Yo-Yo Ma Social Scientist or Data Scientist



Traditional Chinese: 马友友

Yes, a Cello player

What can a CEO learn from the most famous cello player of the modern age? A great deal indeed. More than any other modern performer, Yo-Yo Ma has taken his mastery of an obscure musical instrument, and turned himself into an enduring enterprise and a analytical marketing machine. Any CEO looking to lift a mundane product or service into the elite ranks of global brands should look no further than Yo-Yo Ma. Below is a perspective on lessons any CEO of an arcane product can take away:

Lesson #1: Own your space

No matter how boring your product, own the product in the minds of the Served Available Market (SAM) and Total Available Market (TAM), not just your industry. The Cello is not the most glamorous instrument, and lots of teens would rather be a guitar hero than a cello hero. However, Yo-Yo Ma set out to “own” the space, and dominates mindshare of about 500 million people in his Served Available Market. Only about 2.5 out of 7 billion people in the world constitute the (TAM) for most products, so that’s a fantastic percentage of SAM. Yo Yo Ma used a quantitatively savvy partnership strategy to ensure that he would become the only cello player the SAM would have ever heard of. The SC Johnson company does a fantastic job and many of its cleaning brands were the only names anyone remembered in their respective categories for decades. Herman Miller does an incredible work as well – few cared about their office chair brand until the Aeron Brand came to own the space in the late ’90s.

Lesson #2: Become the official choice

Yo-Yo Ma played for Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. He subsequently played, without charge, for a wide variety of other official occasions in business and civic life. No matter what your product is, find a way to become the official choice of esteemed institutions. Thomas Edison’s General Electric was the official supplier of lighting to J.P. Morgan, and continues to be the official provider of infrastructure needs for the world’s elite institutions. My friend Dan Martin did an incredible job of this with Green Mountain Coffee. Oscar De La Renta has dominated the formal dress of First Ladies in both political parties for three decades. The Lead generation impact is measurable.

Lesson #3: Partner with the Best

I love Bossa Nova music. Rossa Passos elevated the form to new artistic heights, and I buy most anything she records. It was through Yo-Yo Ma’s brilliant collaboration with Rossa Passos on “Obrigado Brazil” that I became familiar with him. Savvy move as Brazil has the largest population in Latin America. Yo Yo Ma has collaborated with celebrated musicians from nearly every continent on more than 75 albums, and as a result, his brand has catapulted far beyond lovers of classical music. His performance along with Itzhak Perlman (violin), Gabriela Montero (piano) and Anthony McGill (clarinet) for the Obama inauguration became a new model such occasions. In my view 3M, DuPont and Honeywell are the gold standard for brand collaboration. If you have a mundane product, lose the ego and partner with the best in another business that uses your product.

Lesson #4: Build a Cult Brand

There are some relatively simple rules for developing a cult brand. i) Make a very useful, effective, or pleasing product. Camelbak nailed it in this regard; ii) Communicate tirelessly with your customers, giving them a name or a symbol to solidify the group’s identity. Harley Davidson name “hogs” comes to mind; iii) Invite your most loyal customers into the inner circle of managing your product. No one does it quite like GoPro; iv) “Live” the business of your business – there’s magic in doing that. Yo Yo is almost never photographed without his cello or bow, just like James Dyson is near always holding or standing near a Dyson Vacuum.


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