Let’s Steal From…The Beatles
Yeah, we could steal from REO Speedwagon but why not steal from the single most successful band of all time. They must have been doing something right, right?
Right. Too easy. Why even bother?
On the surface there’s not a huge amount in common between what The Beatles did (producing a string of era-defining albums and breaking virtually every record a band can) and what we do (B2B tech marketing, or ‘the rock ‘n’ roll of marketing’ as it’s sometimes never known).
But scratch the surface and it turns out there’s a lot in common. In fact, if more marketers followed the Beatles’ blueprint, they’d find success beyond their wildest dreams: platinum album sales, stadia full of adoring fans and ludicrous wealth.
They had a strong-ass brand
This is the Holy Grail of branding: to have a brand so instantly and universally recognisable that it becomes synonymous—indivisible from your very being.
Think Apple. Think Innocent Smoothies. Think Ringo Starr’s hair.
In the early 1960s, when the Beatles were defining their look (or at least their first look), it wasn’t ‘suits, boots and moptops’. It was:
Beatle suits. Beatle boots. Beatle haircuts. All of which still return endless pages of search results to this day.
As Leslie Cavendish, hair stylist to The Beatles from 1967 onwards, put it:
“When any of The Beatles grew a beard, or John Lennon grew long sideburns, people copied it.”
Fans and the media even christened them with Snow White-style nicknames: The cute one (Paul), the smart one (John), the quiet one (George) and the funny one (Ringo).
That is a strong brand.
But this sort of brand strength isn’t unique. Endless brands have tried to copy Innocent’s voice, Apple’s adverts and the Beatles’ sound, but authenticity makes the originals stand out.
The Beatles didn’t invent wearing suits on stage, or bands all dressing the same (Motown was way ahead of them here)—but the way they did it was unique. The haircuts, tailoring and Cuban heeled boots were their thing.
And with imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, people couldn’t help but copy.
Because that’s what happens when you have a strong brand: people follow it.
And anyone who’s ever been told to come up with a strapline as powerful as ‘Just Do It’ (“obviously not that, but something like that”) will know how much brands love to copy the trailblazers—even though we should be aiming to create our own unique brands and stories, not aping someone else’s.
Innovation was their default setting
The phrase ‘The Beatles changed music’ is woefully incomplete. They changed music five or six times, and they did it in under a decade.
Their music was so fresh that they remained among the top ten best-selling acts in the world well into the 1980s, spending much of that time in top five.
And they’re no less relevant today: in 2019 their songs were streamed 1.7 billion times on Spotify, with 47% of that streaming coming from 18-29 year-olds.
Where they went, others followed. Whichever aspect of music you examine, they were at the very cutting edge. Album covers. Lyrical depth. Music videos. Song arrangements. Studio tricks. Public interviews. Touring venues.
You might look at marketing and go ‘we live in an old, tired world where every trick in the book has already been done, and we’d just be copying someone else.’
I call bullshit.
There’s always room to innovate. There are always new formats to experiment with. There are always creative solutions to problems—solutions that may not be ‘I have JUST the eBook for you!’
And if you don’t believe me, just consider that Paul McCartney’s biggest ever selling UK single wasn’t with The Beatles—it was with Wings, where they did something The Beatles had never done, by deploying a full Scottish band of bagpipes and drums.
B2B marketing may sometimes feel like it’s a staid, stale world where everything’s been done, and we’re just recycling the same formats for different clients. But it isn’t.
There are always new answers to old problems, and it’s our job to find them.
They were an incredible team
Before any of you lovely Beatles nerds out there jump down my throat, I know—they weren’t a perfect team. John and Paul were at times cruel and disparaging to George, himself a freakish talent who was never given sufficient respect by his more illustrious peers. By all accounts, John was capricious and kind of a dick, and Paul became something of a control freak. But they were still a pretty good team.
