“It’s either a clever marketing ploy, or the Dixie Chicks have decided to commit career suicide. It’s too early to tell which.” So said the recent 60 minutes piece
I’m not so sure either of these things is the case.
The general strategy – to reposition the Dixie Chicks as “rock-ish country”, get rid of conservatively-based country fans and focus on maintaining a core group of progressive female fans – was the only way to go, in my opinion. The alternative – make another country record marketed to their original fan base and pretend the whole thing never happened – would have left the band members suffering emotionally and probably wouldn’t have proved to be a hit in terms of sales as die-hard conservative fans would still not have “let it go”.
In terms of execution, there have been some hits and misses. The campaign has obviously been extremely successful in getting coverage in the press (and in the right kind of press with the right kind of audience). Coverage in the NY Times
, 60 Minutes
, and Time Magazine
have generated much needed buzz around the release. This press was particularly important given that the ladies are still not being given much radio airplay (Billboard
) . And, just as the coverage generated criticism that the promotion was all about politics and not about the music, a handful of solid album reviews were released (e.g. Entertainment Weekly
, Rolling Stone
, LA Times
), reminding consumers and critics that, in spite of the political drama, the Dixie Chicks are still making good music.
Who are the Dixie Chicks?
The NY Times article
states “But this isn't really a fight about President Bush or freedom of speech. This is a fight about the identity of country music.” Personally, I don’t think that has been made entirely clear. In the 60 minutes piece
, it seemed the women were primarily interested in two things – removing themselves from a country music scene whose values they did not espouse, and venting about the emotional difficulty of coping with the overwhelmingly negative, sometimes physically threatening, response to Natalie Maines’ statements about the President in 2003. It was also clear that they wanted to promote a sound that is a little more rock and a little less country and speak to a progressive female audience. OK, so it’s about breaking from country music's "redneck identity
"…or so we thought, until the band’s recent refusal to promote their album on “The View” (New York Post
). The reason for the refusal? - they were trying to think about “what Bruce Springsteen would do” in promoting his work, seemingly implying a desire to be thought of as budding grassroots activists in the vein of The Boss
. So is it about bucking country music because you wanted people to be clear about who you are and what you believe in, or is it about fighting against President Bush and instigating political change? Ultimately, this is about one thing only – the identity of the Dixie Chicks, and my biggest gripe about the PR in this campaign is its failure to identify and send a clear, unified message about who they in fact are and intend to be. Assuming the DC were held back from truly being themselves while playing within the country music realm, what should I expect from them now? Are they rebels who just want the freedom to speak their minds? Burgeoning activists who intend to step up their involvement in the promotion of political change? Or just three women who don’t want to be rebels or activists, but just didn’t want to feel caged in by the rules of country music? I still don’t know. Should I think of you as comparable to Pink
? To Neil Young
? Or to Michelle Branch
Even if they work to clarify this message to the public, the fact is that they have positioned themselves as a band that prioritizes its political values enough that they needed to part completely from their conservative fan base – a pretty serious move that implies pretty serious devotion to progressive values. As such, even if they don’t want to be Bono
and change the world or Neil Young and center their entire album around politics and the president, if they are wise, they will demonstrate their commitment to these values through some
amount of activism; otherwise, it will appear as if they were really more interested in creating a buzz for marketing purposes than in behaving in accordance with deeply rooted values. And that would mean death for the band in the long-term as they would have burned bridges with their conservative country fans and disappointed their progressive followers who expected more from them.Online Engagement
Promotional segments in the media will soon end and, with limited airplay, the women need to somehow maintain the buzz surrounding the album in order to sustain sales. The interactive marketing campaign has the potential to play a critical role in promoting sales through promoting word of mouth; however, much more needs to be done in this campaign for that to happen.
