Lessons from U2

November 23, 2004 by

Bono in the Apple commercial.Anyone who reads my personal blog or has had contact with me in the past month probably knows that I’ve been obsessing about the release of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the 11th studio release and first in four years from the biggest rock band in the world, U2.

All that obsessing has given me a good grasp of the kind of marketing U2 does when they release an album.

Perhaps the biggest organization in the world (can I say that about the Church?) can learn something from the biggest band in the world. Let’s see.

Spiritual Aside
For starters, I’d just like to point out that U2 has to be the most spiritually aware rock band in mainstream music. Their lyrics drip with God, salvation, love, grace and redemption as well as sin, pain, sex and death. This is a band that’s willing to be honest and willing to approach the taboo, something the church hasn’t always been willing or able to do.

In one of my favorite quotes from lead singer Bono, he refers to Christians as “squeakies,” and elaborates saying: “Christians are hard to tolerate, I don’t know how Jesus does it.” But he adds “I’m one of them.”

But we’re not here to talk about the faith of U2 (that would take a while and I wouldn’t do it justice, though I would recommend Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 and Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog).

On To the Marketing
So let’s look at what they’ve done: How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb came out today, November 23, 2004, but it’s hardly the beginning or the end of their efforts.

Yesterday the band stormed the streets of New York City, riding around on a flat-bed truck with a police escort and performing a new song—all while filming the entire stunt for a music video. They finished with a 45-minute “impromptu” concert, which was also filmed for a later MTV special. This past weekend they appeared on Saturday Night Live, playing three songs on national TV. Last week they appeared on the British network Radio 1, chatting with the DJs, playing tracks from the new album and later playing a four-song set.

The album has been streamed online at MTV, VH1, NME.com and U2.com, as well as played on radio stations across the country in its entirety (partly in response to the album appearing illegally in online file sharing networks).

The first single, “Vertigo,” was released to radio at the end of September and quickly topped the charts. The song also appeared on national TV in a vibrant Apple spot featuring the band silhouetted against colored backgrounds. This much talked about partnership also produced a U2-themed iPod and the announcement of a 446-song iTunes box set, The Complete U2, which became available for download today.

All this in addition to countless articles, advertisements, billboards—even posters tacked to the abandoned gas station on a corner near my house. And you’ll continue to see—and hear—U2 everywhere.

What Can We Learn?
The lesson here is that even the world’s biggest rock band can’t sit back.

“There is absolutely no resting on our laurels,” band manager Paul McGuinness tells Billboard. “I say to people we have to break the band every time we put out a record.”

So what can the church learn:

  • Don’t expect people to show up. Just because you build it (or program it or announce it or whatever), doesn’t mean they’ll come. You have to make everything worth the effort. Note another quote from Bono: “Two crap albums and you’re out. That’s our deal with our audience.”
  • Take advantage of every opportunity. Obviously within reason, but U2 hasn’t stuck with only the traditional marketing avenues. They constantly try new things like the U2 iPod or the New York roving concerts. Churches need to do the same, exploring unique promotional opportunities, not just putting an announcement in the bulletin and calling it good.
  • Don’t be afraid of who you are. U2 has constantly explored the human soul, even though the results aren’t always pretty. Many Christians have decried U2 for smoking, swearing and drinking, yet Bono also asked countless times during the Elevation tour, including the Super Bowl halftime show: “What can I give back to God for the blessings he’s poured out on me? I’ll lift high the cup of salvation as a toast to our Father, I’ll fulfill a promise I made to him.” If his words have a Biblical ring, it’s because he’s loosely quoting Psalm 116. We’re a broken people. Don’t assume a pastor or a speaker or special guest has to be perfect. None of us are, and when we pretend to be and ignore the sin in our lives, we turn people away.
  • It doesn’t end. The promotional attack for the latest album won’t end because the bomb dropped today. It will keep on going next year with a massive tour and will likely continue into 2006. Just because your big event is over doesn’t mean the work is. There’s still follow-up to do, thank you postcards to send and calls to make. Spreading the gospel doesn’t end with an invitation.
  • Steal their ideas. If it worked for U2, why not you, too? If you’re bringing in a band for an upcoming event, give people a teaser—an early live performance or maybe a song to download on your web site. Get your people fired up and enable them to do your promotion for you (the U2 poster at the boarded up gas station is a perfect example). Don’t ignore the press—let them know about upcoming events and if it’s appropriate let them know someone’s available for an interview.
Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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