Innovation Blog

Pro-Bono: What We All Can Learn from U-2

By Shlomo Maital

 U-2’s BONO


A new case study by Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn (with  Katharine Miller and Rachel Wilcox)  analyzes the remarkable sustained success of the Irish rock band U-2 and its phenomenal leader Bono.  She discusses her case in the latest on-line issue of Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge. 

  Here are some of the key points that underlie U-2’s success:

*  Make meaning, not money.   “U2’s appeal has always been about our common humanity and the yearning we all experience to follow a higher path. People are looking for the light, and U2’s music has spoken to that search since the band started recording more than two decades ago.”

 * Built to last.  “In an industry notorious for its focus on short-term hits and for taking control of an artist’s work and profits, the band members and their long-time manager Paul McGuiness always looked to build an enterprise that would have a long life.”

*  Innovate, not just the music, but also the business.   “U2 was always innovative, understanding from the get go that technological change and the creative destruction it unleashed would have a big impact on the business of making and distributing music. In 1981, for example, U2 made a video for the song “Gloria,” which was one of the first videos to slide into constant MTV rotation. Some two decades later, in 2004, Bono connected with Apple for an early release on iTunes of the single “Vertigo,” and the video was featured in an Apple ad campaign. “We turned advertising into a rock video,” Bono said at the time. That’s not selling out, he said. “It’s exciting.” “

* Embrace change constantly.   “A leader’s mission is not static; it evolves. Bono continuously sets new goals around several related global challenges. For example, he started advocating for famine relief in Africa in the mid-1980s, and then in the early 1990s began raising awareness of the conflict in Sarajevo, playing live footage of the war during U2’s Zooropa tour. After working to get eight industrialized nations in 1999 to agree to $100 million in African debt relief, he continued with a campaign to cancel debt owed by Third World nations to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Then he began lobbying the administration of George W. Bush for additional funding to fight AIDS (in 2003, the US government pledged $15 billion toward the disease).  

* People don’t buy what you make, they buy why you make it.  “Who you are and what you stand for as an organization have great relevance to the people who buy your product. Many of U2’s supporters embrace the band because the causes the four members work to address—from social injustice to hunger—are issues the fans themselves are concerned about.  The backstory of organizations is now part of the value proposition for consumers. The lads from Dublin understood that early on and they still understand it.”

  In 2009 U-2 made more profit than any other rock group in the rich U.S. market.  They did very well – and they also did a lot of good.  Doing good and doing well are tightly linked in today’s age. Any CEO who thinks it is still all about maximizing shareholder value should first listen to any U-2 album, and then visit a shrink.