First, the positives. The band put up a new site at MSN
where fans are offered streaming audio of the full album, and there is also a link out to MSN music to provide fans the opportunity to buy current and past releases (interestingly, they’re still listed under “Contemporary Country”). In terms of providing music access to current and potential fans as well as driving sales, those are the pros of the site. But, beyond that, the interactive content on the band’s site is severely lacking in several crucial areas.Activism? What activism?
Go to the Dixie Chicks’ official website
or MSN Space
and you will find absolutely nothing related to political issues or activist causes. Again, it’s unclear the extent to which the DC want to become politically involved, but they’ve built their separation from country music around the need to freely express their values, so, even if they don’t want to tour with Bruce Springsteen promoting political change (Washington Post
), they would be wise to, at a minimum, provide some information about causes consistent with their beliefs in order to reinforce the message that they are serious about their political values. As an example, consider the website of another progressive band who recently released an album, Pearl Jam
. There, you’ll find an “activism” link which provides a list of organizations supported by the band as well as an opportunity for fans to “talk back” about these issues. It’s a simple and effective way to reaffirm a band’s image and values in the eyes of its fans, and, for the DC, it’s a good way to build relationships with new fans who were driven to investigate them based solely out of political interest.“To the fans who have stuck by us, we really appreciate you”
Nope. There’s none of that. Anywhere. Go to dixiechicks.com
and it’s pretty much just buzz central – headlines on all the press they’ve had over the last couple of weeks, but nothing addressing the fans. That site drives you to their new space at MSN where, again, there’s no clear message to the fans.
What are the Dixie Chicks doing to nurture a relationship with fans who have stuck by them and potential new fans who are checking them out? Relationships aren’t one-sided and artists must put forth an effort to develop and maintain fan relationships if they want to succeed. And that doesn’t just mean “Join our mailing list by entering your email address here”. Even a simple message from the Dixie Chicks to their fans on their website expressing their gratitude to those who’ve shown support and their eagerness to hear from newly acquired fans would be a step in the right direction. I have no problem with the Dixie Chicks wanting to get rid of some of their original followers. Frankly, if someone threatened my life, I’d tell them to screw off too. But I think there needs to be more of an effort to embrace fans who have stuck by them and reach out to consumers who are giving them a try because they share in their political sentiment.
Consider again Pearl Jam’s website (Sorry to perseverate but it’s just got all the right components). In addition to an activism link, there’s also a link to join the band’s fan club
which offers exclusive members-only benefits – “Join the greatest fan club on earth dedicated to the greatest fans on earth”. How fabulous is that? Promote a following while complementing your fans, making them feel special by offering them exclusive stuff, and letting them know how important they are to you. It’s a love fest and I like it.Community Forum
Sticking with the failure to incorporate fans into the plan, there’s virtually no opportunity on the Dixie Chicks’ sites for fans to engage in a conversation with the band or with each other. Consumers will find an outlet to post their opinions, whether on the Dixie Chicks site or elsewhere, but providing a forum on the site will allow fans a safe place to congregate, allow the band the opportunity to monitor fan conversations, identify the demographics of their evolving fan base, and identify areas in which they might improve outreach. In addition, by imposing structure on message boards and blogs through moderation and compartmentalization of threads, they can control, monitor, and address negative messages more effectively.
To be fair, a blog
has been established on the ladies’ website, but with mediocre activity levels and content. Additionally, the band recruited a law school professor as their blogger which I don’t understand at all. Why not employ a fan – a new fan who recently connected with DCs new sound or a long-time fan who fits the ladies' preferred fan base – to engage in a blogging dialogue with the public? (Of all the people who could have been utilized to connect and build trust with fans…a lawyer?) Even more interesting, why not set up a blog hosted by a fan who was offended by Natalie Maines’ statement in 2003 but who respects the band’s stand today – that would attract a diverse readership and potentially convert some fans who are on the fence. Anyway, “the professor” also goes on to write a series of articles that are posted on the site that are somewhat immature and not appropriate to the Dixie Chicks core audience.