Learning from Lorde: James Hurman on why the Kiwi chanteuse can teach brands a lesson—UPDATED

Rolling Stone calling her “the least-likely breakout pop star of the year” points to the airy bemusement most of us feel at the success of Lorde. The youngest artist to hold the US #1 in over 25 years being a hairy, brainy, goth-y feminist makes it easy to class Ella Yelich-O’Connor as an accident. It’s fairytale schadenfreude watching Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus being schooled by a Devonport teenager in flats, but while we’re enjoying the endorphins, it’s difficult not to see Lorde as a lottery winning combination of unrepeatable genetics and right time, right place.

“I put my music out with no kind of commercial expectation,” she admitted to Rolling Stone last week, “and found out I was a pop star”. The whimsy is so clearly part of the allure, but did it really go down like that? And was it really so unlikely?

I’ve been a bit obsessed by Lorde the past few months. Not in that way. And not even so much as a musician, although I’m not ashamed to say as a grown up man that I love her music (for the uninitiated, Lorde is the moniker of 16-year-old Takapuna Grammar schoolgirl and singer/songwriter Ella Yelich-O’Connor, who, with her single Royals, has held the number one spot on the US Billboard chart for the past five weeks—the first New Zealand solo artist ever to do so—and recently added the number one spot in the UK. She’s the hottest thing in pop music globally right now and is being celebrated both for her age and her incisive, evocative and original songwriting). 

The thing that’s intrigued me the most is how much there is to be learned from how Lorde has launched herself into the world and so quickly become both a critical and commercial success While comparisons of Lorde to our commercial world may seem oblique, she is, like anything for sale, a product, a brand and a business. And while her financials mightn’t be public, we can safely assume that she’s had a far better year in terms of operating margin than many other New Zealand businesses.

So how did she do it?

It’s fair to agree that fortunate timing was a factor. Lorde’s free online release of her EP The Love Club and single ‘Royals’ in November last year was the beginning of her explosion—and the internet’s recent impact on the music industry has reduced the dominance of top-down, marketing-driven hits and given audiences an ability to discover and promote the artists they believe in. Lorde mightn’t have bubbled up so quickly a decade ago. But choosing to release Royals for free online (rather than the readily available traditional commercial release) was deft recognition that in 2013, any brand needs first to prove its legitimacy to a consumer who is wholly skeptical.

That move was second nature to a social and mobile native, somebody who intuitively understands 2013 in the way only a 16-year-old can. The Love Club’s initial online release created a community of fans who were seduced by Lorde’s authenticity, such that when the traditional sales and marketing began there was already a groundswell of belief and positive online conversation. It was the first of many clues that there was more to Lorde than marketing; that hers was a sincere attempt to produce something first and foremost of real value to her customers, rather than simply her shareholders.

The fact that Lorde has fanatically rejected the culture of consensus that pervades so much of our corporate community has had a direct bearing on her financial success. By her own admission she’s a control freak. She is reportedly obsessive about the minutiae of every aspect of her work and her public image, making all decisions herself and having no tolerance for compromise. But being difficult to work with is a natural side-effect of consummate brand management. Refusing to release any music publicly until she had a product as good as Royals was a masterstroke. As Metro observed, “Royals might never have got a shot if she had a track record of lesser material”.

In her own words, “the culture in New Zealand with musicians is to watch everyone kind of fuck it up a few times before they get it right. I didn’t feel like people needed to be privy to any growing process.” How poignant is that in a business community that generally chooses the modest sales potential of mediocre fast-to-market products over the much greater rewards of innovation excellence? As Lorde insightfully implies, there is a pernicious hidden cost of letting our customers watch us fuck it up before we get it right.

Her grasp of how much we’re defined by what we choose not to do is sharply intuitive. Writing off David Guetta (one of the world’s hottest producers and collaborator of Rihanna, will.i.am and Snoop Dogg) as ‘gross’ and turning down the opportunity to support Katy Perry on tour may seem petulant. In fact, they were consummate demonstrations of how willing she is to prove her principles by letting them cost her money. Turning down NZ On Air funding for her music videos was equally astute (UPDATE: Lorde didn’t ask NZ on Air for funding for her music recordings or videos. But she did turn down an offer to be included on the Kiwi Hit Disc, which is used to promote New Zealand music to radio stations). “You know how much negative power that logo has for my generation?” As a brand she holds her position unwaveringly, considering first the customers whose commitment she’d soften by associating with Guetta, Perry and NZ On Air, and secondarily what short-term financial benefits these associations might provide.

Not caring much about the money and yet making more of it than anyone is Lorde’s story. It’s the irony of a 16 year-old girl writing ‘that kind of luxe just ain’t for us’ then a year later buying $1000 Comme des Garçons cardigans and hanging out at Soho House. It’s also a lesson in how much commercial success can come from putting the product and the customer ahead of the money, just for a moment.

Such a high-minded approach would be commercially questionable were Lorde’s leanings purely artisan. What makes it so powerful is how interested Lorde clearly is in both originality and accessibility. Her music is a keen departure from the relationship break-up dross of her pop contemporaries, veering dangerously close to indie sensibilities (and their inevitable commercial doldrums). But, despite her voice being an intelligent, insightful one, her music is virtually perfect in a pop sense. It’s immediate. It’s comprehensible. It’s catchy. And she focuses on themes that are ubiquitously relatable: “social anxiety, debilitating ennui, booze-soaked ragers”, in the words of Rolling Stone. This insistence to produce something that’s of true quality and distinctiveness, yet also absolutely mainstream, is akin to the likes of Apple or Nike. It’s the hallmark of truly great commercial innovators.

Which, by the way, is what we’re striving to be. As an economy and a business community, we’ve recognised that our future must be about New Zealand businesses successfully innovating for the world stage.

And while there’s a lot to learn from our burgeoning business successes, it’s the Eleanor Cattons, the Lydia Kos and the Ella Yelich-O’Connors who are truly putting New Zealand on the world stage. In the search for the commercial Holy Grail, we just might find that the young women of New Zealand hold more of the answers than the grown up men.

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