There has probably never been a more successful songwriting partnership than Lennon/McCartney. Even today, successful duos are often referred to as the Lennon/McCartney of [insert random profession to complete imperfect analogy].
Where this teamwork is easiest to see is in recordings of them messing around in the studio, where they are evidently a tight-knit group, constantly helping out/lovingly mocking each other.
This approach extended to the rest of their team (at least in the early years) of manager Brian Epstein, who succeeded in keeping the world’s biggest show on its long and winding road (sorry), and producer George Martin, who helped capture and define the Beatles’ remarkable studio sound.
And that’s something we should all be able to learn from: to appreciate the strengths of the people in your team; to play to what they’re best at and support them where they struggle.
They supported each other all the way: from the squalor of sharing two single beds in their early touring years, to the maddening reality of Beatlemania, where they couldn’t leave their hotels without being mobbed by hordes of screaming fans.
Is your business likely to hit Beatlemania levels of popularity? No. But if you can hit their levels of teamwork, you never know—it might.
They worked their asses off
‘It was a choice of making it or keep eating chicken on stage.’ – John Lennon
Based on the lack of on-stage poultry from pictures of later Beatles gigs, we can assume they took the former option.
It would be easy to assume The Beatles got lucky—the right band at the right time—but their success was anything but out of the blue. It was the culmination of years of relentless touring, songwriting and sacrifice, so they could keep doing the thing they loved.
In their early years they made 292 appearances at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, regularly played up to four sets a day at different clubs in Hamburg, living in squalor on tour and even recording songs in German to connect with their European audience.
They followed this up with relentless global tours, media appearances, endless hours in the studio, filming movies and somehow also having personal lives.
Suddenly staying in the office until 10 once in a while to meet a deadline doesn’t sound so bad, right?
There were no passengers—instead, everyone was giving their all, driving each other forward. And the outcome? Mythical status and a body of work of such sheer bloody brilliance that it still stands up half a century later.
Any workplace should be able to adopt this attitude. Our work doesn’t demand the same level of sacrifice that comes with the always-on mega-fame of being a Beatle which if anything gives us less of an excuse not to work hard (no one mobs you when you leave for work every day, do they?).
Because if The Beatles could do 102 takes of a song they didn’t even end up using, then you can manage knocking out a v9 for that picky stakeholder, even though you’re sure the piece is already pretty great.
They knew the competition
Part of what made The Beatles great was their eye for what everyone else was doing.
‘You made that near-perfect Pet Sounds album, eh? Great. How can we top that? We’ll invent the concept album by producing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’
Genuinely—that was the sequence of events.
Even as heavy rock was emerging in 1968, shortly before Led Zep’s first album, and following The Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’, The Beatles released ‘Helter Skelter’, with Paul at his screachy best, just to say to the world ‘You want heavy? We can do heavy.’ (see also: ‘I Want You, She’s So Heavy.’)
Hopefully I don’t need to ram home the obvious benefits of keeping up with the competition. But ‘keeping up with the competition’ is about much more than just knowing what they’re doing: it means figuring out how to leverage that information for your own growth and improvement, so you can stay ahead of the competition.
It means identifying a zeitgeist, then going on to define it yourself. And that’s where The Beatles soared.
So even if they didn’t make the first ‘heavy’ record, they made the first one everyone knew about, one of the most influential, and one that still sounds incredible today. Because there’s no point knowing the competition if you’re not trying to improve on it.
They had FUN
Let’s be clear: they were in a great position to have fun.
Traveling around the world in private planes to play the songs you have written to adoring fans, and being, quite literally, the most popular thing in the world, is a great opportunity to have fun.
But fun is an attitude more than anything else. It is the ability to make whatever you are doing fun.
It’s the attitude that means you can go from performing wearing almost nothing but a toilet seat to addressing the crowd at the Royal Variety Performance, among Britain’s most prestigious but uptight annual cultural events, with the infamous line: “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And for the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry…”.
