Chapter 10: The Power of Rebellion – Customer CEO: How to Profit from the Power of Your Customers


The Power of Rebellion

Key Customer CEO Question:

Controversy is no stranger to actor Alec Baldwin. When an American Airlines flight attendant asked him to turn his phone off shortly before departing Los Angeles, the fireworks started.1 Baldwin refused to comply with the flight attendant’s request and was removed from the aircraft. He tweeted: “Flight attendant on American reamed me out 4 playing WORDS W FRIENDS while we sat at the gate, not moving. #nowonderamericaairisbankrupt.”

American Airlines’ Facebook page reported the incident this way:

The passenger ultimately stood up (with the seat belt light still on for departure) and took his phone into the plane’s lavatory. He slammed the lavatory door so hard, the cockpit crew heard it and became alarmed, even with the cockpit door closed and locked . . . the passenger was extremely rude to the crew, calling them inappropriate names and using offensive language. Given the facts above, the passenger was removed from the flight and denied boarding.

If you have flown on a commercial jet anytime during the mobile phone era, you are familiar with the ban on use once the door to the plane is closed. Even if you are a rich and famous television star like Baldwin, there should be no surprises. Those are the rules, no ifs, ands, or buts. Of course, airlines love their rules. A few years ago, a simple ninety-minute nonstop flight I took turned into a nine-hour adventure as the plane variously landed, took off, taxied, waited, and refueled at three airports due to inclement weather in Atlanta. Being a safety-first kind of guy, that made sense. What didn’t were the bizarre explanations we got along the way because of an intricate combination of rules by Delta Airlines, the airports, and the Federal Aviation Administration. Our lives are run by someone else’s rules, no matter how ridiculous they may seem.

If you are honest, whether you approve of Baldwin’s antics or not, his act of rebellion may resonate with you, especially if you tend to be a rule follower. Don’t misunderstand: rules are important in a civil society. But when faced with seemingly pointless decrees, you may have rebelled in some small way yourself by refusing to turn your phone all the way off, just to spite a pompous flight attendant. This is about control and conformity. People resent the show of power by organizations, particularly if they believe the rules are unfair or unnecessary. My research over the years has shown that customers resent being taken for granted or treated like children.

Perhaps you remember the old-style Walgreen’s drug stores. For many years customers could only enter the store through a metal turnstile. Once inside, they were forced to navigate a byzantine path leading through every aisle in the store before they could escape. There was no doubt who was in control, and it certainly wasn’t the customer. Those old-style stores were more like prisons than pharmacies. Someone finally figured that out, and a modern Walgreen’s is a pleasant experience. Even in this social age, corporations of every size, in every industry, still march forward every day creating new rules that serve as barriers to entry for customers. They spend billions of dollars every year teaching their people the rules and how to enforce them. Why not stop the madness and let customers rebel on purpose?

A few years ago, I created a television campaign for a regional wireless company called Pocket Communications. Our research had shown that people were sick and tired of long-term contracts and fine print that always favored the company. So Pocket created a no-contract, low-cost business model. The commercials featured a chimpanzee, portraying the average customer, rebelling against the “big cell company.” In one spot, our chimp hero waits patiently and finally presents the store manager with his forty- or fifty-page bill. The manager carefully explains, using a magnifying glass, that the fine print says that the company has every right to add every possible charge known to man or monkey. Of course, our hero goes crazy and destroys the store in a sheer display of “I’m as mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore!”

Someone who understands this frustration with rule culture is Renee Fannin, owner of Napa Valley Toy Company, who owns three retail locations in Northern California. While I was walking past her store on Main Street in downtown Napa, I noticed that she had posted “Rules” on the store’s front door. Wondering what kind of terrible transgressions the children of Napa had committed in the store, I was intrigued. The hand-lettered sign read:

1. No being mean in the store.

2. No negative comments about anything.

3. No saying “Target,” “Wal-Mart,” or “Amazon/online.”

4. No complaining or saying “we have too many Legos, yo-yos, etc.”

5. If your mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, friend, nanny buy you something say “thanks.”

People hate rules. The more there are, the more they want to break them. They also resent it when they feel that rules are unfairly applied. If you must have rules, couldn’t they be more fun, like Napa Valley Toys’ rules? Customers love companies that don’t take themselves too seriously. You can engage customers by adding sheer joy to your business, and you will profit by making that a competitive advantage for your company. Honestly, it’s easy to win at this game because so few companies commit themselves to engaging customers through the Power of Rebellion.

