Seeking disruption? Tap the Secrets of Shaolin

What to learn from Witty, Unpredictable Talent And Natural Game. 

“If you living in the world today
You been hearing the slang that the Wu-Tang say.”

In November 1993, America was still clothed in flannel and basking in the distorted guitars of the grunge era. When most people thought of hip-hop, the image that came to mind was two teenagers who wore their pants backwards (true story). If you were to describe a group least likely to be successful in that environment, it would look a lot like the Wu Tang Clan.

Protect Ya Neck, Wu-Tang’s first single, was aggressive, explicit, pressed on poor-quality vinyl, and packed with references to Kung Fu movies, comic books, and obscure pieces of pop culture. Within four years, their second full-length release was quadruple platinum. And 25 years later, they remain relevant and in the news for their latest releases.

If you keep eating McDonald's, you gonna get sick. You need a real home-cooked meal. And I knew that that would be healthier. And that's what Wu-Tang was: It was a home-cooked meal of hip-hop. Of the real people.

Like most organizations aspiring to be great, the goal of Wu-Tang Clan was to be more than just the producer of an amazing product. From the first day, they committed to a five-year plan designed to disrupt their industry and tip the (fish)scales in their favor:

  • Establish the Wu-Tang Clan brand as more than the sum of its parts.
  • Craft a strategy to get it front of as many people as possible.
  • Execute the plan by leveraging existing distribution systems.

Yes, the Wu-Tang Clan probably is better at running their business than you are.

The Wu Brand

I thought that Wu-Tang was the best sword style, the best sword-style of martial arts. And the tongue is like a sword. And so I say that we have the best lyrics, so, therefore, we are the Wu-Tang Clan.

When the group first formed, it was under the moniker All in Together Now. There was immediate recognition that for the group to achieve its aim, it needed more than just a catchy name – it had to create an entire mythos people could immerse themselves in. They borrowed their name from the Kung Fu film Shaolin and Wu-Tang, and the group gained a philosophy.

By embracing Kung Fu culture, the Wu-Tang Clan was able to effortlessly imbue their work with references ranging from Eastern philosophy, chess, martial arts, and numerology. Cutting clips from old films into their songs only reinforced references, and established a tradition of connecting to popular culture – primarily through comics.

Being a Wu-Tang Clan fan is an immersive brand experience: certain slang functions as code words to fans for places (Shaolin), people (The Chef, Genius) and universal truths (CREAM) that have no relevance outside of the community. The ethos of the brand is even memorialized in a book by group founder RZA, The Tao of the Wu. Most of all, the brand resonates because it is authentic. The guys in the Wu-Tang Clan really do love these movies, play a lot of chess, and read comic books – and have a bunch of weird inside jokes which each other.

Once Wu-Tang’s culture aligned with an iconic visual brand, millions of people felt like they, too, could become part of the clan. Wearing a Wu-Tang logo, or sharing a record wasn’t just about how good the music was – it was a statement about people themselves made about how they felt empowered by the brand.

Killer Bees on the swarm

Wu-Tang Killa Beez, we on a swarm
Wu-Tang Killa Beez, we on a swarm

Every fan has a favorite member of the Wu-Tang Clan – the diversity of the group, and the members’ unique styles were always the point. A group focused exclusively on one kind of sound could be successful, but never at the scale they imagined. To sell millions of records they would need a bigger audience than any hip-hop group had ever reached. It started with that first single, Protect Ya Neck, whose eight verses provide back-to-back introductions of each member of the clan and their style.

RZA had his plan mapped out from the beginning: "I recall telling GZA, 'You'll get the college crowd,' because he's the intellectual. Raekwon and Ghost, all the gangstas. Meth will get the women and children — and he didn't want to do women and children. He didn't know that, though. Method Man is a rough, rugged street dude, but all the girls love him." And for people of a certain age, ODB provided tracks that were played at every dance through high school.

Each member of the Wu-Tang Clan released solo albums that provided a unique sound and exposed new audiences to Wu-Tang, and it worked. The stretch of solo records that was released after the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), is a murderer’s row of notable hip-hop records: Tical, Return to the 36 Chambers, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…,and Liquid Swords.

The idea was to make it as easy as possible for new audiences to be exposed to the Wu-Tang Clan. This aggressive string of record releases was paired with complimentary products: video games, the Wu Wear clothing line and books, all designed to make the Wu-Tang experience feel inclusive to fans who began to embrace it.

Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing to…

The Wu is too slamming for these Cold Killin' labels
Some ain't had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel
Be doin' artists in like Cain did Abel
Now they money's gettin' stuck to the gum under the table

The entire Wu-Tang Clan cobbled together $900 to release their first single, and only received $60,000 for their first full album. To combat their limited resources. They executed a unique approach that levered the music industry to do their bidding, and got them in front of as many potential fans as possible.

The Wu-Tang Clan’s unique record contract only applied to the group as a whole. Each member was free to negotiate their own label agreements – eventually the Wu-Tang Clan was on five of the six major record labels, with each competing to promote their records against the other, all for the benefit of the clan. This approach ensured that without spending their own capital, they could get their message out just by levering the existing systems.

This was the crux of the clan’s five-year plan: once the brand and strategy was in place, they started releasing albums every six months to ensure the message never left the public eye.

Become a Wu-Gambino

Few would argue that the heyday of the Wu-Tang Clan is not behind us, but 25 years later they provide an undeniable roadmap for organizations looking to craft a brand that’s memorable, ubiquitous, and inspires the world on the cheap.

First, and most importantly, is crafting an authentic brand that means something to your audience. A great product, a dazzling logo, or a catchy tagline alone is not enough to draw people in. They must feel something for your brand, and the only way to do that is craft a narrative around it that makes them feel invested.

Once you have that story, it must become part of everything do. Great brands see their narrative as more than a marketing exercise – they know every member of the team must live it daily, and ensure it comes alive in customer service, product development, sales and human resources. Awesome brand experiences are powered by evangelists who put their own spin on the story, while providing their own personality.

And finally, people need to see it. Today’s digital landscape offers a bevy of tools that make it possible for you to spread your message for far less than a record company advance. What’s essential is putting in the time to research where your audience is, and tailoring the content specifically for them. When the right message is in front of the perfect person at the ideal time, it becomes a welcome story for them to internalize, and act upon.

Two years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan released a new album that would only be heard by a single person. Without being heard by a single person, a bidding war ensued and the Wu-Tang Clan was thrust back into the spotlight. What might have been derided as a gimmick for other groups was greeted with genuine enthusiasm coming from the Wu – a reminder that once you’ve built the kind of brand equity they have, it’ll last well beyond 25 years.