 

Before we bring this to a close let’s chat for a moment about taking the above concepts and turning them into an actual strategy. Because I think it warrants a discussion–it’s one thing to decide to do each of the things but it’s another thing to have those things work in tandem with each towards some larger goal. This is absolutely deserving of its own blog post and we’ll get there (and update this one when we do! Pinky swear. #SEO). But we’ll do our best to get the root concept across. As you sit down to plan your year or your quarter we want you to stop and think about how each action you take (or don’t) affects the one that comes next. Break that thought process out into weeks and you’ll start to get a sense of how things flow together. Here’s a quick example to illustrate the point:

Let’s say your goal is increase your audience and reach so you put “build partnerships” on your list. You start engaging with folks in a Facebook group or on LinkedIn. They have questions or problems that need solving. So you tap into Lesson #1 which is to share your brilliance freely and openly (within reason). And then they start wanting to do business with you — instead of throwing everything you have at them, keep it simple. What’s the simplest approach you can take to helping them achieve their goals? From there, one thing begets the next. You can see how refining your offer for this audience may lead to more clarity around what sorts of partnerships you should seek out next and you’re off and running. Each one of these pieces and uncovered lessons can also be turned into experiences you write about, share on your own social media, build content or products around–the sky is the limit. You just have to get clear about your goals and what you want to accomplish.

Want help building out your own marketing strategy? We’d love the chance to sit down and chat with you. Grab a spot on our calendars and let’s chat: