I witnessed the fourth show of Bruce Springsteen's new Wrecking Ball tour last week.
"Witnessed" is a carefully chosen word because it conjures the fervor of his concerts. He performs, yes, but he also testifies, and his adoring, faithful congregation (ranging from teens to octogenarians) responds in kind. It's something to behold: a single-handed movement from Springsteen yields an instant, intended response.
The dozen or so times I've seen him, I've marveled at the obvious: his energy level, powerful voice, under-appreciated guitar playing, engaging personality and songwriting. But this time I was struck by his relevance. Despite being 62 and having created 17 albums in 40 years, he's more relevant than ever. How does he do it? Here are eight relevance lessons from the Boss:
1. He's a thought leader. Read the cover story from the recent Rolling Stone magazine to discover a man who's well connected with the world around him and not afraid to express a point of view. He has tackled controversial topics throughout his 40-year career, sometimes stirring negative reactions, but he never backs down. He did it again with "American Skin (41 shots)," a song inspired by the 2000 police shooting death of Amadou Diallo. Speculation suggests Springsteen may have been making a statement about the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Thought leaders shouldn't be shy to share their opinions on issues that matter to their audience. Your employees and the public will respect you for speaking out on struggles they face, or are top of mind.
2. His values define him. In the "Rolling Stone" interview, Springsteen said, "In my music—if it has a purpose beyond dancing and fun and vacuuming your floor to it—I always try to gauge the distance between American reality and the American dream." He began this journey in 1972 when he signed his first record contract with Columbia; it continues today with "Wrecking Ball," his latest album.
There's no denying that Springsteen's message and values have been consistent. Brands should follow suit. Messaging should align with your company's values. That extends internally. If one of your company's core values is putting employees/associates first, then shouldn't they be allowed to use social media at work?
3. He's social. He's a social animal who enjoys camaraderie and conversation. In an age of social media where the word "community" is fast becoming cliché, Springsteen has sustained an avidly engaged community that keeps expanding. One measure (besides selling more than 120 million albums) is his social media presence. He has 2,179,654 "likes" on Facebook and 157,843 Twitter followers. He is keeping the conversation alive, staying current in a digital age. He's no Lady Gaga (with 49 million Facebook likes) but he's definitely in the game.
There are so many ways to engage with employees, customers, and potential customers today that brands have no excuse for burying their heads in the sand.
4. He's sensory. He may be a biological 62, but watching him perform, I marvel at his 20-something dexterity, strength and flexibility. Whether it's sliding across the stage on his knees or bending backwards to the floor while holding a floor stand microphone, this guy logs hours in the gym to remain physically relevant. He's a best case example of how staying fit keeps us young.
Brands like Target leverage the power of sensory in its store designs, which entice and engage shoppers and create a more fulfilling shopping experience.
5. He's an innovator. A handful of artists transform their music, take risks, and push in new directions. The Beatles morphed in amazing ways over a too-short nine-year span; "I want to hold your hand" sounded nothing like "Day Tripper" which sounded nothing like "A day in the life."
Springsteen is in this pantheon. The rambling lyrical style of "Greetings from Asbury Park" morphed into the tighter pop structure of "Born to Run," which was re-shaped to "Nebraska" starkness and later to the Americana-influenced "We shall overcome: The Seeger sessions." One of the new songs from Wrecking Ball—"Rocky Ground"—features a hip hop interlude, something Springsteen has never done.
The takeaway is simple: Brands must be innovative if they hope to stay relevant.
6. It's about us, not him. We brought two friends to the concert who had never seen him. I explained how Springsteen feeds off the audience and exists to give each person a gift. "It's never about him, it's about you," I said, explaining how Springsteen is passionate about making sure everyone has a good time, gets their money's worth and leaves happy. When the show was over I said, "Now you've been baptized." They grinned and understood.
This is an important reminder for thought leaders. It's not about your product per se, but delivering what your audience expects and needs—be it an experience or a service. Steve Jobs, for instance, was a master at creating products his fans didn't even know they needed.
7. He's more than music. I'm not hung up on awards, but Springsteen was robbed in 2003 when "The Rising" failed to win the Grammy for Best Album (he lost to Norah Jones). Inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks, the inspirational LP Springsteen created helped us heal. It was musical catharsis; it was more than an album. His giving spirit has impacted a range of organizations, from Amnesty International to the Rainforest Foundation Fund to WhyHunger. He endorses a local charity at every concert.
Go beyond what your company makes or does. Companies like Chipotle and Starbucks have given back to their communities, winning the admiration of many.
8. He's the best kind of brand. Great brands create a feeling, a meaningful personal connection that sticks. We want to associate with that brand because it's part of who we are, how we view ourselves. That's why he's more relevant than ever.
Andy Beaupre co-founded Beaupre, a communications and branding company and is Partner, Brodeur Strategies at Brodeur Partners. He blogs at Checkmate and The Brodeur Blog, where a version of this article first appeared.