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Searching for Sugarman: How relevance drives success
Posted by
Ryan Flynn at 08:00

Admittedly a bit delayed, this past weekend I finally got round to watching "Searching for Sugarman". Not only did the film captivate me for its full duration, I now understand why all the fuss surrounding the film is warranted… because it has key lessons for marketing and branding, of course!

A remarkable discovery

The documentary tells the tale of two Capetonian fans searching for the truth of what had become of the mysterious musician, Sixto Rodriguez.

Rodriguez's career initially proved short-lived with two albums in the early 1970s. While these albums never really made it in the States, completely unbeknown to him, they became extremely successful and influential in South Africa. Upon eventually tracking down his whereabouts, Rodriguez was found to live a "drifters" lifestyle, making ends meet as a construction worker in Detroit, Michigan - a far cry from the way he was perceived in a country halfway across the world.

Almost 28 years after the release of his first album,"Cold Fact", Rodriguez toured South Africa for the first time, playing six concerts in front of thousands of people and since then the has returned multiple times to play for adoring fans - an extraordinary sequence of events to say the least.

Aside from the inspiring nature of this story, I found myself questioning why an artist with such talent could essentially flop in one market and boom in another. Giving it some thought I realized there was something fundamental that contributed to Rodriguez's success… it was relevance.

Relevance drives success  

In the mid-seventies, South Africa was at the height of its struggle with the Apartheid regime when the album "Cold Fact" reached the country by chance. While many of the songs became popular, one song on the album in particular "The establishment blues" seemed to speak directly to young South Africans at that time.

I believe it was not simply his catchy tunes or unique voice that brought Rodriguez success in the South African market, but rather it was what he believed in and the way he saw the world that completely aligned with what many South Africans were feeling at the time. Lyrics suchas "the system's going to fall soon, to an angry young tune"inspired many listeners to rebel against the regime and act to change the society for the better.

Essentially, Rodriguez's message was (hyper) relevant for the South African market, which I feel is the main reason for his success.

If this is indeed true, then one needs to ask the question… If Rodriguez, without even trying, became successful by simply being relevant, imagine what success brands could achieve if they were continuously striving to be relevant for consumers.

Finding your "Sugar Market"

We live in time where it is becoming increasingly important for brands to differentiate themselves by sharing unique and meaningful experiences with customers. A brand can no longer rely on simply "singing a catchy tune" in the hope that consumers will relate and engage with it.

Rather, in order for a brand to truly connect with its market, it mustunderstand exactly how consumers interpret the way it lives its beliefs. Turning this understanding into action, a brand can effectively respond to specific market realities and adjust its behaviour where necessary.

A brand with a strong belief is one thing… successfully sharing this belief with others who treasure it is what being a relevant brand is all about. If a brand can achieve this, it has a far greater chance of turning its target market into a "Sugar Market".

Image: Hal Wilson, Sony Picture Classics

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