Brands in the News

Jimmy Buffett: Entertainer and Brand Builder

8 Sep 2023  

A couple years back I was walking around my neighborhood in Chicago and noticed a group of people wearing Hawaiian shirts and carrying stuffed parrots. It was an unusual sight.

A block further along, I came across a similar group. And then another group. It was a bizarre situation; in my part of Chicago, you usually see people in business casual heading to work, athleisure going to the yoga studio, and Cubs attire when walking over to a game.

I eventually realized what was happening: Jimmy Buffett was playing at Wrigley Field and the Parrotheads were gathering for the event.

Jimmy Buffett passed away last week. While we celebrate him for his music, his skills as a brand builder were perhaps more notable.

Over his career, Buffett created a remarkable brand. He brought joy to millions of people and made over $1 billion in the process.

There is a lot to be learned from Jimmy Buffett about building great brands. Here are five things that stand out for me.

Provide a Unique Benefit

Jimmy Buffett delivered what all great brands deliver: a benefit. His music and brand stood for the idea that we all need to get away from the daily grind and kick-back at the beach. Time spent at a Caribbean beach bar enjoying margaritas is time well spent. Buffett explained it in an interview, “It’s really a part of the human condition that you’ve got to have some fun. You’ve got to get away from whatever you do to make a living or other parts of life that stress you out.”

He didn’t over-promise. Buffett didn’t ask us to move down to Key West permanently. Even a few days was enough.

It was also an attainable benefit. To enjoy the Buffett life, you don’t need a fancy car or a private jet. Time with friends and a margarita are the requirements.

Jimmy Buffett was unique in providing this benefit. There are lots of entertainers that deliver a wonderful show and an escape. Buffett was uniquely all about the beach, margaritas, sun and kicking-back.

Design the Brand Experience

It is one thing to create a compelling brand positioning. It is another thing to bring it to life. Buffett did this in so many ways.

The world of Jimmy Buffett is full of images and symbols. Hawaiian shirts. Frozen drinks. A run-down beach bar. Parrots. Beach balls.

All this imagery contributes to the unique Buffett brand experience.

Jimmy Buffet was apparently a stickler for detail. In recent years he developed a Broadway show, Escape to Margaritaville. The finale featured beach balls dropping from the ceiling, which Buffett thought was a nice touch.

But he was worried that the star, Paul Alexander Nolan, wasn’t sufficiently tanned and ordered him to get to a salon, noting “To me, it’s essential to the part. Tourists in Margaritaville are white and turn red. You need to be tan.”

He also didn’t like the ushers. “They’re like 60 years old, up to 80. They come out and tell you, “‘You’ve got to sit down!’ and ‘You can’t do this.’ ‘You can’t do that.’ It’s like having a schoolteacher.” Buffett knew that what happens before the actual brand experience should be considered, too.

In this way, Buffett was much like Steve Jobs, another amazing brand builder who had a stunning attention to detail.

Be Willing to Fail

Reading about Jimmy Buffett, it is astonishing how many things he tried that didn’t work. He failed out of college. His first album Down to Earth sold about 300 copies. His first attempt at running a store didn’t work out and closed. The Cheeseburger in Paradise chain of restaurants is no more. The story of Jimmy Buffett is not the story of one success after another.

Buffett embraced the idea of trying things and learning. If something seems to work, build on it. If it doesn’t work, move on to the next thing. The entire Jimmy Buffett brand was built through trial and error. It wasn’t a calculated McKinsey formulated strategy to build a global empire. No, Buffett did things he found interesting and stuck with the winners.

Be Consistent

The consistency of Jimmy Buffett is astonishing. He released his most famous song Margaritaville in 1977. He sang that song and embraced it for almost 50 years.
Buffett was always Buffett, with parrots and Hawaiian shirts and the promise of a day in the sun.

You have to imagine that he wondered about this. I’m certain there were days when he thought, “Maybe I should try something different” and “Again, I have to go do this same show again? Let’s change it up.”

But he didn’t. Buffett didn’t go into politics. He didn’t produce an Opera. He didn’t take stands on unrelated social causes.

He just built on his successful brand. He did amazing things with it, over time extending his brand into a remarkable collection of business. There are now Margaritaville books, retail stores, bars, saltshakers, cruise ships, even retirement communities.

Through it all, Buffett was true to his vision. The beach bar imagery never changed.

In a final, sad bit of consistency, he died from skin cancer.

Embrace Your Customer

Jimmy Buffett played to the everyday person ready to have some fun. He didn’t go after just the wealthy, or the trendy, or the beautiful. Margaritaville is an inclusive place.

Buffett made a lot of money and built a business empire. But he did it by working hard to deliver a powerful brand experience and connect with his fans. He explained, “If you like what I do in goods and services, if we make you feel better after a hard day of work and you want to come blow off some steam and you pay for that, I’m going to give you your money’s worth and have a good time doing it.”

He seemed to feel an obligation to deliver; “There’s an opportunity here to give people a really great, full experience,” he explained. “They’ve paid money to be here. They deserve it.”

Ultimately, Buffett built a remarkable brand, one that will continue. The brands we build can last longer than we do and have a bigger impact.

So, this weekend get a margarita and raise a toast to an amazing brand builder.

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