In some respects it was a perfectly understandable mistake to make. Almost exactly a year ago, Eddie Van Halen was walking into the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Although he had enjoyed a long, successful career as a rock star, he was not walking in as the star of this particular show.
Along with his son Wolfgang, Van Halen — whose death from cancer was announced on Tuesday — was just one of many concert goers looking forward to listening to the band Tool. At one point, in fact, a young man was so excited to be part of the crowd that he turned to Van Halen and asked him to take his picture with the stage behind him.
As Wolfgang noted in a picture of his own that he posted to Instagram, the young fan had “no idea who he just asked.”
Van Halen, despite arguably becoming far more famous than Tool with a band that used his surname, said nothing. He just took the picture.
Perhaps he was just amused by it all, but I like to think that Van Halen understood that, despite his legendary status in the world of rock music, this moment had nothing to do with him.
This was about the fan, and the experience that fan wanted to capture and remember.
It was the kind of experience that a rock star like Van Halen had worked hard to provide for millions of fans himself. He knew how his fans — his customers — wanted to be treated. And in that incident he proved as good at doing it as he was playing his guitar.
Unfortunately, that’s not always what happens when brands are forced to share space with one another. Think of the logos that wallpaper sports arenas, desperately trying to distract attention from the thing fans came to see. Look at all the other public spaces, including a growing number of theatres and galleries, which are now preceded by the brand name of their largest donor.
Of course, those organizations need sponsorship and donations, just as other channels require advertising dollars to survive. The question is whether the brand’s involvement adds value to the experience or takes away from it.
Eddie Van Halen could have told the fan who he was and offer to have his photograph taken alongside him, but that would have meant assuming the young man was as much a fan of Van Halen as he was Tool. Eddie Van Halen was also used to getting lots of attention, and so maybe he felt comfortable in not making the moment about himself.
Brands may find it increasingly hard to do the same as we continue to battle through the constraints of COVID-19. The need to generate revenue may, in fact, have them jostling for the spotlight more than ever before.
You only earn that attention, however, by being useful and showing up when you’re wanted. Otherwise, the risk is that customers will be as eager to be left alone as the brand is in deepening a relationship.
So much about this year has been strange and discombobulating, meanwhile, that brands may contend with the fact that consumers just aren’t ready to engage in the same way they always have. They may need more time to process and reflect.
That will be a tough one for CX leaders to work through. Brands are so eager to move things forward, to drive loyalty. No matter the circumstances, they have gotten too used to asking — in the words of one of Van Halen’s most famous songs — “Why can’t this be love?”