First of all, this post isn’t about Coca Cola or Levi’s or McDonalds or whatever else pops into your head when someone first mentions the word ‘Branding’ to you, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from said companies as by the sheer matter of the fact you may have indeed thought of one of them means they’re doing something very right indeed.
No, this blog is about branding yourself. Little things you can do to help reinforce your sound, image and general perception to your fans and potential fans of the future.
I’ve harped on about this before in a few other blogs but never really gone into too much detail so I asked my twitter followers if they had any questions regarding this subject to pitch to a couple of folks who know quite a lot about all this malarky.
Simon Malcolm is a brand consultant and has been evangelizing about brand belief for many years and works for the highly successful Words & Pictures.
James Poletti words for Frukt, a leading company within this field and producers of the ‘Brands, Bands & Fans’ publications which you can subscribe to for free here.
So firstly, the questions they were aksed:
- Can you define branding in this context?
- Is simplicity the key? Just a colour ala JLS? Or a dress code like ala The Hives? Or shit haircuts ala the Foals?
- Can you think of any artists who’ve branded themselves very well? And ones who’ve done it disastrously?
- Does it actually matter? Will it make people buy my music or make them any more interested in me in the grand scheme of things?
- What needs to be considered when I’m creating the ‘brand’ of my appearance/music?
- Any other general advice?
And to start, the rather brilliant answers from Simon Malcolm.
1. Defining branding in the context of music is not necessarily a helpful starting point. As a brand fundamentalist (you’ll understand by the time you reach the end) who has preached (and converted) in the retail, sport, tourism and financial services sectors, the start point is always: branding is applicable and critical to all areas of activity. Simply put, branding is about positioning – in the consumer’s mind. It’s about owning a space (le creneau as French brand marketers put it) that keeps the competition out. And because it’s about this, then even your most ardent anti-brand person/band is playing the branding game in its purest form. They spend all of their time ensuring that others know exactly what they stand for. My mantra to bands, brands, business and all is: you’ve got a reputation (by simply being) so manage it.
2. Which brings us (not very neatly) back to music. Who manages – or owns – band brand? Back in the days of The Beatles (40 years ago today …) it was Epstein who recognised the need for a consistent look and feel – although Lord Macca claims he came up with the suits. The band was just another Mersybeat combo that needed a creneau. And that space was suited and booted with a moptop on top. Bingo (or should that be Ringo) – you’ve got a b(r)and. And the relevance of 40 years ago today is that there are not many brands – let alone bands – which have successfully maintained over such a period the level of awareness, loyalty, income generation that the Fab Four have done.
3. But is it simply as simple as sorting out a sympathetic dress code? Well, most successful branding does work on the principle of simplifying complex offerings into single, powerful propositions. That said, branding in a commercial sense apes the concept of character as applied to often inanimate objects or large organisations. It tries to give them a personality – multi-faceted just like you and me. But they always have an ‘essence’, a key attribute that they drive home. So in that sense, Orange (the telecoms co. not the fruit) ‘owns’ the colour, Apple (the technology business not the fruit) ‘owns’ the attribute of ‘design’ regardless of product, Virgin (the multi-service behemoth not the …) owns the attribute of ‘pioneering underdog’.
When applied to bands or musicians then, the discipline should be easier, simpler. They are people after all, not corporate constructs. And yes, a definitive look – whether in the wardrobe department or hair-styling – is part of it. But only part. The consumer or listener is also looking for other values and traits to grab hold of – political views maybe, lifestyle choices – and as such is looking for the whole thing. A band/performer therefore couldn’t get away for long with great clothes but vile racist views (unless that’s the brand you’re looking for!).
