linked in facebook twitter rss

  • Interbrand
  • Brandchannel

your chance!
your chance!
Napster brand


9 lives
by Fred Burt
April 22, 2002

In 1976 the Sex Pistols exploded into the UK spotlight with a live appearance on Thames TV’s Today program. Host Bill Grundy goaded the band to "say something outrageous." Pistols guitarist Steve Jones obliged with a few choice words, the press went mad, and the history of popular music (not to mention TV profanity) was changed forever. The Pistols reached Number One in the UK charts the next year with “God Save The Queen”…or at least they would have had the music establishment not decided that there would be no Number One that week.


The irony is, of course, that the band’s fame was, in part, propelled by this act of repression and by the same music establishment that wanted to see the end of kids who wore black bin liners, stuck safety pins through their noses, spat and tattooed "No Future" across their foreheads. They should have known better – bad behavior in the music industry always sells well.

Napster, the Internet music file-sharing service, which took the world by storm through its ingenious anti-establishment technology, is no exception. Download the software, enter “Anarchy in the UK” and you could be pogo-ing at your PC while Johnny Rotten & Co. scream “I use the best, I use the rest/ I use the enemy, I use AN-AR-CHY.” We were all, for a short, utopian moment raising a middle finger Pistols-style as we used the Sonys and EMIs of the world to get our music for free.

It didn’t take long for the backlash, and now Napster is paralyzed by billion-dollar lawsuits from the industry – claiming they have behaved very badly – and feuding minority investors. However, the industry is now trying to cash in on Napster’s notoriety. Thomas Middelhoff, chief executive of Bertelsmann, the German media group who formed an alliance with Napster and now has a bid in to buy out the original shareholders, has stated that they want to take full ownership of the business and build on the “strength of the brand.”

Napster, I would venture to say, is one of the strongest Internet brands we have seen so far. One of the reasons Napster receives so much attention is that it has always been more than a music delivery channel. A quiet but determined crew-cut, code-cracking teenager, who loves his music and resents the industry that produces it for such vast profits, sets his mind on undermining the suits. What starts out as a game escalates as hundreds of thousands of like-minded music geeks join his quest to cut out the middlemen. The authorities get wind, track him down, break down doors, arrest him… Classic plot for a movie. The point is that Napster is notorious for a reason – it’s a story, a mission. It’s not just a website and certainly not just clever software.

Of course, Bertelsmann is looking for the happy ending by building on this brand but what does this mean for the future of Napster. How can Bertelsmann, the former enemy, get involved in what was essentially an underground music community? The danger is that they become the try-hard parents pretending to like their kids’ music. They will either never be believed, or if they are, their kids will silently but quickly move on to something less sad.

The wider issue is that the music industry as a whole, and Bertelsmann in particular, needs to ensure that “piracy” via the web is controlled. The problem is that Napster was the ultimate pirate brand. Even its devilish logo shouts out anti-establishment and the customers who buy into the Napster brand are essentially rebels with a cause. Trying to cozy up to the pirates could provoke the sort of anti-corporate consumer backlash that Gap and Nike have seen, and not only lead to a failure of a relaunched Napster, but also encourage young music listeners to download their music from more trustworthy, relevant sources (such as the bands themselves).

Napster’s mission? Trustworthiness? Relevance? We’re talking the fundamentals of brand strategy. Brands, of course, live from inside businesses as well as in the minds of the consumer. At the core of any revival, therefore, will need to be management and a team that lives and breathes the Napster story and the Napster mission. The fear is that the brand will have its wings clipped by a suspicious corporate parent who is watching too closely.

Whatever we are presented with regarding Napster’s future, we will almost certainly lose some of the delicious sense of the maverick genius to the men in suits. Whether there is still the potential to protect some of the sense of the Napster rebel remains to be seen. There is the language that it employs to speak to its audience (which will need to replace the apologetic naughty-schoolboy tone on the website at the moment), there is the music that Napster promotes, and there is the design of the “retail space,” which in this case is the website.

But Bertelsmann will have to go further. Napster ruled because it broke the rules. Bertelsmann needs to position Napster very delicately and enable it to continue breaking the rules without breaking the law…or spiraling out of control like its punk forefathers.


