How U2 Can Teach Your Business The Art of Reinvention

It’s a cold world out there, boss, and if nothing else is true it’s this: if you don’t evolve, you die. Whether you’re a single-celled microbe, a cooperative business, or a multi-platinum music group, the need to adapt to the ever-shifting landscape is essential. Over the last 30 years, one of the most prominent masters of the art of reinvention has been the Irish rock band, U2. One half of their formula for longevity and success is based on their sheer talent and devotion to their craft. But the other half stems from a frighteningly keen sense of the world and their place in it — a sort of hyper-self-awareness matched with a willingness to change. I’ve been a fan for years, and though my boyhood self would bristle at the cynicism, U2 is in many ways a business — an international brand — and one that has sold 150 million albums, won 22 Grammys, and has an estimated net worth of approximately $840 million. As I continue to be inspired by their music, businesses, both big and small, can follow their narrative for a crash-course in the various ways they can reinvent themselves and stay relevant in this cold world. By highlighting five moments of transformation in U2‘s history, we can see that each is an example of a different strategy that any business can employ to reinvent, renew, or simply reinvigorate their brand.


Strategy 1: Buck the Trend

U2 Albums: Boy, October, War U2 emerged on the scene and received a “baptism by big hair.” Bands like ZZ Top, Van Halen, and Duran Duran were topping the charts and dripping with style and a synthetic air. U2 was, by comparison, decidedly “un-hip,” blasting their songs like kids in the garage with an earnestness and political consciousness that wasn’t exactly in vogue. Their honest voice eventually cut through the noise and began filling arenas, earning a following by the merits of their message and rallying energy. Business Example: Starbucks Before Starbucks, Americans got their morning jolt from the convenience store drip coffee, or their instant, home concoctions. It was pretty weak stuff. Starbucks changed the way Americans thought about coffee, elevating it as the central part of a more European cafe experience, all while making the brew bolder and offering stronger espresso varieties. Since then, many Americans have changed their habits when it comes to coffee, and many other chains — Dunkin’ Donuts, Caribou Coffee, McDonalds — are trying to cater to the new culture. Bottom Line: If you want to stand out, take a stand. By going against the current fads of the industry, you inherently earn attention. But whether that initial attention sticks and translates to sustained business depends on whether there’s truth behind your vision. Authenticity and quality will convince people that your trail-blazed path is the one to walk down.


Strategy 2: Discover Outside Inspiration

U2 Albums: The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum Concerned they were becoming just another rock band, U2 looked to channel outside inspiration. For The Unforgettable Fire, they moved into Slane Castle in the hills of Ireland, writing and recording everything in their bucolic home, which resulted in an album marked by a brand new ambient, ethereal sound. For The Joshua Tree, they mined their complicated relationship with America, imbuing their songs with shades of folk, blues, and gospel, and invented a blended sound of Irish and American roots. On the strength of their newfound inspiration, they reached the top of the music industry, achieving a popular identity that most likely no one thought they’d stray from. Business Example: Apple For a long time, Apple wasn’t doing so hot in the computer world. Their computers had minimal market-share and couldn’t find a way to compete with the PC. It wasn’t until they were inspired by the outside music industry — realizing they could make a much better mp3 player — that they produced the revolutionary iPod. Their sleek, user-friendly solution to music in the digital age (synchronizing the device with iTunes software) propelled sales of other products, and gave rise to a company with a new mission and identity. Accordingly, Steve Jobs dropped “computer” from the company name in 2007 when he said, “The Mac, iPod, Apple TV, and iPhone. Only one of those is a computer. So we’re changing the name.” Bottom Line: New energy is often discovered beyond your walls. If you need to change things up, the most unexpected journey can result in a renewed identity. Step outside what you already know and search for meaning in strange places.


Strategy 3: Change the Recipe

U2 Albums: Achtung Baby After the rootsy Rattle and Hum album and movie, critics began declaring that a stale, self-righteous pall was settling over the band. Worried they were right, U2 set off to “go away and dream it all up again” resulting in a long, intense reflection that has been well documented as one of the most significant shifts in the band’s history. They recorded the majority of the new album in Berlin, riding the local energy of reunification and change spurred by the fall of the wall. Ditching the somber for the sexy and the folksy for the groovy, U2 completely recast themselves in a darker, edgier mold, shedding the tone of the previous decade, and recording an album that is arguably their best. Business Example: Domino's Pizza A few years ago, Domino's Pizza was suffering from a similar, potential fate of irrelevance. They had risen to prominence through their 30-minute delivery guarantee, but their pizza tasted like cardboard, and the poor quality of their product was slowly ruining them. The only thing that could rescue them was a total overhaul. What followed was a well-publicized, transparent campaign to reflect on their shortcomings and completely change their recipe. Their eagerness to ask for the public’s help was genuine and human, but such a revealing, endearing look inside a company’s reinvention would have been for nothing if the result didn’t live up to the hype. In the end, their revamped pizza was bolder, spicier, and just plain better, winning over pizza lovers and instantly increasing their quarterly sales by 14.3%. Bottom Line: Sometimes change can only come if you change everything. If you’re struggling, stopping to reflect on yourself and your business in relation to the rest of the world is more important than just stubbornly plowing ahead.