The Star of the Waltz

I won’t go to a symphony. My mom dragged me there when I was a kid and it was a miserable experience. Who wants to listen to stuffy music written by a bunch of dead guys?

Tony, Nashville, Tennessee

Participant in a focus group about the symphony and classical music

Is there any other business in the world where you pay for the privilege of having someone purposely turn his back to you? That only begins to describe the problems that symphonies around the world have faced over the past thirty years. Classical music has been the victim of a generational split around the world. As other music genres from rock to rap have captivated younger fans, the allure of the symphony has faded. To put it bluntly: What do you do when your audience is gradually dying off?

Even in Europe, where the symphony was born, it’s been a tough sell. Business strategy consultant Jason Hunter explains it this way:

Look at the obstacles. If you were to even consider going to a performance, you have to pick an obscurely named symphony from composers deceased for hundreds of years. Even if you know of a particular symphony you would like to attend, there’s little chance that your local symphony will be playing it when you would like to go, as they often develop their programs a year or more in advance. In the event you decide to attend a performance a series of obstacles face you. You’ll need proper attire because that’s the tradition. That can mean renting a gown or a tuxedo. You will need to hire a car or take a taxi so your formal clothes won’t be ruined on public transportation. Once there, you will have little familiarity with the music, the composer, the conductor or any of the members of the symphony. It’s hard to be a fan of the symphony in the modern world.2

This experience contrasts sharply with attending a rock concert, where you likely know intimate details about every member of the band. For most people under forty, attending the symphony can also be a culture shock. For example, at intermission they will be surrounded by much older “symphony elites,” who speak in hushed tones about various obscure details of the performance. Worst of all, the overall performance is usually long and sleep inducing. This is not a winning formula; going to the symphony is expensive, unfamiliar, and boring.

But when the entire classical music industry saw despair, one man saw opportunity. Dutch classical violinist André Rieu has built his Johann Strauss Orchestra into a multimillion-dollar global empire, including sold-out stadium performances, CDs, videos, and television appearances. Rieu is so popular that he is ranked as the number-one male touring artist in the world of all music genres. The odds are that you have never heard of him. In fact, his own staff refers to him as the most popular unknown artist in the world.

Instead of rock star, Rieu is a waltz star. With his warm smile, magnetic stage presence, and flowing long hair he has mastered the Power of Rebellion by letting people break all the rules of the symphony. He performs at outdoor stadiums to sell-out crowds up to forty thousand. That’s a long way from a typical symphony hall that might seat a maximum of two thousand. Instead of the formal symphony atmosphere, Rieu creates spectacles that include thousands of falling balloons, beautiful flowers, and colorfully costumed performers. His concerts often feature the unorthodox: one hundred bagpipers outfitted in kilts playing “Amazing Grace,” horse-drawn Cinderella-style coaches, skating rinks, and sets that look like genuine castles. A typical André Rieu performance features more than 250 total performers, including a fifty-member orchestra. The production requires 250 support staff, eighty truckloads of sets, and twelve tons of sound equipment.3 This is not your grandfather’s symphony.