Fred Burt is Managing Director at international digital brand management consultancy BrandWizard Technologies.

 commenting closed Add Social Bookmark bookmark  print
 suggest topic  recommend ( 6 )  email

  brandchannel profile archive   2011  |  2010  |  2009  |  2008  |  2007  |  2006  |  2005  |  2004  |  2003  | 2002  |  2001
Dec 30, 2002 Opera - rising star -- Sultan Omar
  Opera stages a dramatic performance against Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
Dec 16, 2002 The Lord of the Rings - towers -- Brad Cook
  The Lord of the Rings brand is as snug as a hobbit in a hobbit hole, but will the brand survive beyond the box office?
Dec 9, 2002 UNICEF - unites -- Robin D. Rusch
  Global non-profit UNICEF marks its birthday with a revised and defined brand roll out.
Dec 2, 2002 Coca-Cola - a classic -- Brad Cook
  How did Coca-Cola manage to get the whole world in its hand?
Nov 25, 2002 Pep - recharged -- Ron Irwin
  Retail chain store Pep celebrates a half-century in Africa.
Nov 18, 2002 Royal Selangor - breaking the mold -- D. Sauer
  Malaysian brand Royal Selangor shows slow but steady progress as it occupies the top shelf along with other top Asian brands.
Nov 11, 2002 WWE - get the 'F' out -- Dave Liss
  World Wrestling Entertainment gets smacked down but remains in the ring.
Nov 4, 2002 Benihana - chop chop -- Randall Frost
  Benihana tries to appeal to a western palate.
Oct 28, 2002 Maruti - driving a nation -- Sultan Omar
  What drives Maruti’s success in India?
Oct 21, 2002 Star Trek - lost in space -- Brad Cook
  Star Trek drifts in and out of a black hole.
Oct 14, 2002 Blekkulf - eco ink -- Michael Standaert
  Norway's Blekkulf swims south where European children embrace the eco-brand.
Oct 7, 2002 San Miguel - hops -- Abram D. Sauer
  Tap into the incredible success behind Filipino brand San Miguel.
Sep 30, 2002 Nintendo - leaps and bounds -- Brad Cook
  Can cartoon characters carry the Nintendo brand through the 21st century?
Sep 23, 2002 Nautica - sea worthy -- Abram D. Sauer
  Lifestyle brand Nautica sails on.
Sep 16, 2002 Emmperative - imperative? -- Fiona Harvey
  How did P&G’s enterprise marketing management software Emmperative fail?
Sep 9, 2002 EV Global Motors - stalled -- Randall Frost
  Has EV Global Motors lost its power?
Sep 2, 2002 Elidel - covers the globe -- Edwin Colyer
  Novartis hits the global stage with a one-identity-fits-all approach for Elidel.
Aug 26, 2002 Kreepy Krauly - sucks -- Ron Irwin
  The deeper Kreepy Krauly sinks, the stronger the brand emerges.
Aug 19, 2002 Callaway - driving the market -- Randall Frost
  How did Callaway link its name with respectability in such a relatively short period of time?
Aug 12, 2002 Game - leads the pack -- Ron Irwin
  Can Game win in its expansion plans across Africa?
Aug 5, 2002 Presto - huh? -- Evelyn Hafferty
  Nike attempts intrigue to attract the Gen Y crowd to its Presto launch. But is it ingenuous or just insipid?
Jul 29, 2002 Warner Bros. - what's up Doc? -- Brad Cook
  Now that Warner Bros. has passed into the AOL Time Warner conglomerate, is th-th-th-that all folks?
Jul 22, 2002 Famous Amos - making dough -- Randall Frost
  A lot of companies have stuck their hands in the cookie jar of Famous Amos and changed the brand formula from a gourmet cookie for the jet set to a commodity.
Jul 15, 2002 Electronic Arts - amazin' -- Brad Cook
  Through a new name, new competition, and new concepts, Electronic Arts remains MVP of the gaming world.
Jul 8, 2002 Cell C - connected -- Ron Irwin
  Cell C attempts to connect with the wireless market in South Africa.
Jul 1, 2002 - stacked -- Brad Cook transformed itself from the little bookstore on the corner to the mega-super-duper-full-of-stuff store that squats at the end of a monstrous parking lot.
Jun 24, 2002 Consignia - royal f *%# up -- Abram D. Sauer
