How does a brand that has existed for decades engage audiences in a fresh way? Venerable rock band U2 provides one answer: be true to yourself, connect with your audience personally, and find new ways to tell your story. On July 2, I had the pleasure of attending a U2 concert at Chicago’s United Center, as part of the band’s Innocence + Experience tour. I was blown away by a group of musicians who sounded as exciting and energetic as they did when they released their first album 35 years ago. In concert, U2’s music was as great as always, ranging from expected hits to material from the new album, Songs of Innocence. But there is something more to U2’s appeal, on and off the stage. Here is why I believe U2 endures:
Humility and Approachability
With U2, it’s never about the band. U2 is always about you. The band started the United Center show with the lights on and the pomp and circumstance dialed down to zero, setting a tone of approachability and humility. And I get a sense of humility and approachability from U2 offstage, too. In all the band’s interviews and public appearances, Bono and his band mates exude an aura of humility. They do not indulge in long-winded discussions about themselves. They are more likely to keep a reporter’s conversation focused on their fans and the causes that inspire them.
U2 has always been about embracing causes such as the (RED) campaign to eradicate AIDs in Africa. The band’s involvement in global causes connects its music to a higher purpose — and creates a sense of community. When you respond to U2’s cry to make the world a better place, you join a movement bigger than yourself. You are more than a fan: you are a member of a community that stretches from Chicago to Dublin to Cairo. U2 makes you belong.
U2 pulls off what seems to be an impossible feat: create intimacy in large stadiums full of thousands of people. The stage is constructed with bridges and runways to give Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen maximum exposure to the audience, making everyone feel connected to the show, no matter where you sit. Bono famously interacts with the crowd, prowling the stage and generously high fiving the fans (although he’s prowling the stage a bit more cautiously on this tour as he recovers from a serious bicycling accident that occurred in November 2014).
U2 is also famous for literally involving the audience in its performance, as happened during our July 2 concert, when Bono brought a lucky and happy young woman onstage. Days later, Bono would even bring a U2 tribute band onstage to perform. Such moments bring down the so-called fourth wall that separates performers from the audience. We do more than watch. We experience the band.
U2 have pioneered the use of social technology for many years, often by using live feeds to open up its show to fans in far-flung places. When Bono brought an audience member onstage July 2, the band used Meerkat to broadcast the moment to users of the innovative livestream service — which is typical of how the band has been using social technology during the Innocence + Experience tour. With U2, technology is never a gimmick; it’s a tool for creating a more exciting audience experience.
U2 always gives its fans a reason to come back from one tour to the next. No two tours are the same, and the band always unveils something that makes its fans drop their jaws. The last time U2 toured extensively (the 360 tour), U2 featured a dramatic stage apparatus known as “the claw,” which allowed the audience to move around the stage. This time around, U2 rolled out a high-quality audio system that provided incredible sound quality even for fans in the cheap seats. The use of LED technology with skillfully crafted media designed for Bono and the boys to interact with also created an amazing visual experience. When you are at a U2 concert, you never ask, “How does this concert compare to last time?” because the immersive nature of each show makes you forget what the band did last time around.
U2 has built trust throughout 35 years of recording and touring. Partly the band builds trust by being consistent in its words and deeds. Bono asks us to participate in global causes — and does so himself. He openly discusses his spiritual faith with the news media, and he live his values publicly. U2’s reputation was tested in 2014 when Apple distributed Songs of Innocence on iTunes without first asking fans for permission, but fortunately, U2 had accumulated enough trust to weather the controversy. No one questioned the U2’s intentions to offer fans a gift; if anything, Apple took more heat in the trust department.
Most importantly, U2 earns the audience’s trust by always putting on a great show. Every U2 song is a like a story told well around a campfire. And we gather happily each time to listen.
This post was originally published on the One Smooth Stone blog on July 9, 2015. For a complimentary 30-minute consultation on how to build your brand and inspire an audience through events and communications, please contact Brian Duffy by calling 630.427.4235 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org