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Ukulele lessons... in life and branding

We can learn a lot from the ukulele.

Apparently, schools across the UK are ditching the recorder in favour of the ukulele. That will be music to the ears of anyone who had to play or – worse – listen to the recorder as a child. Not that the recorder can’t be beautiful, soulful and moving, of course. It’s just that it’s hard to make it sound like that, and very easy to make it sound horrible.

On the other hand, it’s very hard to make the ukulele sound bad. You can make a lovely noise on the little thing, with just the gentlest of strums. Its odd tuning means that it even sounds fine if you can’t manage to play its very basic chords. And many of them only need one finger, so they’re well within the grasp of just about anyone.

And so ukuleles are everywhere.

Go into any music shop, and the walls are covered in them.

Go onto YouTube, and you’ll see videos of people playing Beatles and Michael Jackson classics on them.

Go to Glastonbury festival and you’ll find whole orchestras of them, playing to huge crowds.

Go onto eBay and you’ll find all colours and quality of them – from the very cheap to the very, very expensive.

Why? Well let’s list out the benefits:

  • we’ve already spoken about the lovely sound the ukulele makes
  • and how easy it is to make a good start on one
  • it’s small, which makes it both adorable to hold, and easy to carry around
  • it’s affordable. You can get an entry level ukulele for less than £20
  • playing it makes you happy
  • it’s not annoying, even when someone who can’t play it plays it
  • it appeals equally to adults and children, with no need for ‘junior’ versions or child sizes
  • you can play anything on it, from punk to funk to folk.

I was given a ukulele at the age of four by parents who thought it was a toy guitar. I was taught to play it by a ukulele-playing nun, Sister Anne. I have loved it ever since (thank you, Sister Anne).

The rise and rise of the ukulele fills me with joy. Not just because it’s a lovely instrument, but because there’s no big agenda here. There’s no global ukulele marketing plan, no multi-million dollar campaigns, no social media strategy, no artful brand strategy.

I’m not against any of those things – far from it. I’m a great believer in the power and value of brands and brand communications.

I believe that what the rise of the ukulele can teach us is that a genuinely great product will win through in the end. The ukulele is a product with lots of real, easy-to-understand benefits, many of which are particularly relevant in times of austerity and gloom, which might be helping. But there’s no smoke and mirrors here.

What you get is what you’re promised.

And the flip side to that, of course, is that if your product doesn’t meet some need, do something well, or embody some genuine benefit, then you can dress it up as much as you like, but it isn’t going to last in the market.

To my mind, the ukulele embodies honesty, simplicity and truth – values which are at the heart of every great product and every great brand.

And that’s a good lesson for all of us.

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