  When the Post Office tried to cram Consignia through the traditional letterbox, Brits protested and sent the dogs to stamp it out.
Jun 17, 2002 Weber - smokin’ -- Ron Irwin
  With nearly 365 days of grilling weather per year, every day is Sunday for Weber Grills in South Africa.
Jun 10, 2002 ALDI - preiswert -- John Karolefski
  German retail chain ALDI keeps prices low to generate high revenue.
Jun 3, 2002 FIFA - goooal! -- Abram D. Sauer
  Will FIFA suffer from the same brand-destroying scandal that rocked the Olympic committee?
May 27, 2002 adidas - contender -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  German sporting goods brand, adidas, laces up its sneaks and gets out on the court to take on Nike.
May 20, 2002 Lustucru - saucy -- Jocelyne Henri
  French pasta brand Lustucru takes on Barilla and Panzani in a saucy cook off.
May 13, 2002 Star Wars - universal force -- Brad Cook
  As audiences queue worldwide to watch the next episode of Star Wars, we ask, What’s the big deal?
May 6, 2002 Gatorade - endures -- Brad Cook
  The Gatorade team has managed to rule the sports drink market for decades -- perhaps there’s something in their drink?
Apr 29, 2002 Leatherman - sharp -- Ron Irwin
  Leatherman enlists the old-fashioned values of customer support and quality product to carve a niche in the Sub-Saharan African market.
Apr 15, 2002 Marvel Comics - super -- Brad Cook
  Holy history, Batman! Marvel Comics is in its sixth decade of performing superheroic feats.
Apr 8, 2002 Planet Hollywood - lost in space -- Abram D. Sauer
  Where does celebrity go to die? Planet Hollywood perhaps.
Apr 1, 2002 Atari - bonus round -- Brad Cook
  Atari loads up on quarters and heads back to the arcade to win our hearts all over again. Game over? Hardly.
Mar 25, 2002 Petit Bateau - full sails -- Jocelyne Henri
  Take a peek beneath the strategy at Petit Bateau to see how they managed to rescue the brand and attract an older generation.
Mar 18, 2002 Vertu - Upwardly mobile -- Patricia Tan
  Nokia’s new luxury phone, Vertu, is part Rolex, part BMW, part Jeeves. But can a handset brand support an $18,000 price tag?
Mar 11, 2002 Absolut - brilliance -- Ian Cocoran
  Absolut keeps on top of new media to continue its smart dialogue with the drinking public.
Mar 4, 2002 Mrs. Fields - cookin' -- John Karolefski
  Mrs. Fields has been cookin’ for 25 years; we sample her goods.
Feb 25, 2002 Vivian Lives - virtually -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  Looking for the perfect spokesperson to promote your brand to Gen Y? Why not create one out of thin air and call her Vivian Livingston?
Feb 18, 2002 ABSA bank - gaining interest -- Ron Irwin
  The Amalgamated Banks of South Africa (Absa) is investing in its brand to retain and attract both groups.
Feb 11, 2002 Ministry of Sound - still spinning -- Abram D. Sauer
  The UK’s Ministry of Sound takes on an MTV-like status as it moves from a club scene to a multimillion-pound brand.
Feb 4, 2002 Marmite - my mate -- Edward Young
  One man’s food is another’s axle grease. As Marmite celebrates its anniversary, we ask is the world ready for another 100 years?
Jan 28, 2002 Environ - wrinkle free -- Ron Irwin
  Environ projects an image as an exclusive product whose demand far outweighs its supply.
Jan 21, 2002 Just Born - a born sucker -- Abram D. Sauer
  After nearly a century of making candy, Just Born reaps over $100M a year and yet still promotes itself as a mom & pop brand.
Jan 14, 2002 H&M - Hot & Mod -- Abram D. Sauer
  H&M is hot, but focusing loyalty on price not product, forces the brand to compete with both low-end discount chains and chic designers.
Jan 7, 2002 Topps - trading on its heritage -- John Karolefski
  From penny gum sales to e-merchandising, we profile Topps Company, with over 60 years of delighting kids, big and small.