Top 5 Brand Like A Rock Star Posts of 2009

The idea for “Brand Like a Rock Star” had been kicking around in my head for a few months.  The initial concept was a book about how Jimmy Buffett turned a simple three-chord beach tune into the Margaritaville mega-brand.  One night in February I sat under the stars in Austin, Texas jotting down notes about the idea when it occured to me that the music industry is full of great stories that show how brands should, and shouldn’t, be built.

The first post went up March 13, and since then almost 3000 readers in 65 countries have visited to the site.  I’m quite honored and flattered that so many people have enjoyed the blog and contributed to it.  Since March, 87 posts have been created and the blog has served as my notes for the development of the book.  2010 will be the year that “Brand Like a Rock Star” grows from a blog into a book, and I will keep you updated on the progress.  In the meantime, here are the top 5 most read posts from the blog this year.

5. September 2 – Bob Marley: The Million Dollar Niche Market

Bob Marley is the best example of someone who didn’t compromise their style, beliefs, and music in the name of success.  Marley did his thing, and brought the world to him… instead of the other way around.  Sadly, that sense of conviction ended up killing him.  Bob Marley refused to have his cancerous toe amputated because of his Rastafarian beliefs.  The cancer spread, and took his life.

4. December 3 – Tiger Needs To Attack!

Every branding blogger had to give their two cents on how the team handling Tiger Woods dealt with the controversy of 2009.  This was my take, and looking back at it a month later I think I was right.

3. September 14 – Partnerships: Currencies of Credibility

This post was one that kind of got forgotten after I wrote it, and only now – looking back at the year – did I notice how popular it was.  It makes sense, and rings true when you look at the Tiger Woods scandal from a sponsorship point of view.

2. October 7 – Jerry Garcia: Master Marketer

Deadheads made this post one of the most viewed postings in 2009.  I’m not certain Jerry Garcia always consciously knew he was making groundbreaking marketing decisions, but he sure made a lot of smart ones.

1. December 11 – Forty Years Ahead of Their Time

Again the Deadheads spread the word on Twitter and made this posting easily the most viewed on the Brand Like a Rock Star blog in 2009.  The essence of the post is that Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were really the first social media and file-sharing experts, forty years ahead of their time.  When you look at amazing brands in rock and roll, the Grateful Dead comes up a lot.

Apple, best of 2009, Bob Marley, Grateful Dead, Harley Davidson, Jerry Garcia, Jimmy Buffett, Tiger Woods 222 Comments

The Top Band Branding Events of 2009

5. Island Records Celebrates 50 Years


Chris Blackwell fell in love with reggae music in 1959 and created a record label to support it. It was Island Records that brought Bob Marley’s music to the world. Bob Marley demonstrated better than anyone else in music history that focusing on a small core group of dedicated fans beats trying to appeal to everyone. Reggae music, hardly on anyone’s radar before Marley came along, grew into a worldwide phenomenon in the 70′s, led by Bob Marley. Today the estate of Bob Marley generates millions of dollars a year even 28 years after his death. And Island Records can proudly claim to have had a role in bringing Bob Marley to the world, to say nothing of U2, Traffic, Roxy Music, Cat Stevens, Amy Winehouse, Jimmy Cliff, The Cranberries, Robert Palmer, Steve Winwood, Ultravox, and many others.

4. Lady Gaga Becomes The New Madonna


Dress for the shock value. Record for the dance value. Stir up sexual controversy. Yet maintain an air of smarts and marketing savvy. Lady Gaga took the lessons of Madonna circa 1984 and created a brand that appears ready to last a long time. Realizing early that something besides her talent would be required to cut through the media clutter, Lady Gaga created an on-stage performance art that left a lasting impression on anyone who saw it. She was remarkable in the truest sense of the word: she generated conversation. Lady Gaga demonstrated that for any brand, quality (talent) is incredibly important for long-term success, but memorability (PR) truly drives a brand’s early recognition.

3. Susan Boyle, J-K Wedding Video, & Owl City


They have very little in common other than their rise to fame that was driven by social media. This lesson cannot be lost on today’s brands: there are new ways to the top of the brand mountain that don’t involve traditional ways of doing things. Susan Boyle’s appearance on “Britain’s Got Talent” spawned millions of views on YouTube, coverage media coverage, and then a record deal. Meanwhile, the J-K Wedding Video turned a year-old Chris Brown song into one of the summer’s most downloaded songs without any promotion or advertising. The YouTube sensation was entirely viral, and entirely unintentional. Finally, Owl City (Adam Brown) recorded an album on his computer in his parent’s basement. He put his music on MySpace, and it caught the attention of millions of people. That interest brought a record deal and a top 5 hit with “Fireflies”.

2. The Beatles Are Back


Thanks to the September release of their entire catalog remastered digitally, the first generation of Beatles fans had something to get excited about. But The Beatles wisely invited a few new generations to join the party by simultaneously releasing The Beatles Rock Band video game. Overnight millions of teens and twenty somethings were singing and playing along to “Twist and Shout” on their X-Box consoles. The Beatles brilliantly demonstrated that every brand needs to be sending out invitations for new customers to join the party. They showed how and old brand could use new technology. And they provided a lesson in how bringing kids and parents together makes great financial sense for any brand.

1. Michael Jackson’s Comeback


It took unexpected death to rescue the musical genius of Michael Jackson from the heap.  His bizarre lifestyle long ago overtook his brilliance as the first thing that comes to mind when Jackson’s name is mentioned. But on the afternoon of June 25, the news broke that Michael Jackson had suddenly died, only weeks away from his planned series of comeback concerts in London.  The realization that Michael Jackson would never again make music gave fans a new appreciation for the artist who recorded the biggest selling album in music history.   The branding lesson from Michael Jackson’s death is that when a brand is in high demand and short supply, value immediately rises.  The Nintendo Wii, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Tickle Me Elmo are all examples from Christmas past, albeit far less consequential examples than the death of a musical superstar.

Honorable mentions:

* Bruce Springsteen demonstrates that singing anthems, as opposed to just songs, can keep a career vital long after he disappears from the charts.  Springsteen played sold-out arenas around the world, and headlined the Super Bowl’s half time show.

* Axl Rose and Sammy Hagar show how building high expectations can backfire.  Hagar called his “Chickenfoot” project better than Van Halen and Led Zeppelin.  It didn’t pan out that way.  Axl made us wait 15 years for “Chinese Democracy” and despite good reviews, the album didn’t sell well.

* Chris Brown demonstrates that Wrigley’s choice of him as a spokesperson might not have been such a great idea.  The chewing gum company dropped him after his altercation with then-girlfriend Rihanna.  Tiger Woods went on to illustrate the danger of celebrity endorsements even more vividly by year’s end.

* MacKenzie Phillips told her story of incestual abuse, showing us how even the most sad and depraved story can fuel book sales.  The news shocked music fans, making it tough for many to ever fully enjoy “Monday Monday” again.

Uncategorized 190 Comments

Music To Maslow’s Ears

The last posting before the holidays, a time when families and friends bridge thousands of miles, and often personal divides and disputes, to be together.

Abraham Maslow knows precisely why we feel this need to be together.  Back in 1943 that Maslow created the Hierarchy of Human Needs.  According to Maslow, human needs evolve from the physiological essentials to sustain life (breathing, food, water, etc) to self-actualization (creativity, morality, spontaneity) at the very top.

What does all of this have to do with music?

A lot, when you think about it.

Because music falls into the very important “Love/belonging” step on the ladder, where social needs are met.  Humans satisfy that need to belong by creating neighborhoods, sports groups, social networks, book clubs, and - more destructively - gangs, and cults.

Maslow’s hierarchy states that once a person has satisfied their basic physiological survival needs and secured a level of safety and security, they reach out to others seeking belonging.  And most agree that satisfying the higher needs of self-actualization and growth is impossible without first achieving a sense of belonging.

Music does exactly that.

Music brings us together, and has done so for as long as we’ve been walking this planet.

Stories, lessons, and fables have been put to music and turned into sing-alongs for generations.

Social change has been instigated by song. Wars have been started, and ended, because of music.

People come together to hear and play music in theatres, churches, arenas, living rooms, and farmer’s fields.

We dance together, seldom alone, to music.  And even when we dance alone (which, in the name of therapy, we should often do!), we are together with the creator of the music, sharing the experience with the singers, musicians, and even the songwriters.  We are sharing the emotions of the song with others who have experienced the same joy or pain.

Music brings us come together as fans… Parrotheads and Deadheads and Phish Phans and KISS Army Members, as Hippies and Goths and Headbangers and Emos.

Thanks to music, you never have to be alone.

Happy holidays.  Thanks so much for reading, caring, commenting, and sharing.

Deadheads, KISS Army, Maslow, Parrotheads, Phish Phans 204 Comments

The Authentic Brand


They had been in the studio for hours and hours recording, and desperately needed a break.  One of the boys in the band went out for some beer.  Meanwhile, some friends of the band came by the studio.  Gradually, the recording session gave way to a party.  The songs got crazier and crazier. The drummer pounded on an ash tray instead of a drum kit.  Everyone in the room joined in the singing, even if they didn’t know the words. The singer raised his voice above the incessant talking and laughing around him, until he could resist no more and gave in to the laughter himself.  The final product became a #2 hit in December of 1965.

Barbara Ann” remains one of the Beach Boys most endearing songs, 45 years after the studio party ended.

Beatles songs like “Taxman” and “The Long And Winding Road” are only two of many songs to feature stray guitar notes, drumming mistakes, and various unusual microphone noises.  The Beatles were famous for their mistakes, outtakes, and experiments gone wrong.

One of the things I love about rock ‘n roll is that it is at it’s best when it is imperfect.

Even in the days of four-track analog recording, George Martin and Brian Wilson had the ability to create audio perfection.  They did it over and over again.  No doubt that most of these mistakes were intentionally left in.

There was a point, only a few years ago, where having a solid brand meant covering up every wart and imperfection.  But today’s brands need to connect in a more authentic way, and some wise brands have caught on to this trend.

Canadian cough medicine Buckley’s knows this.  Their product doesn’t taste very good (to say the least), but it has a track record of working very well.  Instead of coming up with a new better tasting formula, they were wise enough not to fight the obvious (bad taste).  Instead, they flaunt it.  Their slogan is “It tastes awful, but it works”.

Marmite is another product that, to most palates, tastes awful.  True, it is loved by many, especially in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.  But to the vast majority, Marmite is a horrible tasting product.  So why fight the obvious.  Embrace it.  Flaunt it.  Revel in it.  Even the front page of their website gives you two options to click on.  One says “Marmite is perfect” and the other reads “Marmite is horrid.”

Human beings are wonderfully imperfect creatures, and we can only relate and bond with other wonderfully imperfect creatures.  We can’t possibly form a bond with something that has no flaws, because flawless simply doesn’t exist.  What an amazing visceral level to connect with your customer on!

1. What are your brand’s inherent imperfections?  What aspects of your brand turn some people off?

2. Can you use them to stand out from others?  Are your imperfections more glaring or more interesting?

3. Do your imperfections make sense?  It is easy to grasp how a bad tasting medicine would work better than one that tastes good.

Be brave.  Embrace your imperfections, and add some humanity to your brand.

Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, Buckley's, George Martin, Marmite, The Beatles 558 Comments

Come For The Publicity, Stay For The Talent


Adam Lambert and Lady Gaga have put “The Law of Publicity” to good use.

“The Law of Publicity” is one of the laws covered in the book “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding” by Al and Laura Ries.  It essentially states that publicity, not marketing, will launch new brands.  Brands that generate favorable publicity in the media will be the ones that survive long term.  The Ries’ cite The Body Shop, a company that grew into a global brand and the world’s second largest cosmetics company with very little advertising, but plenty of positive publicity.  Meanwhile, Miller spent $50 million to launch “Miller Regular” and despite all of that advertising, the brand when nowhere because it generated no publicity.

Adam Lambert was the runner up on the 8th season of American Idol.  Quick… who was the winner?  I’ll bet far more people know Lambert’s name compared to the eventual winner, Kris Allen.

Lambert released his debut album in November, and on the American Music Awards that month he capped off a sexually-charged performance with an open mouthed kiss with a male keyboardist.  The kiss became the talk of the media for several days, and ABC quickly removed him from his planned spot on Good Morning America.  Sensing opportunity, CBS invited Lambert to perform on The Early Show instead.

Would Lambert’s name have been plastered all over the press if he hadn’t kissed his keyboard player?  Not a chance.  Lambert pushed the envelope just enough to make himself the #1 entertainment story, until Tiger Woods met up with a fire hydrant in his Escalade.

Lady Gaga is talented, no doubt.  She could play piano by ear at age 4 and was accepted at Julliard at 11, and at age 17 gained early admission to NYU’s Tische School of Arts.  But talent alone seldom wins.  So Lady Gaga began to incorporate burlesque elements into her live gigs, turning her shows into a sort of performance art.  As she began to become more famous, her costumes became more elaborate, including bubble-wrap dresses and many nearly-nude outfits.

Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert have used their sexuality, outrageousness, and uniqueness to create publicity to launch their careers and gain attention.  They can now use their talent to cement the bond with their new fans.

Publicity is a party invitation… it makes you aware and asks you to come in and give it a try.  Talent is the party… the music, food, drinks, atmosphere, and friends.  Publicity makes you want to go, talent makes you want to stay.

Of course, people are always leaving the party, so the need for publicity never really goes away.

Adam Lambert, American Idol, Body Shop, Lady GaGa, Miller, Ries and Trout 405 Comments

Jimmy Doesn’t Care

This week offered up a review of the new Jimmy Buffett album “Buffett Hotel”, saying the album is one to skip.  According to Fox, the only people who will like it are Parrotheads.

So what’s the problem?

The Parrotheads, like the oft-written about Deadheads, number in the millions.  They care deeply about their favorite artist and his music.  They will buy his new album, go to his concerts, eat at his Margaritaville restaurants, wear his branded clothing, and drink his Landshark beer.  And it doesn’t matter one bit what FoxNews or any other reviewer says.  In fact, a quick look at other review sites brings up phrases like “typical Buffett fare” and “no surprises here”.


At one time, the prevailing thought was that the masses matters. Today, a more “long tail” type of thinking dominates.

Jimmy Buffett doesn’t need to appeal to a bunch of new fans. He has an incredibly loyal group of hard-core fans who are going to buy the new album.  And if it is “typical Buffett fare” and offers “no surprises”, they are going to love it.

What would you rather have… a million fans who are only mildly interested in your business or a thousand passionate raving lunatics?  The cost-of-sale to those million mildly interested people is very high, and the chances of repeat business are low.  But to those thousand raving lunatics, you are gold.  Cost-of-sale is minimal.  Keep them happy, and you’ll never go hungry.

And if you do happen to get hungry, Jimmy Buffett will be happy to sell you a “Cheeseburger in Paradise” at any one of his Margaritaville locations.

Jimmy Buffett 290 Comments

Talk To Me

This cartoon was created by Hugh MacLeod at  You should definitely visit his site and buy his great book “Ignore Everybody”.  I hope he doesn’t mind me using the cartoon, because it illustrates what I’m talking about here so nicely.

We have a hockey-mad house.  Our two teenage boys play.  I still lace them up. And my wife just joined a ball hockey league.  So quite often we find ourselves at the sports store.

And every time we get to the check-out, the clerk asks “Would you like to enter our draw for a gift card?”

The first few times, I said yes. Who doesn’t want to win a gift card?

But after making at least 20 purchases at this store, I long ago took to saying “no” when asked if I want to enter the gift card draw.


Because they clearly aren’t talking to me.  They don’t really care.  I can tell because they haven’t asked me for the one single piece of information that would actually allow them to talk to me… my e-mail address.

What are they doing with my phone number anyway?  They could be tracking the geographic appeal of their store.  As smart as that might be, it doesn’t even come close to talking to a customer one-on-one.  They could be selling my phone number to a call center, although that seems unlikely since we are listed in the phone book.  And to add to my suspicion, I’ve never won a gift card from them.

If they asked for my e-mail address, we could begin a relationship. It would be simple in the beginning, like a first date.  They might send me a note asking how the new skates I bought are working out and reminding me that they have a great skate sharpening facility in the store.  And then, once we got to know each other better, we could get more intimate.  By tracking my purchases, they could likely estimate when my kids are likely to grow out of what we bought six months earlier.  They would know what position my kids play, and what special equipment they need for that position.  And armed with that information, they could gently remind me to consider their store first for those purchases.  They could offer me (and other loyal customers) a first look at new equipment coming in, before it goes on sale.  The possibilities are endless.

But instead they ask, rather half-heartedly, for my phone number, and they apparently enter it in a gift card draw that I won’t be winning anytime soon.

Great brands are like great songs.

They speak to you one-on-one.   Everyone has songs that truly connect witht them.  Sure, your analytical left brain knows that the song wasn’t written specifically for you, but in that moment in time the lyrics and music meld with your free-thinking right brain so powerfully that you get lost in the song.  It’s your song.

Expedia is brilliant at that.  Last week I searched for flights to Boston. I didn’t buy, just browsed.  This week I received an e-mail from Expedia telling me that the flights I was looking at have gone on sale, and that hotels for that week are also discounted.  They didn’t spam me with information about Caribbean cruises or flights to Seattle.  They knew what I wanted, and made their message matter one-on-one.

Amazon does the same thing with books and other purchases.  You like Seth Godin?  Here’s a few other books that people who say they like Seth Godin also like.

iTunes?  Same thing.  My tastes are quite bizarre, and my kids use the same iTunes account.  So quite often the iTunes “Genius” will suggest that I might like Jay-Z, Pete Seeger, Dierks Bentley, and Dragonforce.

Funny how these massive multi-national companies can track my preferences so much better than my neighborhood sports store.  Yet they have so much to gain from doing it.

Amazon, Dierks Bentley, Dragonforce, Expedia, Hugh MacLeod, iTunes, Jay-Z, Pete Seeger, Seth Godin 1,578 Comments

Forty Years Ahead of Their Time

In the late 1960′s and early 1970′s, one band saw the future.

Thank the LSD, California grass, or pure genius.  But The Grateful Dead really did break ground on so many concepts which are even today considered cutting-edge for many brands.

File sharing - Almost four decades before Napster, Limewire, Bit torrents, and YouTube, The Grateful Dead started encouraging their fans to record their concerts and share them with fans.  They believed that if they allowed this previously illegal act to happen, their music would spread virally.  They understood that whatever they lost in potential concert ticket sales and album sales, they would make up ten times over in passionate fans.  The band even created a special section at their concerts for “tapers” to get the best possible results.

Database marketing - Even in today’s connected world with easy access to e-mail and SMS messaging, some brands are living in the past when it comes to database marketing.  Yet The Grateful Dead started building their database in 1971 when they placed a note inside their “Skull & Roses” album asking fans to send in their mailing addresses so they could keep in touch.

Loyalty programs - As the database grew to 40,000 people, the band began to treat their most loyal fans to surprises.  They mailed out rare musical gems and gave them behind-the-scenes accounts from the road and the studio.  Being a “Deadhead” wasn’t about being spammed with unwanted advertising for the band, it was treated like a relationship between friends.

Visual symbols - Like the iconic Nike “swoosh”, The Grateful Dead created a series of visual cues that fans could identify with.  The dancing bears, terrapins, jesters, and famous red, white, and blue skull with the lightning bolt have all come to represent the band without any words or music.

Merchandising - Nobody understood merchandising like The Dead. While other bands supplemented their income with tour t-shirts, The Grateful Dead made millions from their brand and their well-protected intellectual rights.  Years before bands like KISS turned merchandising into a way of life, The Dead were already on it.

Love their music or not, you can’t deny the visionary brilliance of The Grateful Dead.  For much of what they did, the experts at the time mocked them.

Fans recording concerts?  Insane.
Database marketing?  Hardly worth the trouble.
Loyalty programs?  Too expensive.

Who knows what the future will be like, but I sure wish Jerry Garcia was still around to tell me about it.

Grateful Dead, KISS, Nike 175 Comments

Lawyers on "Overdrive"


I’ve written in the past about the travesty of Creedence Clearwater Revisited, the Fogerty-free faux CCR band.  I’ve delved into the branding sins of Journey being Journey with Steve Perry or Foreigner being Foreigner without Lou Gramm, and there’s no question that The Guess Who isn’t The Guess Who without Burton Cummings (they just got a new lead singer this year).

This week the legendary Randy Bachman announced that he is reuniting with Fred Turner to once again go on tour as a team.  You’ve probably already gathered from their last names that Randy and Fred were the driving force behind 70′s rock band Bachman Turner Overdrive.  In their day, Bachman Turner Overdrive sold 40 million albums around the world and had people singing along to their massive hits like “Takin’ Care of Business”, “Roll On Down The Highway”, “Let It Ride”, and “Hey You”.  So it will be just like the old days…

Except this time around, there will be no “overdrive”.

You see, guitarist Blair Thorton and drummer Rob Bachman (Randy’s younger brother) have filed suit to prevent them from using the Bachman Turner Overdrive or BTO name.  Blair and Rob, along with Randy Murray (all essentially original members) have been touring off and on for years as BTO without Randy Bachman.  Now that Fred and Randy have reunited, they want to hold on to the rights to the name.


Is BTO really BTO without Randy Bachman?  Has anyone been fooled by the line-up without Randy over the past 20 or 30 years?

Randy Bachman and Fred Turner really should use the Bachman Turner Overdrive name.  They are the face and sound of Bachman Turner Overdrive.  “Bachman” and “Turner” are their proper names.  The use of the name Bachman Turner Overdrive doesn’t violate the expectations of a single fan buying a ticket for that concert.  It completely lives up to those expectations.  Any other incarnation of the band hasn’t, and never will.  They haven’t even had a hit song since since Randy left in ’77.

The same can be said for CCR.  CCR isn’t CCR without John Fogerty.  There is a built-in let down for original fans who line up to see bass player Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford play the old CCR hits without anyone named Fogerty.  A rhythm section does not a band make.

Good luck to the reunited Bachman Turner United or Bachman Turner Revisited or whatever they need to call themselves.

Sadly, the only people on overdrive through all this will be the lawyers on each side fighting this out.

Bachman Turner Overdrive, BTO, CCR, Foreigner, Guess Who, Journey 252 Comments

The Tiger Needs To Attack


Note to Tiger Woods: the head-in-the-sand PR techniques of 20 years ago don’t work today. Stop using them.  So come clean, and then ask your fans for forgiveness and the media hounds for privacy.

The PR game changed with Hugh Grant’s 1995 encounter with the LAPD while receiving favors from a Sunset Boulevard prostitute.   His arrest happened a few weeks before the release of “Nine Months“, his first major studio movie release.  Against the advice of many PR experts at the time, Hugh Grant attacked his scandal head on, going on The Tonight Show and telling Jay Leno “I did a bad thing”.  Hugh Grant continues to be a major star 15 years later.

Micheal Phelps had to face the music last year, when videos emerged of him smoking marijuana at a party.  Phelps came forward and apologized for his “bad judgement”.  While his career took a short term hit (no pun intended), he is back and his place in history will be as one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time.  The sponsorship money he lost will eventually come back.  All will be fine.

David Letterman has demonstrated brilliantly how to address scandal in today’s fast-moving media age.  When an extortion attempt threatened to bring his infidelity public, Letterman went on the offensive, apologizing very frankly and directly on the air for his mistakes.   In the wake of his confession, Letterman’s ratings skyrocketed.

The story will come out eventually. That’s simply the nature of modern media. And what comes out in the interim could be more harmful than the reality.

Tiger Woods should take a lesson from Letterman, Phelps, and Grant.  Face the situation head on.  Never say “no comment.”  Admit mistakes, expose yourself as human, and ask for forgiveness and a degree of privacy while you deal with the situation.

In the short term, you might lose some of the $100 million you bagged last year in sponsorship money.  But it will come back to normal.

In the short term, you might feel your brand has suffered.  It has.  But that’s okay.  It will come back to normal.

And in the short term, your personal life might be a living hell.  But with some work, that can come back to normal as well.

The best advice for brands facing controversy and scandal in the digital age is to be engaged.

* Be real.  Be human.  You are more likely to gain sympathy from other real humans, like us.

* Establish a dialogue.  The discussion will happen,with or without you… so why not get involved?

* Don’t leave the media to set the tone.  Get the story out on your terms, like Letterman did.

Hopefully Tiger Woods gets some advice like this from his insiders soon, so that the media can leave his story alone and move on to the next balloon boy, White House party crashers, or John & Kate.

David Letterman, Hugh Grant, Jay Leno, Michael Phelps, Tiger Woods 1,690 Comments