Imagine taking a virtually dead genre and reinventing it as something entertaining and fun. That’s what people come to the concerts for: to be part of an epic experience, where thousands of strangers can share a joy-filled evening of music, color, humor, and entertainment. From a business point of view, Rieu carefully crafts his offering. He features more familiar—and shorter—musical pieces, mixing well-known waltzes, pop songs, and movie themes or, as he says, anything that touches the heart. His audiences are very casually dressed, which removes the stuffy symphony atmosphere. The large venues are an opportunity for audience participation, with sing-alongs, swaying, and dancing. Rieu said, “I want to give classical music back to the people, where it belongs. Mozart composed his music not for the elite, but for everybody. He was a fantastic, lively guy; he was drinking and having fun in life and being a genius at the same time.”4

But why the waltz? Rieu says that to him, the waltz is much more than just music. It’s his way of connecting emotionally with his audience. “The waltz can be sad and at the same time uplifting. You have to see life from both sides, and the waltz encapsulates that. If you’re in my audience you give yourself to me and the waltz will grab you,” Rieu says.5 Always the consummate showman, Rieu wants to touch everyone with his gift.

Leo Schofield, cofounder and creative director of Ovation, an Australian arts-based television network, explains Rieu’s magnetic appeal. He says that nineteenth-century composers of waltzes and polkas, like Strauss, were really about providing fun for their audiences. Schofield believes Rieu is the modern-day Strauss. “It’s easy to be snide about his popularity, but he’s an absolutely perfect fit for the times . . . he’s wholesome, projects a tremendous amiability, and you can see in his concerts that he believes his music is fun and should be fun for the audience too.”6

Many classical music purists and critics are not big fans of Rieu’s formula. I have used his story as a case study in workshops for a number of years, showing how even obscure industries can be turned around by gaining fresh insight from potential customers. Some people have complained that he doesn’t understand the authentic classical music experience and that he is ruining the industry. Rieu’s response is to smile all the way to the bank. According to Billboard magazine’s 2011 top concert tours, Rieu ranked ninth in the world, with his 102 performances selling more than 650,000 tickets for an estimated $67 million.7 He also sells hundreds of thousand of concert CDs and DVDs, as well as merchandise. It seems that giving people a way to break the rules can be extremely profitable.

The Most Interesting Beer in the World

He’s like a mix of James Bond and Indiana Jones. He’s a woman magnet. Who wouldn’t want to be that guy?

David, Santa Monica, California

Participant in a focus group about beer

Ed Benfield has been listening to customers for a long time. In 1984 he conducted focus groups with beer drinkers in Huntsville, Alabama. Benfield says, “What we learned in Huntsville was earth-shattering. We got them talking about who drinks what beer. They told us that guys who drink regular beer are stupid, overweight, blowhard, insensitive jerks. That indicated—and we confirmed it over the next year or two—that light beer drinkers had begun to feel superior.”8 Benfield saw a great opportunity for the expansion of the light beer category and recommended that his client shift marketing resources to capture more of the coming market. He was right. Sales for light beer skyrocketed for the next twenty years.

Fast forward to 2006. In only a few years, Dos Equis, a low-volume Mexican import beer, transformed itself from an obscure regional brand into the sixth-largest imported beer sold in the United States. The brand’s customer research had shown that the fraternity-house approach to marketing that had been a staple of beer advertising for decades was wearing thin. “Sophomoric humor has long been a category staple, and the majority of our competitors’ advertising was insulting our consumer’s intelligence. There was, and continues to be an opportunity for Dos Equis to stand out in the crowd by acknowledging and harnessing our consumer’s thirst for intelligent humor,” said Colin Westcott-Pitt, VP of marketing for Dos Equis.9

This insight led to the creation of “The Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign. The brand won a Gold Effie in 2009, a prestigious annual marketing communications award. The case study document for the campaign prepared by the brand’s advertising agency, Euro RSCG, made the case for the big idea: “They [customers] felt misrepresented and misunderstood. Probing further, we discovered two important truths: First, what these guys wanted more than anything, more than hot girls and designer toys, was to be seen as interesting. And conversely, that they were terrified of being seen as boring. We sniffed an opportunity.”10

In a series of more than thirty television commercials produced by the brand’s agency, we see an older gray-bearded man actively engaged in a variety of exotic, adventurous, and dangerous pursuits: running with the bulls, ski jumping, arm wrestling the police, releasing a grizzly bear from a trap, piloting a motorboat full of beauty-pageant winners. In one commercial the narrator tells us that, “His reputation is expanding faster than the universe. He once had an awkward moment just to see how it feels. He lives vicariously through himself. He is the most interesting man in the world.” In the closing shot, we see this man seated, surrounded by a group of attractive women as he says, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis. Stay thirsty, my friends.”11

The most interesting man’s story continues to evolve. What the brand refers to as “legend lines” continue to build the character’s mystique. Here are just a few:

• His charm is so contagious vaccines have been created for it.

