SXSW, Noah Fleming’s 3 C’s and Eric Church

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I had a bit of a marketing revelation this weekend, and I have country music to thank.

Here’s my story.

SXSW melted my brain (not in the way you’d think)

A few weeks ago, I pledged to my team that I would do a blog writeup on some of my experiences from SXSW Interactive, which I attended with Quinlan Creative Director Frank Conjerti from Friday, March 13 through Tuesday, March 17.

Fair’s fair – Quinlan paid for us to travel 1,600 miles south for a five-day marketing mega-conference, I guess the agency deserves a few hundred words from me. I kept putting this off, though, and the days slipped away.

As it happened, Frank and I gave a presentation about our top SXSW 2015 takeaways to our coworkers this past Thursday. I thought it would be easy to take my presentation notes, bang out a quick post and get the blogging guilt from off my conscience.

Nothing is easy in this life, of course, especially when the deadlines, meetings and obligations of both work and life conspire to sap away your ability to be clever on a moment’s notice.

Or, closer to the point, the ability to be clever on a topic that you’ve grown thoroughly sick of — and after a dozen or so hours pouring through my SXSW notes, practicing my presentation and planning our 50-minute talk to death with Frank, I feel confident in stating that I was thoroughly sick of SXSW.

Famous for its free booze, exclusive parties and devil-may-care attitude towards general human health, SXSW had managed to melt my brain six weeks after the fact, which is probably some kind of record.

Thursday was busy. Friday was hectic. When I found a couple 45-minute windows to work on my SXSW post, I caught myself answering email or raiding the office drink cooler instead of typing away.

Then — out of the blue — I was inspired.

Eric Church shows me the way

Country music star Eric Church brought The Outsiders Tour  to Buffalo on Friday night and my wife and I went to the show. I was vaguely aware of Church’s work — I liked “Springsteen” and a couple other songs — but I was,  by no means, knowledgable about his music.

I’m an avid music fan. I’ve been to hundreds of concerts but very few arena shows (I’m just that cool, gang). My experiences at the big concerts I had attended were not great — the musicians seemed distant, the shows felt contrived and half the crowd appeared to be paying attention to something else entirely.

What I saw on Friday blew my mind.

The audience at First Niagara Center went nuts as soon as Church stepped onstage, and the North Carolina guitar slinger did not disappoint.  Church played heavily to his fans, fed off their energy and kept 18,000 people actively engaged for over two hours.

The show was slick, tightly orchestrated and well-stocked with all the big arena cliches like video screens, floating drummers and even inflatable props, yet seemed, somehow, completely improvised. To call the effort impressive is an understatement.

The obsessive digging begins

Whenever something catches my attention, I tend to go straight down the rabbit hole — I want to know as much as possible as fast as possible. Eric Church was no exception. Who is this guy? What makes him tick?

I quickly found an interview he did with Tim O’Shei of The Buffalo News. In the article, Church explains the problems he and his band experienced when first faced with the challenge of connecting to 10,000 concert fans instead of 1,000:

When (the album) “Chief” happened three years ago, we found ourselves in these bigger rooms for the first time. I don’t think we handled it very well. We just didn’t know how to play the rooms. It’s such a DNA thing for us, these small bars and clubs and theaters. The spontaneity, I think we lost the first round in the arenas.

Reading those lines, something from my SXSW presentation lept to mind (and if that seems unlikely, remember that I basically lived and breathed my presentation notes for two or three days earlier in the week): Noah Fleming and his 3 C’s.

Noah Fleming on Loyalty

Fleming, author of the bestselling book Evergreen: Cultivating Enduring Customer Loyalty, spoke at SXSW about the 3 C’s: character, community and content.

Let me explain:

  • Character refers to the few seconds you have to make an impact in a customer’s mind, or they will make a decision for you. Bore your customer, and you risk losing them.
  • Community describes where your customers gather, online and off.
  • Content is what you offer in exchange for the customer’s money — your product.

Too many brands worry about their content, Fleming explained. When sales dip, they worry less about cultivating loyalty — creating a better understanding of community, thinking about their character — and offer more content instead.

He referred to this phenomenom as the “messy closet” theory of trying to add more value when all that’s really happening is a disappointing experience remains disappointing while also becoming a bit more confusing.

Another way to describe this state of affairs is the “leaky bucket theory” — when there are holes in the bucket, you try to solve the problem by adding more water.

Great content is not enough to cultivate loyalty, Fleming insists. Without proof of character and an engaged community, you may create interest — but you’ll never have devotion.

Eric Church and the 3 C’s

In Church’s case, he had great content — he’s sold nearly four million records. But he believed that his relationship with his community suffered when he made the leap to bigger venues because the character he was able to present in those club shows wasn’t carrying over. He ran the risk of losing loyal fans by boring them.

What was his solution? More from O’Shei’s interview:

…we’ve done everything we can to make sure we get that (small venue feeling) back. Not only is it better for the crowd, we’re playing a different set each night, we’re in the round and it feels like people are just on top of us. But it’s also fun as a musician. It’s different, it’s unique, every night. It reminds me of those days when we used to play those rooms, where it started for us, where we really built it from…

The main thing we learned is it’s not about what people may or may not have heard on the radio. The show – and how we got here – is those albums. (It’s about) not being afraid to just go play them. Last night we played seven songs in a row that have never been on the radio, and the show was just as high as it was at any other time.

One of the first stops of the tour, we played a song, “Can’t Take It With You,” which is an album track off of our first album. We hadn’t played it in forever. We started into it and the place went crazy. It was that thing: People are paying attention. They know they haven’t seen it in a long time, it’s a rare thing and it’s a cool thing. And I think that that’s what a lot of artists underestimate. I know early on, with this arena thing, we probably did. It’s a lesson that I learned: People are still here because they bought the album and they made the album part of their life.

That’s a near-perfect application of the 3 C’s:

  • Church recognized that his brand’s character lagged because of the difficulty he and his band had transferring their magnetic energy in larger venues. He revamped his live show accordingly, adding interactive elements — a theater-in-the-round performance setup, the ability to take catwalks deep into the audience, more engaging visuals — and the performances improved.
  • Church cultivated consumer loyalty by recognizing what was happening in the community — the fans were listening to a wider variety of his music that just the songs made popular by commercial radio. When he played those deeper cuts live, the fans were truly appreciative.
  • Church had valuable content, and he gave them a deeper cross-section of his inventory. He didn’t change his style to attract fans he hoped would be more engaged, or rush out arena-friendly albums to appease his existing followers. He offered more of what his audience already knew and loved, honed the experience and is now more popular with his fanbase than ever.


How popular? This past April, reported that “since launching last September, the country headliner’s tour…has played in more than 60 cities in North America, racking up $35 million at the box office.” Church’s Outsiders Tour hit number one of Billboard’s Hot Tours list in April.

So there you have it, marketers — we can all learn something important about improving brand loyalty from Eric Church. You may want to save some of his other lessons for the weekend, though.


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