The top Brit bands of the '60s—arguably the seven best to come out of the UK in that period, whose music is still heard on your satellite radio—had something interesting in common: their leaders/co-founders attended art school.
That would be: The Beatles' John Lennon; the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards; The Who's Pete Townshend; the Kinks' Ray Davies; Cream's Eric Clapton; Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett; and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page. (More art school alumni in the comments.)
Coincidence? No chance. Art schools in England in the '60s were sanctuaries of cool. And like art schools everywhere they promoted the preeminence of aesthetics, beauty, style, design. Any art student would quickly grasp the importance—and basic mechanics—of standing out from the pack.
No surprise that each of these seven musicians, after leaving art school, was able to develop a distinct style of his own, a powerful brand identity—and help his band develop its own identity.
"Design thinking" is all the rage now, because in the copycat world of business in 2010 it's tough to hammer the competition on the usual things such as cost or features.
In the world of consumer electronics, for instance, when one company lowers its price or adds a new function, competitors usually just follow suit. So one way to stand out from the herd is to make your product or service cooler than the rest. That includes enhancing its look and feel, its sensory appeal, its style, its design. (Think "any Apple product.")
Likewise, in the British pop music scene of the '60s—especially in-and-around swinging London where the aforementioned bands recorded their music and hung out in pubs with each other—there was initially some similarity to their musical products.
These fledgling rock groups all loved the edgy new music coming from across the Pond—early rock & roll, R&B, blues—and replicated it to some extent on their early recordings. But each of these groups realized they had to stake out an identity that differed from the others—musically and visually.
The result was an explosion of style, on many levels. The Beatles, Stones, and Who, for instance—though starting from similar roots (a common love of American R&B, a desire to write their own songs, an appreciation of the art of performance, a goal to sell records to young fans, etc.)—went in diverse directions, each with a very different sound, look, and style.
The Beatles went from pop moptops to psychedelic revolutionaries; the Stones cultivated a more primitive sound and a tougher image to become the anti-Beatles; The Who adopted a Mod fashion look and a destructive stage persona that set them apart from everyone.
Though some had longer lives than others, all seven bands did an extraordinary job of defining themselves and their artistic products. This was differentiation by design, in every sense of the word.
Are the lessons obvious for today's business?