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It’s showtime! What we can learn from the glorious retro world of industrial musicals

About a month ago, quite by accident, I discovered an entire world of marketing that time had forgotten… or perhaps more precisely, attempted to bury. This world, which has been lovingly and beautifully evoked in a new book called ‘Everything’s coming up profits’ by Steve Young and Sport Murphy, is the world of industrial musicals.

Let me say that again in case you didn’t quite catch it first time: industrial musicals. It’s not often that I can recall using a term that is comprised of two words that appear to be so profoundly different and incompatible. But despite this, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the industrial musical was a genuine phenomena in the US (and to a lesser extent in the UK), and employed by some major league B2B brands; including Ford tractors and trucks, GE, Xerox and IBM.

The role of the industrial musical was not to directly convince hard-bitten and cynical business buyers to sign the cheque for a new piece of capital equipment: it was to educate and galvanise the sales team about its products and services. In other words, the role that is filled today in many B2B companies by the sales kick off meeting… although obviously delivered with significantly more razzamatazz and pizzazz. And other words using the letter Z. And budget.

These shows were not pale imitations of the high-profile Broadway productions which inspired them: they were slick, sophisticated, lavish, and (above all) credible – largely because they were often written and produced by the very people responsible for the real thing.

Today, almost forty years after industrial musicals fell out of fashion, they appear to us as endearing, naïve or even slightly bizarre marketing curiosities from a by-gone age. Although they may appear to be an oddity or a creative cul de sac from a bygone age, there are still lessons for today’s B2B marketers. Firstly, that engaging sales with marketing has always been a challenge, and today’s efforts to facilitate this pale to insignificance when compared to the industrial musical. Do we need to be more creative about how we set about this?

More importantly, it’s clear that marketing is a fashion industry, and that what looks cool one year, may look naff the next. It’s essential for brands to move with the times and keep the finger on the pulse of our fickle audiences, or risk being rapidly seen as obsolete.

But contrastingly, when looking at industrial musicals from the vantage point of today’s cynical, media-savvy and short attention-span age, I find myself thinking that ‘progress’ doesn’t always mean things change for the better: sometimes it seemed the world was better, more fun and certainly damn sight more groovy back in the day.

* If you'd like to know more about Industrial Musicals, Steve Young is speaking at the BMA Conference in Chicago at the end of May. I would also urge you to check out the book website and associated playlist - it's magic stuff.