Strategy 4: Dare to Experiment

U2 Albums: Zooropa, Pop Fresh off the buzz of their new sound, U2 dove farther down the rabbit hole, letting their own existential questions about their identity run loose through their music. While they sonically experimented with electronic, dance, and techno influences, they also poked at the idea of what it meant to be a rock band in modern society, playing around with ironic alter-egos and the glitz of pop culture. Their wild tracks and inquisitive tone fit the period of 90’s soul-searching, and their willingness to experiment allowed them to be provocative in a time when they could have easily faded away. Business Example: Reebok In the late 1980’s, Reebok was one of the biggest (if not the biggest) sneaker company around. Like U2, they were in a commanding position, but they wanted to experiment with new ideas, so in 1989 they released a crazy new shoe called the Reebok Pump. Invented by Paul Litchfield, the shoe had a pump that filled an internal air bladder, surrounding the foot with more compression and support (my Nike knock-off’s in grade school weren’t as cool). The shoe became a cultural phenomenon, appearing in the NBA, hip-hop, movies, and elsewhere. While the technology is no longer used, it showcased a company that enjoyed their work so much that they invented wacky stuff when they could have rested on their laurels. Bottom Line: Having fun with your craft can lead to some cool innovations. Ask questions about your industry’s place in the world, then do something unexpected or even unnecessary. Staying relevant can mean evolving beyond what the era demands.


Strategy 5: Strip it Down

U2 Albums: All That You Can’t Leave Behind, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, No Line on the Horizon With straight-forward album titles came straight-forward rock. After years of spiraling around post-punk, folk, gospel, and electronic influences, U2 embarked on a back-to-basics journey after their Pop album, invoking a sound that is a distillation of their core, rock-and-roll identity. Each album has nuanced differences, yet each seems committed to the natural, hard-driving sound of four guys on four instruments in one room. Business Example: General Motors The mandated restructuring of General Motors as a result of their government bailout in 2009 was born out of necessity rather than business savviness, but the ensuing rebound to profitability has been no less remarkable. Since dropping brand divisions, Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab, GM has slimmed down and seen profits and market-share rise as the quality of their products improve and they compete well against foreign counterparts. They are once again jockeying for the position of number one automaker in the world with rival Toyota, having reclaimed it in 2011, which is a position they would never have realized had they not dramatically stripped down and restructured their bloated business model. Bottom Line: Growing too big is more often a liability than a source of strength. No matter the size of your company, there is a point of growth that goes past diminishing returns, and enters a realm where production, efficiency, and communication can all suffer. U2 and GM both benefited from reflecting on their core strengths and stripping away everything else that wasn’t directly related.


Until the End of the World

Each of the above situations had unique triggers and equally unique responses. As seen above, businesses can be prompted to reinvent themselves for many reasons, including:

  • a saturated market niche
  • impending “also ran” status
  • changing tastes
  • a bored audience
  • internal weakness

U2 has faced all of these dangers consecutively, but each one on its own can threaten the viability of any business. In every case, successful adaptation has been thanks to the following traits:

  • Self-awareness — knowing what your unchanging identity is, and what parts can shift
  • Sensitivity — perceiving subtle changes in your industry, audience, and the world
  • Assertiveness — possessing the willingness to act before it’s too late
  • Not-F’ing-Up-edness — acknowledging the value of both work ethic and good luck

After broiling through this cycle of reinvention several times, U2 is still kicking, having recently wrapped up the highest grossing tour in the history of music ever, proving that evolution doesn’t just allow for mere survival, but also for eventual domination. And with word that a new album is forthcoming in a few months, and Bono fearing again that they are “on the verge of irrelevance,” we could be adding a sixth strategy of reinvention to this list before the new year. 

Sam Mock is an SEO Content Specialist at Chicago Style SEO, a full service Internet marketing firm. He is particularly interested in the growing importance of writers in shaping the Internet. Find him on Google+     *Image sources: Courtesy of Flickr user Jack Newton