Gene Autry was a rock star decades before there was such a term. From the 1930s to the 1950s, “The Singing Cowboy” was one of the nation’s brightest film, radio and television stars. He died in 1998 as one of the richest 400 Americans, and the only entertainer in that group.
I was recently watching Ken Burns’ documentary series Country Music when they told a fascinating Gene Autry anecdote. Gene Autry often toured the country and at the same time he was receiving hundreds, sometimes thousands of fan letters every week. His wife would take the fan letters and cross-reference them against his touring schedule, and give him a list of every fan that had written him who lived in the next town that Autry was to perform in. Autry would then take the list upon arriving in that city, and find the nearest phone book and look up the name of each fan who had written him, and he would call that fan and thank them for writing him.
Another story shared involved Garth Brooks. Every year Nashville has a country music Fan Fest, where artists sign autographs for their fans. One year, during the height of his popularity, Garth Brooks showed up, unannounced, at Fan Fest. He picked an unmarked tent, and started signing. He pledged to sign for everyone there. Organizers repeatedly attempted to stop the line so Garth could leave, but he was determined to stay until everyone had an autograph.
He signed for over 20 hours.
When I started writing Think Like a Rock Star and I began to research how rock stars create and cultivate fans, the key question I wanted to answer was “Why do rock stars have fans, while companies have customers?” I wanted to figure out what the secret formula was that rock stars used to cultivate fans, and find out if it was possible for companies to replicate that success.
The answer was surprisingly simple: Rock stars have fans because they WANT fans. Gene Autry didn’t have to go to the time and trouble of calling up every fan who wrote him a letter, he wanted to. Garth Brooks didn’t have to show up unscheduled at Fan Fest and sign for over 20 hours, he wanted to.
The reality is, you have earned the relationship you have with the people that buy your products and services. If you have fans, then you have earned them. If you just have customers, well you’ve earned them as well. If you want to have passionate customers who consider themselves to be ‘fans’ of your company, then you have to put forward the effort to make that happen.
“But Mack, you’re talking about actual rock stars, we’re just a boring company making boring products!”
Why can’t your company have the CEO personally reply to a positive comment from a customer left on Twitter? Why can’t you send a small ‘thank you’ gift box to a customer who emails you and thanks you for great customer service? When you have a culture that appreciates and values your customers, you create and cultivate fans.
A few years ago I was working with Dell on a customer advocacy event. We had a group of about 20 customers that had been flown in to Austin and we were meeting with them all day, having roundtable discussions, product demos, etc. We had just finished lunch and we were about to go onto another event when one of Dell’s PR team pulled me aside and told me to have everyone go into the conference room, that Dell had a surprise for them. The group filed in and quietly chatted, after a few minutes they began to wonder what was happening next.
In walked CEO Michael Dell. For this group of passionate Dell customers, it was as if a rock star had entered the room. Cameras immediately started flashing and everyone suddenly sat at attention, smiling and on the edges of their seats. Dell already had a full day planned for the group, this was obviously a ‘bonus’ they had wanted to add in at the last minute, since I had been involved in the prior planning and didn’t know about it until 5 mins before he arrived. Dell wanted to communicate to these passionate customers that they appreciated them so much that one of the busiest CEOs in the world was going to make time to come talk with them.
Former Maker’s Mark CEO Bill Samuels Jr often said that the brand viewed its customers as ‘friends’, and as such, that shaped all its communications with the people that buy its bourbon. You don’t pitch your friends, you don’t market to your friends, so Maker’s Mark changed how it communicated with its customers, to shape the type of relationships it wanted to cultivate.
Every company has passionate customers who consider themselves to be fans. The most successful companies are the ones that go out of their way to create, appreciate and reward their fans.