What Zappa taught me about Marketing

 In my teenage years, I started to shift my heroes from sports figures like Tom Seaver, Joe Namath and Sandy Koufax to the musical genius Frank Zappa. I think it was my first true awareness of marketing as I knew he was doing something differently. I could always depend on Zappa to follow the unbeaten path. He helped me to understand how and why different mattered so much. I never saw him as a publicity seeker- rather he was just following his inner Zappa. 

When I was in college at Penn, I got to photograph Zappa live on stage at Irvine Auditorium around 1977 as he regaled the audience with irreverence and laughter. It was a thrilling experience to be behind the scenes watching him perform. If you could have bottled the energy, you could have lit up a city. 

But like a thread running through the tapestry of my own education, Zappa taught me some important things about branding and weaving my own material. 

Strictly Commercial 
As a kid, Zappa’s father worked for the military industrial complex involved in chemical gases. Themes around germs, warfare and the like were ever present in his music. His father worked with mustard gas and I have read that they kept gas masks in his home. Some of Zappa’s childhood illnesses appear to be related to living so close to the manufacturing factory. I am certain this has something to do with how he viewed the world and lived each day. He wasn't just against the norm but he delighted in the way a creative spirit could shine a light and provide direction for a life's journey. 

I learned the word avante-garde through listening to Zappa as names like Edgar Varese, Igor Stravinsky and the doo wop bands all shaped his music vision. Growing up in LA and with his own diverse background, Zappa rejected all things mainstream in music and politics as he would quote from the Mad Men era jello jingles or other commercials of the day. He made fun of everything and everything to him was fun. 

Watching him perform was like seeing inside the mind of a joyful child who never left the playground. 

His music was like nothing I had known. How he lived in the world was so idiosyncratic and odd that it amused me beyond words.  His music was always difficult to categorize which was a clue to his marketing genius. He didn’t want to be seen in anyone else’s mold or style.  He was in his personal and professional life an expression and realization of something completely different.

As a self-taught composer, musician and persona, it was always near impossible to describe him. His first album, Freak Out! with The Mothers of Invention was both rock and roll, improvisation, jazz-like and a collection of sounds that interested him from the audio panels.  To call him an iconoclast is an injustice to his spirit as labels never fit. He was just Zappa.

So how does all this fit with marketing?

If I could sum it up, these 5 themes were baked into my childhood and formed a key part of my own approach marketing.  Thanks for jump start Frank and for setting off a a lifetime of creative sparks. 

Be Real
Let whatever is inside of you out and be proud of the way that you can uniquely create something of beauty, of value and that delights a small tribe.

Be Fresh 
Don’t be the same as everyone else clamoring for attention. If the world is zigging, don’t just zag but fly somewhere above the rest. Wiggle when everyone marches straight forward. Make sounds with your hands when it is time to be serious.

Be Inventive
Let go of judgment. The question isn't whether it is good or will anyone like it or will it be a success. The question is are you being truthful to your own world view. Enjoy the sheer pleasure of the creation process and realize that your time on earth is so short that fear is just a bug on a windshield as you fly down life’s highway. I'll bet Steve Jobs had Zappa as a soundtrack in his life. 

Be Bold
Experiment, blend, synthesize, try and fail and try and fail and fail and fail and fail until you cry. But don’t just fall into lock step with everyone else. Be proud of saying that you tried something novel.

Be Exuberant
Celebrate the joy of light, sound, movement, words and humor. Of all the lessons about marketing that I channeled from Zappa, the key was to celebrate and delight in the sheer joy of ideas and daily life. Find a voice that allows you to express the brilliance of your own life. 

Zappa was an ever present hero of mine as I grew up in suburban New Jersey and during my days in Philadelphia during college and beyond. It was as if he gave me and my friends Jamie and Larry permission to express our creative self through many forms. But it was always in the anti-establishment and irreverent way of being that helped spark my own creativity in both business and life. Be frank...sort of a worldview urging me to find my own unique voice and approach. 

And to this day, I still watch out where the huskies go and don’t you eat the yellow snow.

Note: If you too are a mother of invention and enjoy reading about ideas that unravel marketing mysteries, please tweet this post to your followers. 

Labels: , , ,