When the Price of Free is Too Much – The U2 Album Giveaway

Bono, lead singer of U2The band U2 and Apple partnered this month to do a remarkable promotion and awareness activity. Every iTunes user received a copy of U2’s latest album, Songs of Innocence. When I heard about this offer, I couldn’t believe it. I saw a television advertisement showing the band playing a song from the album. Then, at the end of the ad, it was explained that the album would be available for free to iTunes subscribers.

I am a big U2 fan, so was thrilled at this act of generosity. And, as a marketer, I couldn’t help but think about what the terms of the agreement might have been. Clearly, both Apple and U2 stood to gain from this promotion – Apple from getting new subscribers, and U2 from having Apple pay millions to promote their album.

A New Promotional Trend for Music?

Of course, this is not the first time music has been given away for free. Many artists offer promotional songs or live recordings as a way to generate interest and awareness.

But, U2 is hardly in need of any new promotional campaigns. They have sold more than 150 million records worldwide, won 22 Grammy Awards, and have been designated by Rolling Stone magazine as perhaps the “Biggest Band in the World”. No, this is not a band seeking awareness. Something more is going on.

An Act of Generosity

An interesting story has unfolded as part of this giveaway. It turns out Harriet Madeline Jobson issued a complaint to Bono (the lead singer of the band) stating, “Can you please never release an album on iTunes that automatically downloads to people’s playlists ever again? It’s really rude.” The comment came to light in a Facebook Q&A the band released on their fan page.

To Bono’s credit, he apologized, stating: “Oops, I’m sorry about that. I had this beautiful idea and we got carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that kind of thing: [a] drop of megalomania, touch of generosity, dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.”

There was no need for an apology. It was a gift. If you don’t like a gift, don’t use it. Contrary to Harriet’s claim, you had to download the songs to make them active on your iTunes library. If she didn’t want the songs, she simply could have chosen to not download or listen. What is remarkable is the level of conversations that are now going online right now.

As you might expect, folks are taking both sides. What is interesting, though, from a marketing and pricing perspective, the adage on pleasing people holds true: “You can’t please all the people, all the time.” Even at a price of free, not everyone is a “taker.” This is an important point to consider when pricing your product. And, to those economists out there, the laws of a downward sloping demand curve can only be projected so far … there comes a point when that curve flattens out. 🙂

A Final Word on Publicity

The famous PR quote is that there is no such thing as “bad” publicity. Here is another example where that saying is still true. The amount of coverage of U2s short Q&A video on their Facebook page is nothing short of phenomenal – it has gone viral. In two days the video was seen by 1.4M fans. Most marketers would be very happy that type of coverage. And, let’s not forget the comments – the 5-minute video has been shared 12k times, a hashtag of #U2NoFilter was created that is now trending, and there are nearly 4k comments on the page already.

Demonstrating his wisdom, Bono responded brilliantly, reinforcing his “cool” status and spokesperson expertise. As marketers, we can all learn how U2 played out this interesting experiment. They were bold and brave enough to try something new, realizing that some would take offense or not understand their actions. Time will tell if other bands will follow … I’ll keep my fingers crossed, as I really like a musical gift!

Here are two other pricing articles  you might find interesting:

Communicating Pricing in a Multi-tiered Distribution Model

It is no secret that companies regularly charge different prices for the same product. Just look at the airline industry as one example. Nearly every seat has a different price, which can vary depending upon the day of the week, your status as a frequent flyer and how close the flight is to departure. The strategy behind this pricing decision is valid – lost seat revenue from departed flights can never be recouped. Airlines must try to fill every seat for the highest possible rate to maximize revenue. This pricing dichotomy can create a potential communications challenge, but only if the rationale behind this difference isn’t reasonable.

I would propose that the car rental industry’s pricing strategy doesn’t make sense, and as a result, that industry is communicating poor messaging resulting in a loss of consumer loyalty and repeat purchases. Speaking from my own experience, I see the purchase of a rental car as a commodity item, one that is identical regardless of what provider I choose to patronize, with one exception – Enterprise. They will bring the car to you. This is great service, and truly a competitive differentiator.

Here is my source of confusion – if you take the time to create an online profile with your preferences, including personal identifying information about what you like to rent and where you like to rent, this privilege you are bequeathing to the car rental company comes at a price – you are charged a higher rental fee! One might think that a “preferred” member should at least be given a coupon or some sort of advantage for going through the hassle of creating the online profile..

Let’s assume there is some sort of loyalty program that gives repeat buyers a discount. If that were the case, then the choice to purchase through a third party might be worth less to a car rental company – a commission must be paid to these purchases, reducing the economic value of such a purchase. The reality is just the opposite, and the price difference is unbelievable. At Hotwire.com, I can rent an economy car for $15 per day, provided I can create an alert and check back periodically to when that rate comes available. Alternatively, if I go directly a car rental company and try to book the same car, the price is about $80-$90 per day, for the same period, same location and same type of car, a rate increase of 400-500% higher. The only difference is that the $15 rate is non-refundable, so clearly there is some value in being able to cancel without penalty.

Perhaps, this is a reasonable pricing decision and worthy from an economics perspective to continue this practice. I don’t know, as I am not privy to this information. My point is that from a consumer messaging and business communications perspective, this discrepancy simply doesn’t make sense. For example, the car rental companies could offer a “refundable” and “non-refundable” rate, if that is indeed the source of the extreme pricing difference. Then, it starts to make sense.

In the same way that an empty “seat” on a flight represents revenue that will never be recaptured, rental cars sitting on a lot overnight represent the same opportunity cost. Clearly, a multi-tiered pricing strategy is logical. The challenge how do you execute a sensible pricing and communications messaging strategy that can be a win-win for both the company and its customers?

Does your business or industry have its own pricing “nuances” that only you, as an insider, understand? If so, maybe it is time to fix them.

Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.