When you look at how they conducted themselves in media interviews, interacted with fans, messed around in the studio and performed in films, it’s crystal clear that these four guys were determined to squeeze the last drop of joy out of every moment they had available.
Interviewer: Here’s the American public, 40 million American viewers…
John: Only looks like one man to me.
Interviewer: …staring you right in the face
John: Oh, he’s the cameraman.
Interviewer: “I remember the launching of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Ray and Elvis Presley…”
Paul : “Great ships.”
Interviewer: ‘How do you approach songwriting?’
John: ‘We normally approach it on the M1.’
(For our American readers, the M1 is a motorway)
(For our other American readers: a motorway is a highway).
For want of a better phrase, they liked fucking around.
Loved it, in fact.
And this is something we should do a hell of a lot more of. All of us. Everyone, in every industry.
(Except maybe pilots. But then again, Airplane!…)
But especially marketers.
Because in many ways, there’s something faintly ludicrous about what we do.
There’s no such thing as right and wrong for us. We work on stuff that is strictly squishy, vague, intangible and devoid of concrete answers.
And we’d do well to step back from it and have fun with it at every opportunity. Because that’s one way of learning about it, seeing it from another angle, and getting better.
To have fun while doing serious work should be the goal.
If you only think of it as ‘work’ you’ll never be able to bring your most lively, creative self to what you do—and so it’ll never be as good as it can be.
They knew how to steal
Good artists borrow blah blah blah we all know the score on this one.
But very few ever achieved greatness without stealing (notable exception—Steely Dan. They got caught stealing once, but it was on Gaucho, long after they’d achieved greatness). What makes the greats stand out is the level of craft in their theft (ironically, Steely Dan’s was blatantly obvious).
The Beatles’ early years were strewn with terrific covers of American rock ‘n’ roll, soul and doo-wop. Each was given its own irrepressible, frenzied, high-octane Beatles energy, rather than done simply as a servile copy, or saccharine, watered-down alternative (as was often the case in America of white acts, like Pat Boone, covering black music).
They may not have written ‘Twist and Shout’, but they certainly recorded the iconic version, and the one most people have heard.
They were stealing from bona fide greats, many of whom wouldn’t have been too well known at the time in the UK: Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, The Coasters, The Miracles, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, The Shirelles and The Marvelettes.
They listened greedily and this informed their work. And to be fair to them, as the most covered band of all time, when it comes to stealing they put in at least as much as they got out.
Because that is the point of theft: to steal effectively enough that it inspires you to make your own work that is so good, others want to steal it. Which is exactly what The Beatles did.
And really, as marketers, we dream of making work that’s so good everyone else goes ‘Damn! I wish we’d thought of that first!’—before producing their own inferior version.
Remember all those Epic Split parodies?
They stood up for what they believed in
Like their decision to give up relentless touring, despite their popularity, The Beatles’ history is littered with examples of them following their hearts.
- Refusing to play segregated gigs in the American south, under any circumstances, even if it was commonplace at the time.
- Railing against Harold Wilson’s highly unpopular 95% supertax in ‘Taxman’ (“There’s one for you, nineteen for me…”).
- George Harrison organising the Concert For Bangladesh, the first event of its sort and a precursor to Live Aid
- John and Yoko’s famous ‘bed-in’ for peace, to bring attention to the Vietnam War.
All of this shows the importance of doing good work without sacrificing what you believe in and consider important—whether that’s pro bono charity work, or just standing up for your ideas and values in the face of strong pushback.
They were themselves
The point about being yourself is that it shouldn’t take effort.
Yet brands tend to put a lot of time, money and energy into things like tone of voice and brand guidelines, to make sure they’re being themselves at all times.
Which, when you read it like that, is a very strange thing to do.
The Beatles were masters of being themselves because, at least by all appearances, that’s just what they did.
It was a period where the lives of artists were far less micromanaged and stage-managed than they are now, so it was easier to just ‘be yourself’, but they still took it to new levels.
