Why Radiohead is in tune with online marketing

LONDON - What can other brands learn from Radiohead's innovative digital marketing techniques? Kate Nettleton investigates.

Even though the music file sharing service Napster was taken to the US courts eight years ago and forced to go legit, the illegal download community is still being presented as the final nail in the coffin for the music industry.

But rather than kowtowing to these apocalyptic forecasts, some bands, such as Radiohead, have embraced the shift towards online downloadable material by using the appropriation and manipulation of their own music as a marketing technique.

After their contract with EMI came to a close in 2004, Radiohead, believing the relationship to be a decaying business model, decided not to renew the agreement and go it alone.

Although the band had already established a regularly updated personalised blog and MySpace page, by owning all the rights to their music they had the autonomy to instigate their first high-profile online marketing stunt by releasing their new album In Rainbows online and, amazingly, allowing customers to name their own price.

By forcing consumers to make a conscious decision about the value of music, the band generated a plethora of word-of-mouth marketing and created an image that Radiohead was not interested in making money but in the music ?itself – something many bands strive for, but rarely achieve.

With the middleman successfully cut out, Radiohead launched a ?series of user-generated content initiatives to build on their intimate relationship with the consumer, beginning with a tie-up with iTunes to release segmented portions of tracks for fans to create remixes.

They then launched a competition, in conjunction with the animation site aniboom.com, to create a music video for any of the new ?album’s tracks, with the winner set to receive a $10,000 prize to produce a full-length video.

Although none of these were original marketing concepts, Radiohead have transposed them online, and created an intimacy with their fan base that’s spurred not only a wealth of creative user-generated content, but also a culture of creativity that no band of that size has ever achieved.

Their latest video, for the track House of Cards, took the open-armed approach to digital one step further. Made using geometric informatics, the video was produced entirely from data captured by ?lasers, and without the use of video cameras.

Once again, the band have used an existing technology, but by showcasing the video on Google, alongside a making of documentary as well as the data itself, they’ve convinced audiences they are breaking new ground.

The innovative execution of these initiatives has sparked suspicion that behind what appears to be a uniquely personal approach driven by the band could be a team of marketers driving the ideas – after all, the music industry has shown itself to be  hugely manipulative.

But, amazingly, it transpires that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Although the House of Cards video was a combined effort between the band and their American record label TBD, the rest of their marketing initiatives are pretty much all conceived by the band, a spokesman for Radiohead’s UK distributor explains.

Undeniably, a globally popular band such as Radiohead are in a unique position to exploit the digital medium, especially user-generated content, without the fear of a consumer backlash that may plague other brands.

As Gavin Gordon-Rogers, the executive creative director at Agency Republic, explains: You can’t just be a big car company making gas-guzzling cars and throw out video footage and expect people to fawn over you.

What’s more, functioning as both the product, marketing department and agency enables the band to make snap decisions and implement ideas, without having to navigate the bureaucracy of marketing management, not to mention constant cab trips across town.

It’s also about money, Richard Skinner, a creative associate at ?Fallon, who has a long history of working at record labels, points out.

Radiohead don’t have much to lose. They will have spent about £5,000 on making a video so they can afford to give it away.

An agency isn’t going to say, ‘Hey kids, come and fuck around with our £500,000 ad’, are they?

But brands don’t need to turn into globally recognised entertainers in order to learn from Radiohead.

By mimicking their ad hoc approach to online marketing and moving away from glaringly obvious marketing strategies that can alienate consumers, brands could establish a far more personal relationship with them.

They’ve integrated with the fabric of the web rather than creating an island they’re trying to protect and bring people to, because they realise that’s not a sustainable way of doing things, Iain Tait, a founding partner at Poke and author of the blog www.crackunit.com, says.

Clients also need to relinquish control to the consumer and have the bravery to trust their audience.

Clients need to stop coming to agencies with not only the problem, but the solution they want and the type of response they expect.

The more clients are open to receiving a response they didn’t expect, the more likely they are to do famous work, Gordon-Rogers adds.

Replicating Radiohead’s nomadic presence on the web, and their fearless approach to online marketing, may only be suited to a niche group of brands, but those that are willing to take similar leaps of faith could reap huge rewards.