Riffin’ with Hendrix: A masterclass in market captivation

Jimi played the guitar like no one was watching, from the depths of his soul. And he gave it everything, every time. Crowds were bewitched by his particular art form and quickly grew to love him. Jimi undoubtedly fed off this energy, fuelling his creative fires and stoking his intensity. But watching him perform, it’s like the crowd just isn’t there.

This brilliant live performance of Voodoo Child (Stockholm 1969) sums up his relationship with his audience. There’s a whole different level of engagement taking place here. There’s no ‘Good evening Sweden!’ – there’s no conversation at all. There’s no eye contact with the crowd – when he’s digging deep he often turns his back to them – and almost none with the band. It’s like the artist doing everything in his power to make himself transparent to his art; casting no shadow. He helps the listener connect directly with the music, and just steps out of the way.

That suppression of ego, his fundamental humility, the honesty of his performances, underlined his genius and amplified his legend. When asked in an interview whether he thought he was the world’s best guitar player, he responded with “I wouldn’t say that I’m the greatest guitarist ever. I’d say probably that I’m the greatest guitarist sitting in this chair.” (Can you imagine Kanye West saying that?!)

This self-deprecation kept him grounded. It kept him hungry. The only promise he ever made to his ‘customers’ was that they would get to see him play guitar. He let his musical performance do the work and the audience to do the talking.

This isn’t to say that Jimi didn’t need marketing. Quite the contrary. There was most definitely a strategy in play.

Although he had supported some of America’s biggest names at legendary venues across the states, he arrived in the UK in 1966 as a relatively unknown artist. So how, in little over nine months, did he manage to become one of Britain’s biggest stars, with a string of hit singles and a reputation for wild virtuoso live performances?

In late 1966, he rocked up in the Bag O’ Nails club in London for a launch event organised by former The Animals bassist Chas Chandler. The audience that night just happened to include Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Kevin Ayers, as well as John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He delivered a performance that blew the minds of some of the best artists of the time.

“You never told me he was that f***ing good.” Eric Clapton, after first hearing Hendrix perform (The Guardian)

Returning to the Bag O’ Nails in January 1967 with The Jimi Hendrix Experience, he opened his set with the title track to the Beatles newly released Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album, knowing full well that Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were in attendance! Now that there…that’s an influence strategy!

With hindsight, it’s clear that his moments and venues were brilliantly targeted – providing the perfect opportunities to showcase his virtuosity. Like playing the Star Spangled Banner at daybreak at Woodstock during the height of the politically charged Vietnam war? Yep, that’ll do it!

Importantly though he used his performance to win his admirers, not his marketing. For Hendrix, the performance came first, and the promotion followed. The marketing was all about influencing the right people at the right time, and maximising an opportunity to promote an experience that was worth marketing.

For Hendrix, the performance came first, and the promotion followed.

Hendrix didn’t wake every morning and think “Today, my job is to change the world.” He focused on playing the guitar like no-one had played it before: upside down one minute, with his teeth the next. But before he was done – with each extraordinary performance, and moment by moment – he’d helped create a global movement, redefined his art form, and connected with his audience at an intensity that none had achieved before and few have since. It seems trite to say so – but that’s a near textbook definition of disruption.

So what can you, as a business leader, learn from the lasting legacy of this legend?

Well, if you want to captivate your market – create your own movement, inspire engagement and sustain loyalty – you’ve got to have a clear purpose. You’ve got to be capable of communicating and connecting at an emotional level, not just a rational one. And you need total conviction in what you promise and deliver to customers. The boost to sales and accelerated growth follow consequentially.

And if you want to trust your marketers to maximise your opportunity… you’ve got to give them an opportunity worth maximising.

Finally, if you want to disrupt the status quo in your industry you’ve got to represent a clear-cut alternative, create a better experience, or both: the disruption will take care of itself.

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