• The police often question him just because they find him interesting.

• His personality is so magnetic he is unable to carry credit cards.

• He’s a lover, not a fighter. But he’s also a fighter, so don’t get any ideas.

• He can speak French, in Russian.

• His mother has a tattoo that reads “Son.”

Dos Equis actively engages its audience with good humor and a twist: the most interesting man in the world isn’t a typical, hard-sell pitchman for the product. He seems a somewhat reluctant product endorser when he says, “I don’t always drink beer . . .”

So who is this mysterious character who seems to actually believe that he is the most interesting man in the world? Veteran actor Jonathan Goldsmith brings the character to life. He says, “He hangs out with pygmies. He’s a teacher. He’s a sage. He’s a shaman. He’s a fantasy. He’s an illusion of things past.”12 Senior brand manager Paul Smailes says that, “more than anything else, [drinkers] really wanted to be seen as interesting by their friends.”13 The brand went against the grain to create a world-traveling, bigger-than-life, rogue of a character who wouldn’t be seen as a threat to a much younger target market. The brand’s research showed that it might be effective to create someone the customer could aspire to become. Kheri Tillman, VP of marketing for Dos Equis, said, “What’s interesting about him is that he doesn’t compete with our consumer. He’s more of an inspiration. He’s an aspirational target for them.”14

The magic of breaking the rules has worked wonders for the brand. In 2009 the ad campaign went national, and Dos Equis continues to break sales records each year, outpacing all other imports. The brand has become the sixth-best-selling import beer, with over $74 million in sales.15 “Dos Equis is an awesome brand,” said Anthony Bucalo, an analyst at Banco Santander SA. “It’s not limited to hipsters in Vermont drinking microbrews, or blue-collar workers drinking Bud.”16

Until the Dos Equis campaign struck gold, it had been tough sledding for import brands to break through to an audience dominated by domestic beer advertising. Consider that in 2008 there were 261 beer brands advertising on TV in the United States. “There’s never really been an import brand that’s been built so clearly through advertising,” said Benj Steinman, publisher of Beer Marketer’s Insights.17

Dos Equis has engaged its customers by concentrating on one primary social channel, Facebook. The page doesn’t take itself too seriously: “Created in Mexico by a German brewmaster, formulated in the 19th century to welcome the 20th, XX is simultaneously a mysterious dichotomy and a world-class beer brand.”18 The Facebook page has nearly two million followers, and people constantly submit their own legend lines for consideration.

The brand is extending its most interesting attitude with the formation of the Most Interesting Academy. The mission is to “inform, inspire, and equip” fans to lead more extraordinary lives. The company has created the Stay Thirsty Grant competition, where fans can apply to live out their fantasies, “whether it’s base jumping in Bangkok, preparing rattlesnake soup for royalty, or traversing the Amazon.”19

Imagine if your brand openly embraced the Customer CEO rebellion that’s in everyone by having more fun with its products and promotions. Dos Equis found it could be quite contagious and profitable.

Gaming to Please

There are a lot of places to go hang out to watch a game. The thing is, the food’s not very good, but what do you expect?

Gary, Houston, Texas

Participant in a customer interview about sports bars

On a cold December night, there was a rowdy gathering at the Green Dragon Tavern on Union Street in the north end of Boston. While beer no doubt helped fuel the patrons’ passions, there wasn’t the usual trash talking about sports so common in places like the Green Dragon. There weren’t any flat-screen televisions showing a Celtics or Patriots game that night. And there was more serious business to discuss. The year was 1773, and that group of men, called the Sons of Liberty, decided it was a fine place to start a revolution. The American Revolution. Little did the men who gathered that night realize that the pursuit of happiness they were fighting for would result in sports bars in the twenty-first century. In America, it seems there’s always been a little rebel in all of us.

Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar (BWW) is a nearly eight-hundred-restaurant national chain that doubled in size in less than seven years. Forbes magazine ranked it as one of its top-ten fastest-growing retailers in 2011.20 BWW knew that its core sports-obsessed male customers wanted a place of rebellion. They wanted more than just some beer and food and a place to hang out and watch sporting events. Through market research, the company determined that its customers were fun, edgy, high-energy, yet also easygoing. They wanted a complete sports fan experience.

So that’s what the restaurant resolved to give them. BWW decided to bring the experience of a pregame tailgate party inside. That’s how the idea of tablegating, “a party at every table,” was born. The chain created a unique atmosphere that replicated the one you might find at a pregame party in a stadium parking lot. It’s a fun and social environment designed to build interaction between customers and staff. There are usually ten projection screens and another fifty high-definition flat-screen monitors in each location. In a typical year, sixteen thousand sporting events are shown live.21 That’s a lot of sports to watch.

To build excitement and new sales, BWW enlisted SCVNGR, a social gaming application, to create competitive games right in the stores. Customers downloaded a special challenge app onto their mobile devices, and BWW created a series of customer contests that awarded prizes to winners. One example was a March Madness challenge. In three months, 184,000 customers registered to play. “It’s very social—almost like tailgating, but in a restaurant,” said Christopher Mahl, senior vice president of brands at SCVNGR. “Each customer came in about 2.4 times in the last two months,” he said of the SCVNGR users. “That’s more frequent than our other guests who may come in five or six times a year.”22 BWW also created an interactive website to support the idea of tablegating, which attracts over 1.5 million unique visitors a month. Its Facebook page has more than 4.75 million fans. By being rebellious, Buffalo Wild Wings has become a $2 billion enterprise.23

There’s opportunity for every company to put tools in customers’ hands that help them easily promote the brand. But remember that customers want to participate in something that is interesting or exciting for them, not simply promotional for you.

Blowing and Growing

As a marketing manager for an industrial shipping company, it’s like pulling teeth to get my bosses to ever approve doing anything different or the least bit controversial. They are so afraid of offending somebody. It’s kind of like the military: just name, rank, and serial number. So everybody’s brand is just the same. It’s boring.

Donna, Charlotte, North Carolina

Participant in a focus group about business-to-business marketing

Carey Smith is known as “Chief Big Ass.” The longtime entrepreneur wears the label with a tremendous amount of pride. He worked in a variety of business pursuits before finally hitting on the idea that would help put him on the map. Smith decided to enter the business of blowing hot air. Literally.

Farmers in the dairy business know that cows quit eating when they get hot. Hot cows don’t produce milk. A noisy fan cools a cow off but causes stress to the cow, so the result is still no milk. The solution was to mount extremely large and quiet fans overhead, cooling all the cows in the barn without stress. The steady breeze created by these large fans cools surrounding areas between eight and sixteen degrees fahrenheit. Cooler cows meant more milk and happier dairy farmers. This was the initial problem that Smith and his team were tasked to solve. The company was originally called HVLS (High Velocity/Low Speed). Fortunately for Smith, that name didn’t resonate with very many people.

What did grab customers’ attention was the huge size of the fans the company was building. These giant fans can be as large as twenty-four feet in diameter. Upon first seeing an HVLS fan, many prospects apparently exclaimed, “That’s a big-ass fan!” I first saw one of the company’s fans while I was touring a client’s manufacturing facility, and my reaction was the same. It’s one of those perfect descriptions that comes along only so often. Smith knew he was on to something so he commissioned a complete rebranding of the company, including using a cartoon donkey as a logo. Big Ass Fans is a company known as a rebellious, independent, and innovative place to work. Smith said that Blue Grass Airport, near the company’s headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky, wouldn’t sell the company ad space because of its controversial name. There are fewer complaints now than there were in the early days, in 2008, when the name was changed. “It’s amazing how little flak we get for it anymore,” Smith said.24

