Three Chords and the Truth: What Brands Can Learn From Pop Songs

The hunt for a positioning that's simple yet unique

First, a confession—I've never written a pop song. Actually, I've never written a song of any kind. In fact, apart from a brief affair with piano lessons in elementary school and an even briefer flirtation with the alto sax in junior high, I've never had much of any musical inclination. But despite my personal shortcomings, music has been a lifelong passion of mine. And not just listening to music, either. I've always been fascinated with its creation as well. 

Perhaps because I'm without musical talent myself, the seemingly mystical alchemy required to write and produce a song has never failed to captivate me. I'm probably the only non-musician to have watched Timbaland's Masterclass on beatmaking in its entirety. For what it's worth, I found it riveting. 

And while I've never written a pop song, I have written hundreds of brand strategies—probably thousands if you count the ones that never saw the light of day—and I think strategists have much to learn from the pop world. Songwriter Harlan Howard once said that "three chords and the truth" are the only ingredients you need to write a country song. In other words, Howard believed simplicity and authenticity are at the heart of some of the most indelible, popular songs ever written. He was right, and I think the same lesson applies to brand strategy.

Positioning a brand is an exciting, high-stakes undertaking. It's an opportunity to craft something which, if successful, will chart a brand's path forward for years to come. It's perhaps the most creative opportunity that ever comes in the direction of a strategist, and it can be thrilling. The most common mistake I see strategists make when writing a positioning, and it's a mistake I've made many times myself, is to try to write a brilliantly unique strategy that's never been written before. There's nothing inherently wrong with this ambition; the failure usually lies in its execution.

You see, a primary intent of a brand positioning is usually to create brand distinction, so we try to write a positioning that is unlike any other, for any product, in any category. But in our quest for newness, what we often find instead is novelty, or worse, a crippling, unwelcoming specificity. It's the same mistake creatives make all the time, where, in an effort to come up with an idea no one's had before, they come up with something that is so niche, so intricate, so specific, that it's impenetrable to the average person. 

Many of the brands we work on are already big, and all of them are aspiring to be bigger, otherwise they wouldn't be talking to an ad agency. They don't need a strategy that is niche or overly nuanced, they need something that is big. They need something that is a welcoming, undeniable siren call to the dance floor. They need a pop song.

That isn't to say the song should be without quirk or personality ("Shake it, shake it, shake it like a Polaroid picture"). It should absolutely have those things. But it needs to be universal enough for a large group of people to see themselves in it, and broad enough to house all the ideas that will need to live within it for years to come. All the best brand strategies are big, broad invitations. Think of Nike's "If you have a body, you're an athlete," Dove's "Beauty should be a source of confidence," or Ikea's "Beautiful design should be accessible to everyone."

Now if it's the "three chords" part that makes your song simple enough to be inviting, it's the "truth" that ensures the song is yours. Your brand's song should be inclusive, but it also needs to be sung honestly, and in your own words. Many pop songs cover roughly the same ground thematically, and the same can be true of a brand positioning. As long as you create some space between you and your direct competitors, it's OK to write another breakup song.

But you also need to have a direct connection to the material, and it needs to be delivered with your unique personality. Your theme can be broad; that it's being sung in your voice is what will give it specificity. 

Most songwriters don't write their songs to exist in a studio, or on some hard drive. They write their songs to be heard by as many people as possible. Brands—and the strategists who craft their narratives—should aspire to the same. If we want to capture the hearts and minds of our audience, it's up to us to write songs they can sing along to. 

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Tom Kenny
Tom Kenny is chief strategy officer and partner at Courage.

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