Hanging out outside Madison Square Garden at the Dead’s (formerly Grateful) recent show, I was approached several times by people who wanted a “miracle.” Also known as a free ticket. How annoying. Even in my younger heyday of going to many Dead shows, I never felt the spontaneous urge of giving away a ticket that I went through the trouble to get. I mean, I paid for a ticket; surly you can scrape up the money for one too. Maybe you should have thought of that before you loaded up the VW and headed to the Garden, eh Cap’n Dreadlocks?
But it did get me thinking about the power of free. Free is all around nowadays, even in our sputtering economy. Library cards are in high-demand, seeing that public libraries are a free and recession friendly version of both Barnes & Noble and Netflix. The iPhone has thousands of free apps. Some even have practical uses: radio streaming, FedEx package tracking, mobile friendly versions of the New York Times, a carpenter’s level, etc. Sorry, iBanjo. I still don’t see the point.
And newspapers...well what’s the point of buying one if you have Internet access? That goes for classified ads too. Why pay for one? Monster, craigslist and ebay – all free to join, free to post and free to browse. Free, it seems, is everywhere. Companies usually tread with caution with free. Every ice cream aficionado knows that late April or early May is when Ben & Jerry’s hosts its national Free Cone Day. Not to be outdone, Baskin-Robbins now follows suit, usually on the same day. People like free as much as they love ice cream. Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts poured consumers free coffee last fall. And now a continuing parade of rock stars like Radiohead, Neil Young and Prince are eager to give away their albums to scores of fans. But let’s not kid ourselves. Rock stars are still out to make the bucks. Concert tickets can cost hundreds of dollars, and there are plenty of people willing to pay for that experience. Recession be damned.
There’s a lesson here. Rock bands are brands. Music is their product. The concert is the pinnacle of their brand experience. How much to they want their fans to pay for the privilege of seeing them live? A lot. LiveNation knows this and is making a killing. Giving away an album can pay off in spades in the end, as hordes of fans will pay loads to fill an arena. Not to mention t-shirts, programs, and other tchotchkies. That’s branding, folks. Rock and roll style.
There’s nothing new about getting something for nothing. As marketers, we all want the customer to get hooked on our product and pay to repeat the experience. At the same time, too much “free” is irresponsible. Never “give away the store.” You can look foolish if things don’t pan out. Remember Dr Pepper’s debacle in promising a free can of soda for everyone (yes, that’s everyone) if Guns n’ Roses released an album in 2008? Dr Pepper didn’t bet on the ever-temperamental Axl Rose getting his act together. He did. Turns out the album crashed and burned almost as fast as Dr Pepper’s crisis management team.
If you think about it, the entire advertising business model is based on a free proposition. It’s “hey consumer, here’s 30 seconds of a free TV spot” or “here’s a banner ad you’re free to click on.” If consumer likes whatever the ad is selling (and the highly creative way it’s being presented), then hopefully, eventually, off they go to buy. And buy again. And again. Free works – when done right.
And the best part about “free” is that it’ll always be in demand. Just like this column. However, if there’s a publisher who wants to pay for more of these words, I’m open to some free advice.