Big Ass is a company that connects with its customers. Procter & Gamble veteran Al Barlow, the company’s chief marketing officer, said, “Obviously, P&G has always done a very good job of listening to its customer, and that’s something anyone could learn and apply. You need to understand what their unmet needs are, and the way to do that is to talk to them, incessantly. And that’s what we do, and I’ve pushed that here at Big Ass Fans.”25

One of the ways the company differentiates itself from its competition is by foregoing the traditional model of selling through distributors and retailers. Instead, Big Ass Fans employs a sixty-five-person sales team that deals directly with every customer. The company has given away well over 300,000 Big Ass hats featuring its Fanny the Donkey logo. It refuses to publish a price list on the website, saying that every customer deserves a custom solution to his problem because every cooling condition and space is unique. And Big Ass Fans come with a ten-year warranty because of the fans’ advanced design. Smith believes so strongly in discovering innovation that he plows 8 percent or more of the firm’s revenues into research and development. “That’s what makes this company unique. They’re just looking at fans and then innovating on those fans and coming up with new technology,” said Justin Molavi, an industry analyst for market researcher IBISWorld.26

The next frontier for Big Ass? It’s called Haiku, the company’s first foray into the residential market. “It makes no noise, moves beaucoups of air and uses very, very little energy,” Smith said. Ever the rebel, Smith wants complete independence and says he will reject all potential suitors who want to acquire the company. “We don’t need somebody else telling us what to do. We can do whatever the hell we want.”27

Profiting from the Power of Rebellion

Tapping into the Power of Rebellion will take your company to a very different place. There is enormous opportunity because so many of your competitors are simply afraid of rebellion. Look at the clear competitive advantage André Rieu, Dos Equis Beer, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Big Ass Fans have over their competitors. How difficult do you think it would be for anyone to catch up to them? As you have seen, these companies have employed much more than clever brand positioning, although that’s clearly important. Each of these maverick enterprises is meeting people at an important place by letting them have fun and breaking the bonds of normal commerce.

The great professional hockey player Wayne Gretsky once said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” These business leaders recognized that anyone could perform a regular concert, brew a beer, open a restaurant, or sell a commodity like a fan. But not everyone can envision a better future by unlocking powerful demand built around the idea of breaking a few rules. Can you really imagine:

• a symphony orchestra performance where people dance or stand in their seats, swaying to the music?

• a young person’s beer built on the shoulders of an old guy who defies everything boring or ordinary?

• a bar and grill breaking sales records by bringing a rowdy sports crowd inside to play computer games?

• a boring industrial manufacturer that has turned an entire industry upside down by stating the obvious (that’s a big-ass fan!)?

You profit from the Power of Rebellion by having the courage to harness an undeniable competitive advantage. Actually, it’s a decisive competitive advantage. There are really only two choices when you consider the Power of Rebellion as a potential way to set yourself apart.

You Can Choose to Be Boring

You can tread the path that’s accepted and completely inoffensive. That’s okay. Most companies fit into this box and communicate bland information about themselves, what I like to call FFL (facts, figures, and legacy, as in, “John Smith founded our company in 1936”). I can tell you that customers don’t care because not only is it irrelevant to them, it is boring. If you are in a competitive market, your customers will eventually have other choices and you will see a slow but steady erosion of your business. You can count on it.

You Can Choose to Be Bold

The bold path is different and rebellious. Some will absolutely love you, while others will refuse to return your phone calls. But you will be long remembered. Take along the people who want to go on an adventure. In today’s marketplace, customers hunger for companies that have a sense of humor and irony.

If you have rules, rewrite them. Ask what customers hate about your company and listen closely. Don’t be offended and defensive. When customers open up—and they will—shut up and listen. In your marketing, appeal to the person your customer aspires to be. Be the kind of company he wants to have a beer with. That’s the Power of Rebellion in action.

(How well does your organization engage the Power of Rebellion? Visit to download our free diagnostic tool.)