Rock brand: Jack White knows music and marketing

The co-founder of the White Stripes has an authentic story to tell, drawing on his days as an upholsterer.
A record player
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White performing in London, November 2014. (Photo: David James Swanson)

White performing in London, November 2014. (Photo: David James Swanson)

The way that I become a fan of a musician or band typically follows a predictable pattern.

I hear a song I like, I seek out other work by the artist, and then I try to learn more about the person: his or her background, influences, ethos.

It usually starts with the music for me, except in the case of White Stripes co-founder, now solo artist, Jack White.

My admiration is recent, so I can’t claim any keen insights into his music. Rather, what initially drew me in was the authentic, vertically integrated brand that he has created. The more I learned about the man behind the music, the more I wanted to listen to it.

He has an authentic story

White’s work is inspired by his early career in upholstering. Starting at the 2:00 mark of the interview with Conan O’Brien (who proves to be a thoughtful interviewer in a way that his TV show maybe inhibits), White explains his epiphany that three staples were the minimum number required to hold a piece of fabric on a sofa.

“That sort of image has been burned into my brain,” he said. “I think about that probably once a week, that image of those three staples. I force myself to, in anything I create artistically, musicwise, whatever it is, I force it through the funnel of that idea.”

That funnel, he suggests, is a way to box himself in, to self limit, so as to become more creative. Clearly, he isn’t kidding about upholstering’s role in his story, as evidenced by this piece in The Believer.

Upholstery truly is the essence of his story. There’s a lesson in this for other brands to pull back the fabric in order to find their compelling stories.

He’s true to his roots

For throwing out the first pitch at a Detroit Tigers game, White donned a No. 3 (that number again) Detroit Stars jersey, manufactured in the United States by Seattle’s Ebbets Field Flannels; this appearance will be recognized on a baseball card this season.

What really intrigues me is that he’s wearing a broken-in Cooper-brand glove, perhaps from his childhood. White donated $170,000 for the reconstruction of a youth field he played on in Detroit.

He’s really funny

We’re in a “humor drought,” which becomes plainly evident when you consider that even the serious and august Harvard Business Review is writing about it. We need more humor in our work lives; thoughtful, clever and thought out, not mean and insensitive. Brands, too, don’t have to take themselves too seriously, at least not all of the time. White seems to get this.

That White is sometimes depicted as a gloomy Goth misses the mark. He has a fine sense of humor as evidenced by this Record Store Day video.

He could have given a straight tour of the record-pressing plant, but then it might have gotten bogged down in technical descriptions. Instead, the sounds of machines obscure those parts and allow beautiful non-sequitor punchlines to stand out, to wit:

“Steve Jobs parking in handicap spots so you can have an iPhone 6?”

White as a sometimes incoherent Elvis is a special treat in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”

“It’s called karate, man, and only two kinds of people know it: The Chinese and The King, and one of them is me,” his ersatz Elvis says.

He’s consistent

When he was an upholsterer, his business cards featured the tagline, “Your furniture isn’t dead.”

“My whole shop was only three colors: yellow, white and black,” he told The Believer magazine. His van was yellow, he dressed in yellow and black, his wrote his bills in black marker on yellow paper.

Fast forward 20 years, and yellow and black are the colors of his company Third Man Records and its mobile record store, which we learn here that White designed “from top to bottom.” It includes a tin ceiling, record racks and turntables, and cushions covered in leather from old BMWs (wonder whether White did the upholstering).

Third Man’s tagline: “Your turntable isn’t dead.”

He’s always innovating

Third Man is a record label, record store (there’s one at its headquarters, in addition to the rolling record store), production house with rehearsal and photo studio, and distribution center.

“With our unique set-up, we can have an artist recorded and photographed in one day and have records for sale in our store within weeks,” according to Third Man’s website. “In this way, we are bringing a spontaneous and immediate aesthetic back into the record business.”

White may be an old soul, but he always seems to put a modern twist on things. He’s enamored of vinyl records but not as some museum piece that can’t be improved upon.

This video (and this article) give you an idea of how much he packed into the vinyl version of his most recent record, “Lazaretto.” It’s so cool, you just have to have a copy.

He’s really talented

At the end of the day, a brand is only as good as its product and/or service. A great logo or color palette can get you noticed, but it ultimately comes down to the work.

However good White is at upholstery, he’s three times the rocker.

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