Why marketing really matters. Lessons from Joshua Bell

A virtuoso violin performance goes unnoticed in a D.C. metro station. What marketing lessons can we learn?

Joshua Bell is one of the best violinists of our time, celebrated at every performance in concert halls throughout the world. In America, where he was born and grew up, his fame is even bigger. He’s probably the most famous violinist in the US . Every one of Bell’s performances sells out, usually within a few hours and seats are very rarely available for less than $100. He started taking violin lessons at the age of four after his mother discovered her son had stretched rubber bands across the handles of his dresser drawers, and was plucking out classical melodies he’d heard her play on the piano, playing by ear and moving the drawers in and out to vary the pitch. He’s talented, there’s no doubt about it.

I want to use this story about Joshua Bell to illustrate the point I often make when I speak to groups of professionals like solicitors and accountants. The point I want to make is that, to your clients, your expertise is invisible. They’re not knowledgeable enough about your area of expertise to make an informed judgement about how well you do your work. This story raises a few other points too, but we’ll get to that shortly.

One morning at rush hour in 2007, Joshua Bell took his €3.5 million violin, called the Gibson ex Huberman, from its case. This violin was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari and is one of the finest instruments on earth. Bell was dressed in jeans, a long-sleeve t-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap, and he was standing in a Metro station in the heart of the government district of Washington DC. Over the next 45 minutes, posing as a busker, he played his heart out to a passing crowd of 1,070 commuters, in one of the most highly educated working environments in the USA . In 45 minutes, only seven people stopped to listen, even for a minute.

The organisers, Washington Post,  were certain that in a cultured city like DC, many people would recognise Bell’s talent and stop to listen. They thought the biggest problem would be crowd control and had even made contingency plans to get Bell out of there if things got out of hand. Who would have guessed that a 45 minute performance by one of the greatest violin virtuosos on earth, playing pieces by Schubert, Bach, Ponce and Massanet on one of the finest instruments ever made would cause only seven individuals to stop and listen. Seven people stopped. Bell made €32 in three quarters of an hour. In total, 27 people gave money, including the only person who recognised Joshua Bell. She listened for a few minutes and put €20 in his violin case. Most of his tips were given on the run from people who tossed a dollar or a few quarters into his violin case as they passed by.

What does this tell us about marketing a professional service? What does it tell us about how professionals are perceived? It tells us a few things. The first thing is that it’s not enough to be good at what you do. Even being exceptional at your work is not enough. You need to frame your service offering in a context that allows your customers to see its quality. You need to package your service in away that allows its quality to shine. Packaging includes, websites, information leaflets, signage, your offices, etc. You have to help people to see your worth and the quality of your work. Most people simply aren’t qualified to judge it for themselves. If you dress a $50,000 performer in t-shirt and jeans, he’ll be treated like any other busker. If you present excellent, even visionary professional advice in poor branding, shabby offices and tired websites, you’ll be viewed as just another old hack, because no matter how good your advice is, that’s what your business looks like.

The second thing is that being cheaper than the alternatives doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get more attention or more uptake from your service. Joshua Bell packaged his performance cheaply: metro station, jeans, t-shirt, baseball cap. The passers by took him up on the cues he offered and treated his performance cheaply too. Three days before he played at the metro station, Bell had packed out Boston’s impressive Symphony Hall, where seats cost a lot more than $100 each. He probably made close to $1,000 per minute at his Boston performance, yet he earned $32 dollars in 45 minutes in Washington. Same performer, same skills, same talent but a radically different response and outcome. A professional service firm should never compete on price. You should add value, differentiate your service and build loyalty, repeat business and referrals. It’s easy to do this, if you know how. Here’s a video clip of the performance from the Washington Post.