4. Which brings us onto case studies – good and bad. Eric Clapton – a guitar god to some, racist ranter to others: one slip of the drunken tongue many years ago leaves the world’s favourite fret man with nasty shadow he can’t shake off IN PEOPLE’S MINDS. Happy Mondays – lived, breathed (only just), bounced, laughed, lunged and over-indulged to the letter the brand that was Madchester and all its constituent parts. And when anyone singled out a band member for their foibles, the brilliant collective b(r)and chorus was heard: ‘But they’re the fookin’ Appy Mundees, that’s what they’re s’ppost to be like, you thick twat’. The brand was bigger than the both of us – and it wasn’t them that was gonna leave. And we could list others or simply ask some questions: When does/did Amy Winehouse lose brand equity as edgy chanteuse? Is Bono right to make a bid to be the next Pope/Nelson Mandela/UN secretary rolled into one? The music may be good, but the perceptions that cloud the mind when listening slowly (and not so slowly in some cases) get in the way until one day you reach for the off button and some other b(r)and takes their place.
5. And that leads us (neatly this time) into the question to brand behaviour that might be good to consider. Stick to a set of principles that don’t change. Very, very simply put – if you know exactly what you stand for (and, crucially so do your audience) and will never, ever stray off that path then you have a great chance to take people with you for a very long time. But beware the company that you keep. Given that you need to live and eat and drink and pay the rent, you will want some just rewards for your work. If the royalties and tours deliver the moolah then you’re sorted. But the reality is probably something completely different. So along comes SentricMusic to hook you up with a commercial brand link you can show the bank manager. ‘We’ve got an arms dealer who thinks your melodies will make his ammo fly off the shelves, ” they say (extreme and v. unlikely, but go with it for the sake of the point). “Super duper,” you say. The deal is done, the money rolls in and the many, many long-standing loving fans give you the finger.
Punters are fickle, tribal pains in the arse. Oasis or Blur? Stones or Beatles? Stylistics or O’Jays? Perception is reality (as trite as the saying is) and what your followers believe about you is the truth not necessarily what you tell them. Spend time and effort managing every element of your musical entity – one slip and the whole edifice can come down like a house of cards. Wacko Jacko or the King of Pop?
And now for James Poletti.
Is simplicity the key? Just a colour ala JLS? Or a dress code like ala The Hives? Or shit haircuts ala the Foals?
The only rule here is that your audience will judge you by your appearance. But, judging from the continuing success of Friendly Fires who insist on dressing like a bunch of Economics lecturers on a weekend break in Brussels, there are exceptions in which the music transcends.
Visual identity in rock usually serves either affiliation to a scene or the altogether more idiosyncratic impluses of maverick creativity and the two couldn’t be further apart: the former an adherence to prevailing fashion and the later a statement of originality. Take Patrick Wolf’s refusal to conform to indiedom’s scruffy bohemia, or Super Furry Animals’ defiantly odd stage costume amidst the sportswear and parka uniformity of Brit Pop.
There’s more to a band’s brand than the way they dress, of course, and this becomes really important in the ‘faceless’ world of electronic music where album art and the implied aesthetic world of the music carry the job of reassuring a potential audience that ‘this is for them’.
Can you think of any artists who’ve branded themselves very well? And ones who’ve done it disastrously?
You mention The Hives who I’d argue didn’t aid their case for longevity with such a gimmicky appearance. The list of successes is endless but personal favourites include Bowie, Lou Reed, Kraftwerk, Boards Of Canada, Kate Bush, Mobb Deep, Os Mutantes…
Does it actually matter? Will it make people buy my music or make them any more interested in me in the grand scheme of things?
It matters. Consider that almost all committed record collectors often buy albums on the strength of the cover alone.
What needs to be considered when I’m creating the ‘brand’ of my appearance/music?
If you’re any good, I’d suggest that you find an honest identity that reflects the creative world in which your music is made, without taking yourself too seriously. Otherwise, you could attach yourself to the latest thing in the hope that you get two good years before re-training as a teacher.
Any other general advice?
Look to the past for inspiration, not the present.
So there you go! Very little input from myself this week as their answers are pretty comprehensive and this post is now long enough already! I’d like to thank Simon and James once more and please add your thoughts to this post below; do you agree? Do you think they’ve missed anything? Do you think they’re chatting a load of old tosh?
What I’m reading this week: Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami