So often, we attempt to build a brand from the top down.
Mission statements are created at high-level corporate meetings. Strategy sessions are set up for VP’s and SVP’s and CMO’s. Big bold proclamations are made about what we stand for and what we’re all about as a company and how we’ll set about doing things.
The mission statements and proclamations then trickle down the corporate ladder, more diluted at each rung, until they reach the most critical rung of all… the bottom one… where the company ends and the customer begins… the point at which the company interacts with the customer.
What happens at that point is anybody’s guess. It is a crap shoot.
That’s because brands don’t live in corporate boardrooms. Brands live in the hearts and minds of customers. If they – the customers – believe you to be something, that’s what you are. It doesn’t matter what the mission statements or bold proclamations said. Customer perceptions are brand realities.
The process of building a brand needs to start with the customer’s experience. What do they feel when they interact with you? What problems do you solve for them? What emotions do they feel when they buy from you?
That’s the brand.
Look at it this way: Great rock bands don’t exist in the studio or the record company boardroom. We don’t really care who engineered the album or what studio it was recorded in. All that matters is what emotions hit you when you hear the music. What feeling do you get when the band walks out on stage?
The music industry starts with music, not industry.
Branding starts with the customer, not the boardroom. I call it “Bottom Up Branding”.
Trader Joe’s, for the uninitiated, is a cool and quirky grocery chain famous for low-cost and high-quality food. Over 80% of their stock is private-label. Their stores have a homey neighborhood feel and their staff exudes a fun and easy-going nature. But over the past decade, the company has expanded from a few stores in the southwestern US to over 360 stores in 29 states across America. The LA Times recently documented the challenges Trader Joe’s faces as they attempt to grow and modernize while still preserving the classic elements of their stores that their customers love so much.
Nirvana fought the same battle following the unexpected massive success of their debut album Nevermind. Nirvana had to please two sets of fans; their hard-core original alternative fans who loved the band’s underground sound, and a new (and very large) set of fans who discovered the band because of their commercial success. How did they turn the follow-up, In Utero, into a success in the eyes of both groups?
1. They created an album that included elements to please both sides of the spectrum. Kurt Cobain promised that the album would go to more extremes, containing raw material that was even more raw than Nevermind and pop material that was even poppier than Nevermind. Cobain was sending the message that the band would do what it wanted to do, not what a record company or the fans wanted them to do.
2. Nirvana included the song “Rape Me” on the album, which forced retailers like Walmart and K-Mart to take a stand and refuse to sell the album. MTV also asked the band not to sing “Rape Me” at their awards show. Having push-back from Walmart, K-Mart, and MTV was ideal for the band’s alternative image.
3. Unlike most bands, Nirvana didn’t release any radio singles from In Utero. The record company sent advance copies of the song “Heart-Shaped Box” to college, alternative, and rock radio stations, but intentionally didn’t target Top 40 radio stations. By leaving mainstream commercial radio stations out of the the loop, they demonstrated to their fans that they were not neccesarily interested in reaching those fans.
The album In Utero went on to sell over four million copies in the US and 10 million worldwide, and was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
It was almost a running joke at Apple product launches. After demonstrating everything a new product can do, Steve Jobs would inevitably, almost at the last minute, find one more amazing thing to show you about their new device. Even after his passing he is tempting us with one more thing, as his biography hints at a pending TV revolution from Apple.
Spinal Tap always went for “one more thing“. They rolled a model of Stonehenge out on stage (albeit a miniature version), they shocked us with the cover of Smell The Glove, and of course they blew us away with their ability to turn their amps up to 11 in an era when everyone else’s only went to 10.
Walt Disney always went for one more thing. He was always searching for what he called “the weenie“… the one little extra bonus to draw you in, entice you, and leave you amazed.
Rock star brands find that one more thing that entices us, one more thing for us to fall in love with, and one more thing for us to tell our friends about.
One more thing is always something remarkable, and being remarkable is a vital key to being a rock star brand.
Finding one more thing worked for Steve Jobs and Spinal Tap. Pretty good odds it will work for your brand.
There are four other things Steve Jobs did brilliantly when it came to talking up his company’s products. Steve was a master of creating anticipation without relying on empty hype. Those four other things are detailed on page 127 of Brand Like a Rock Star. You can order the book here.
There is a cool CNN special coming up on October 23 all about the KISS brand. The video promo follows this post. If you are a KISS fan you’ll definitely want to watch, but I think as a fan of the music-to-marketing analogy you will find it very intriguing.
KISS arrived on the scene in the mid 1970s and immediately put the fear of God into parents, teachers, and religious leaders. KISS wasn’t just a rock band, they were a fire-breathing, devil-worshipping, rock ‘n’ roll circus. An entire generation fell in love with the band and enlisted in the KISS Army, their parents helpless to stop the mayhem.
Looking back, the fears of our elders were unfounded. KISS turned out to be harmless, and today Gene Simmons is a reality TV star and not a satanic cult leader.
In my new book Brand Like A Rock Star, KISS comes up more than once. In hindsight, the band wasn’t just a great rock ‘n’ roll act. They were also (somewhat accidentally) master-marketers!
What can your business learn from the rise (and temporary 1980s fall) of KISS?
1. Being different matters more than being better. The band we know as KISS emerged from the ashes of New York bar band Wicked Lester. Having had very little success as Wicked Lester, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley created a new band complete with comic book imagery, a love for pyrotechnics, and a mission to shock and amaze people with their stage show. Within two years, they were touring the planet as superstars. Did they become that successful because they improved their musicianship and songwriting? Not a chance. They became superstars because they were so different. We had never seen anything like KISS before. They immediately grabbed our attention. Rock stars have proven for years that being different – and getting noticed because of it – is more important than quality of music.
2. Getting noticed means offending a few people. KISS knew that in order to be the biggest stars with young fans, they would need to do things to alienate and offend conservative older people. There’s no way around Newton’s 3rd law of motion, which tells us to expect an equal and opposite reaction to every action. If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating a tribe of passionate fans for your business, you should expect some people to dislike you. In fact, if you sense that your business appeals to everyone, there’s a good chance you really don’t hold much strong appeal with anyone at all.
3. Marketing IS storytelling. KISS created theater, not just music. Their act – both on stage and off – was a story based on comic book characters. We knew that these guys weren’t really comic book characters, but suspending our disbelief was way more fun than reality. Great advertising really is just great storytelling. So instead of talking about products and prices and advertising cliches, tell your customers a story in your marketing. Create some drama, conflict, and resolution. People tell stories to each other, we don’t tell advertising to each other.
4. Sell us an experience, not a product. A concert with KISS was an experience. Being the first to own their new album was an experience. Today it feels like 90% of all advertising attempts to sell us products, but we don’t buy products… we buy experiences. Harley-Davidson doesn’t sell motorcycles, they sell the experience of being a bad-ass for a few hours on the weekend. True bad-asses can’t afford $25,000 motorcycles! The Apple experience is why the iPad continues to outsell cheaper competitors. Put your product or service aside, and start to think about what experience your customer has when they interact with your product.
5. Live up to customer expectations! Remember when KISS took off their make-up in 1982? For a short while it was major buzz. And then we realized that without the make-up and theatrics, KISS was just another hard rock band with big hair. The band’s fortunes faded for nearly a decade, until they wisely put the make-up back on, brought back the pyro, and started spitting blood again. Those things, as gimmicky as they may seem, are what KISS fans demanded from their favorite band. If you expect your favorite restaurant to serve great Italian food but they instead serve you a burrito, it doesn’t matter how good the burrito might be… they failed to live up to your expectations.
Brand Like A Rock Starby Steve Jones takes you backstage to uncover the core marketing strategies of rock ‘n’ roll legends like KISS, U2, Jimmy Buffett, AC/DC, The Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan, and shows you how to put those strategies to work in your business.
“Check It Out” by John Mellencamp laments the arrival of mid-life, when you have every material thing you want but “you can’t tell your best buddy that you love him“.
It takes real courage to write and sing stuff like that, to expose and share your fears, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities… the same ones all of us have but are afraid to acknowledge. Sure, we act like we’re perfect, but we’re all wonderfully imperfect, just like Seth Godin’s cool new book title… “We Are All Weird”.
Brands that expose some of those same imperfections are the ones who take that leap from inanimate object to human qualities.
The brilliant Chrysler “Imported From Detroit” campaign did that, acknowledging that American automakers had let quality slide and vowing to make owning an American car a thing of pride once again. It recognized what we were already thinking about American manufacturers and Detroit itself instead of trying to sell us something we didn’t believe. Truth is a very human trait.
I’m not a big fan of Hank Williams Jr’s music, nor his political views. And I certainly don’t endorse the comments he made the other night, but you’ve gotta give him credit where it is due.
Last week, aside from the Monday Night Football theme, Hank Williams Jr was pretty much irrelevant. He was 22 years removed from his last top ten country hit. In a country music industry dominated by Taylor Swift and her contemporaries, there isn’t much room these days for Hank Jr.
Hank Jr’s comments were brilliant for his brand for three reasons:
1. He had nothing to lose. Hank Williams Jr didn’t have a career to ruin, so there’s no way these comments will ruin his career. In fact, the renewed interest in his brand will actually have the opposite result… gaining him notoriety in the near-term.
2. They totally fit his brand. Hank has made no secret of his right-leaning political views. He’s also been a proud waver of the redneck flag for decades. Making a bold political statement was entirely in line with what we expect from him.
3. His fans agree with him. While these comments angered plenty of people, the truth is that those people probably weren’t Hank Williams Jr fans to begin with. People predisposed to loving Hank are likely to either agree with his statements, or at least forgive his harsh words but concur with his viewpoint.
Your business doesn’t have to invoke a genocidal maniac or burn a religious document in order to get noticed, but you do have to risk insulting people. You have to be brave enough to accept that in order to clearly establish what your brand stands for, you will inevitably alienate other people. They won’t like you… and that’s a good sign.
In many ways, Hank Williams Jr is similar to Terry Jones, the pastor who burned the Quran last April and got worldwide attention by doing it. Both men were willing to risk insulting people in order to establish clarity for their viewpoint. And many people would agree that both of them are bat shit crazy.
Brand Like A Rock Star is now on sale at retail and online outlets everywhere.
Today is the big day. Saturday, October 1, 2011 is a day I’ve waited a long time for! After several years of writing, editing, submitting, and promoting, Brand Like A Rock Star arrives in stores today!
In the US, the book is being carried at the usual retailers including Barnes & Noble and of course Amazon.com. You’ll also find it in nearly every major airport in the country at the popular airport bookstores like Hudson, News, CNN, etc. The book is a perfect airplane read, so definitely look for it if you’re catching a flight this fall.
And no matter where you are you can download a digital copy. The Kindle version and Nook version are now on sale, as is the iBooks download in the iTunes store.
Please take a moment and give the book an honest (and hopefully positive!) review on Amazon.com and other websites!
Make sure you send me a picture of your book or a screen shot of your receipt. That way, I can mail you a personalized and signed cover postcard for your book. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for your support! By reading, sharing, commenting, and taking part in this blog, you’ve helped create the book.