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A Lesson on Brand from Johnny Cash

Neil Sagebiel

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“B to B” published a resource guide that included a section titled Top Brands. It contained a list of 10 brand titans: American Express, Dell, FedEx, GE, Google, IBM, Intel, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft and UPS.

Certainly, these companies would be a logical starting point for a discussion about B2B brands.

Instead, let me tell you about Johnny Cash.

First, about the name. It says in the book “Cash” that he was born “with no real name. His parents called him J. R. Years later, they decided ‘J’ stood for John; they never did figure out what ‘R’ stood for. ”

It was Sam Phillips of Sun Records – the man who launched Cash’s recording career – who told the fledgling artist to go by “Johnny. ”

A door-to-door appliance salesman in Memphis, Cash knew only three chords on his acoustic guitar. Musical sidekicks Marshall Grant (bass) and Luther Perkins (lead guitar) were rank amateurs. Out of necessity, the trio produced a spare, rhythmic boom-chicka-boom sound that accentuated the group’s one strength: Cash’s deep baritone voice.

The Johnny Cash sound was born.

Cash and the talent-challenged Grant and Perkins thought a gospel repertoire was their ticket to stardom. But Phillips told Cash to return to the Sun Records studio when Cash had some original material, something Phillips could sell.

Songs such as “I Walk the Line” and the gritty “Folsom Prison Blues” emerged. Many of us know the rest of the story.

Cash became a star and then a legend, the voice of the common man, the poor, the disadvantaged, even the convict. Along the way, he clothed himself in black, becoming the “Man in Black. ”

Cash was not “branded” in a marketing sense, but he had the attributes of a great brand: a memorable name, a distinct voice, a consistent look, and an intense loyalty among his fans.

Much is made of brand, but in the end it’s about being distinct in a way that’s appealing to your customers. It’s playing to your strengths, staking out a position, and sticking with it.

It’s also about selling something. As Sam Phillips told Johnny Cash, come back when you have something I can sell.

Copyright (c) 2007 Neil Sagebiel

Neil Sagebiel is a former senior copywriter for a Seattle B2B ad agency. This article was originally published in his monthly ezine, Headlines from Floyd .

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