Sir Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who directed early Beatles music videos, recalls John Lennon walking into the studio to film Revolution looking “like he’d been up late the night before.” Lennon declined the offer of make-up to “look a bit healthier”. Asked why not, he simply retorted: “Because I’m John Lennon.”
Even better is Paul talking about his and the band’s drug use: “I was asked a question by a newspaper and the decision was whether to tell a lie or to tell him the truth y’know. I’d decided to tell him the truth…I’m telling the truth! I don’t know what everyone’s so angry about.”
It’s an incredible example of not only standing his ground and very politely taking on an interviewer, but also a bold refusal not to pretend to be someone else just because it’s what they might like to hear. A cracking example of insane honesty.
And that is something we should totally steal.
But it’s much harder for a brand to ‘be themselves’ than for an individual, or even a band. At the very least it should mean knowing what we want to say and how to say it, and not running scared of being funny, irreverent or different from the competition.
And that’s not the same as doing these things for the sake of it, or because we think people will like it. It’s doing it because that’s who you are.
Even if it probably doesn’t mean openly talking about your LSD use and wearing toilets as an accessory.
That kinda thing tends to put customers off.
So what can we steal from The Beatles?
Nail your brand. Your brand is everything. Without a strong brand it’s much harder to care about your story and your products. So get it right.
Innovate! At every opportunity. In your copywriting, your design and your strategy. Leap out from the pack. You might be doing it well—but there’s usually a better way out there, waiting to be discovered.
Collaborate – Teamwork makes the dream work. Play to your strengths. Encourage one another. Collaborate. Help others with their weaknesses. And everyone will do better work.
Work your ass off. Don’t work yourself into the ground until you’re miserable and depressed. But work hard for yourself, the people around you and your clients. And then you can feel proud of what you actually deliver.
Know the competition. Keep your ear close to the ground—know what’s going on, who’s doing what and why, who you need to keep up with and who might be catching up with you. Knowing the competition is the first step to staying ahead of it.
Have fun. Laugh at the absurdity of what you do. Take the piss out of the people you do it with (as well as yourself). Bring that energy to your work. Or else, seriously, what’s the point of even being a creative?
Steal well and steal often. Stealing’s important. That’s why we have a whole (popular-verging-on-revered) blog series devoted to it. Steal half as effectively as The Beatles and your stealing game is already on point.
Stand up for what you believe in. You’ve been asked to do this because you’re good at it. You don’t know everything, but you sure as hell know enough follow your instincts and fight for your ideas.
Be yourself. No one else can, and that gives you an advantage. And you won’t get very far trying to be someone else.
Do even half of these things and that long page you’re working on could be the next Revolver.
More from the Let’s Steal From series
Google Cardboard – the lowest tech hi-tech play you’ll ever see.
The Simpsons – The most successful TV show of all time has lots to teach.
17th Century Explorers – And you thought marketers had a rough time convincing their audience.
The NBA – It was just basketball, then it took over the world.
Iceland air – How emphasising experience can make the middle of nowhere the destination.
The New York Times – You could do worse than stealing from the very best.
The MarTech Supergraphic – You too can build your own content powerhouse. Maybe.
The Democratic Mid-Term campaigns – Whatever you think about her politics, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez sure is doing marketing right.
Follow The Frog – Making people feel bad is not the only way to raise money for charity.
Paths of Flight – Soothing plane videos from GE Aviation.
The Greatest Infographic Ever – From 1869. See it and weep.
Epic Split – Jean-Claude van Damme teams up with Volvo Trucks and they both come out of it very well.
Great First Lines of Novels – Incisive content from the likes of Orwell, Salinger and Garcia Marquez.
Rand Fishkin and Moz’s Whiteboard Fridays – Only one of the most successful and longest-running B2B content franchises ever made.
Airbnb City Guides – Crowdsourcing your way to content greatness.
TED Talks – SO much to steal here…