Who Will Market Our Content When We’re Gone? 4 Strategy Lessons From The Unicorns

The Unicorns were a short-lived, self-aware twee-pop trio from Montreal circa the early aughts; you know, back before words like “twee” or “Montreal” didn’t have the weight of an intervening decade’s worth of baggage. They released one essential album, 2003’s Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, toured seemingly non-stop for about two years, and promptly broke up, never to be heard from again. Oh, except that last part isn’t true.

In late August, Nick Thorburn, Alden Penner, and Jamie Thompson dusted off their pink jumpsuits and played a handful of arena dates as openers for Arcade Fire, effectively realizing a bizarro parallel-universe scenario where their skewed pop mosaics could find a home in a stadium setting. (And keep in mind that 10 years ago, this wasn’t that much of a stretch, as Arcade Fire was opening for them).

In any case, it’s my opinion that the specter of the Unicorns playing arena-sized shows in 2014 defies conventional logic; as such, I feel totally comfortable making other claims that may not appear to make much sense on the surface—like, for example, that the band’s tumultuous existence can offer lessons that brands would be wise to apply to their own marketing efforts.

A stretch? Maybe. But maybe not…

Lesson 1: Context

The Unicorns’ subversive live shows bordered on performance art, challenging the audience through sheer unpredictability. At one early show, legend has it that Thorburn and Penner passed out homemade sandwiches to the crowd mid-set as a peace offering; the first time I saw them live, Thorburn performed facing the side stage wall as if the audience didn’t even exist or matter, head smooshed flat against the surface like a shamed child putting himself in the corner. Theirs was a live persona that felt purpose-built for basement shows, college parties, and cramped rock clubs—eye-level engagement with their audience was absolutely critical for pulling off such oddball theatrics.

Now, not having seen any of their reunion shows, I can only assume that such tactics can’t carry the same weight in the cavernous setting of a 30,000-seat arena. The context has shifted, and what worked in a sweaty basement can’t possibly play the same way in a stadium.

How’s that relate to content marketing? As content marketers creating work on behalf of brands, we shouldn’t feel the need to make things with the giant arena in mind. Chasing the most universally appealing or widest-reaching subjects only guarantees that you’re missing a bunch of smaller, but more purposeful, opportunities. That’s one of the core strengths of content marketing—it can be as niche and targeted as we want it to be, heavy lifting done in small doses. After all, having your messages soar amidst a small but passionate audience that appreciates what you have to offer is a lot more effective than reaching a vast audience without offering something of value.

Lesson 2: Tension

Both in recording and at live concerts, the Unicorns mesmerized in large part because they always seemed to be one song away from going completely off the rails. Onstage, Thorburn and Penner would argue back and forth in a way that was both theatrical and completely convincing, making it hard to tell when they were being serious and when it was just part of the act. This playful sniping is best captured in the studio version of “I Was Born (A Unicorn),” where they subvert the mechanics of the traditional call-and-response through the following exchange: Thorburn: “I write the songs.” Penner: “I write the songs!” Thorburn: “You say I’m doing it wrong.” Penner: “You are doing it wrong!” They were masters at keeping their audience hooked by creating tension in the most unexpected places.

As marketers, we should feel emboldened to apply this sort of thinking to the work we create. Don’t we want attention for our brands? For people to talk about the work? Yes and yes (important parenthetical aside: not all press is good press, of course).

But whether brainstorming stand-alone executions or entire content programs, one of the most useful filters we can apply comes from a few simple questions: “What’s the headline?” “What’s the cultural tension?” “What’s going to make people remember this?”

The morning after a Unicorns show, for example, the headline’s pretty cut and dry: “Band Nearly Pummels Each Other Onstage, Cuts Show Short.” Simple, right? Where it gets sticky is doing this in a way that feels true to the brand and not solicitous, which brings me to my next point…

Lesson 3: Authenticity

For all their theatrics, costumes, and mercurial behavior, there was something refreshingly authentic about the Unicorns. They were endearingly goofy, proudly childlike in their approach to their craft, and never took themselves too seriously.

Put simply, they were “in” on the joke and wanted their audience to be as well. And within the self-serious and somber landscape of indie and popular rock circa 2003, this was nothing short of revolutionary. In subsequent years, this off-kilter brand of authenticity would posthumously position them as a sort of “primary source” of coolness. (I can recall an episode of How I Met Your Mother when the writers used Ted Mosby’s affection for the band as a lazy shorthand to signify his quirky tastes and attendant coolness, as though the act of liking the Unicorns became metonymic for actually being hip and interesting.) How did a bickering trio of dudes in pink costumes achieve this? Well, they were nothing if not comfortable in their own skin.

We could all benefit from operating in a similar way in the work we create, avoiding those messages that ring hollow to the identity of our brands and favoring subjects that those brands have an inherent right to talk about. Be honest, transparent, and, dare I say it, human. Eliminate false fronts and pretense. And most critically and above all else—have a strong point of view and stick with it.

It’s quite simple but worth spelling out: An unassailable way to demonstrate brand authenticity is to actually stand for something and have a point of view.

Lesson 4: Scarcity

Last, we come to the idea of supply and demand. With only one full-length album, some 7” singles and EPs and a scattering of audio and video detritus documenting their live shows scattered across the Internet, the demand for Unicorns material amidst a small but still-fervent following far outweighs the supply. And who knows, maybe these handful of reunion shows will prompt a second act in their meandering history, but if it doesn’t, you can be assured their small song catalog will only be more treasured as time passes.

Now, this isn’t to say that brands should withhold providing meaningful content to their audience in the hopes that massive demand will result (I’m an optimist but not that optimistic); rather, we should be thoughtful of just how much we’re publishing and ensure that we’re not saying things just to say things. It’s better to leave our audience wanting more than having them leave us altogether. Just ask Weezer.

Michael Grimes is the VP, Content Editor-in-Chief, at Hill Holliday

Image by Alston Pudding

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