Sequins and Spandex: Marketing Lessons from Rock and Roll
The most famous names in rock and roll owe their long-term success to marketing skills as much as to musical talent, according to Roger Blackwell and Tina Stephan, co-authors of Brands That Rock: How to Win Fans and Influence Profits, to be published in November. No matter what you sell, the authors suggest, you would do well to emulate these techniques.
You may be relieved to learn that doing so will not require you to sport black and white makeup, wear your underwear as outerwear or switch to outsized, sequined sunglasses, although these things certainly worked well for, respectively, KISS, Madonna and Elton John.
Blackwell and Stephan are struck by the fact that groups like KISS, The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, and individual artists like Madonna, Elton John and Neil Diamond continue to have hit songs and sold-out concerts today, decades after they first became popular. And so, in their book, they analyze the careers of these rock legends from a marketing point of view. Blackwell is professor of marketing at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University and president of the marketing consulting firm, Roger Blackwell Associates. Stephan is the firm’s vice president.
The present day Rolling Stones organization, we learn, "is a well-oiled money-making machine ... located in the Netherlands because of favorable tax laws." Each of its divisions – album sales, royalties and touring – is led by "a team of competent executives."
The Stones, say the authors, leverage their album profits by recycling some old songs on every CD they release. That way "they can release four new albums of new and existing material instead of two albums of new material." They don’t sell these CDs at their concerts, but rather use the concerts to push merchandise with higher profit margins, like t-shirts and hats.
The Stones have made deals with Volkswagen and Tommy Hilfiger, among others, to sponsor concert tours. They have teamed up with Clear Channel Entertainment and Sam Goody on promotions. They generated buzz for one tour by making it possible to hear a new single on AOL before it could be heard on radio. All very effective, say Blackwell and Stephan, although obviously much more sedate than the original Stones recipe for getting noticed, which included inspiring riots and parading Mick Jagger around on a giant, inflatable phallus during performances. ("The more parents were shocked, the more attracted were the kids," the authors note.)
KISS is cited as a marvel of merchandizing: The group’s 2,500 licensed products around the world include lunchboxes, comic books, action figures and (of course) makeup kits.
Blackwell and Stephan point out that KISS first arrived on the scene in an era when the public was used to folk singers who came onstage with their guitars and sang, period. Thus, when KISS showed up in black and white makeup, black spandex costumes and eight-inch platform shoes offering a stage show that involved pyrotechnics and spitting fake blood, they were noticeably different. Theirs was a marketing strategy, say the authors, that "packaged the product with a dose of fantasy, giving customers the chance to be part of something bigger and more exotic than themselves. "
KISS built its fan base, Blackwell and Stephan write, in small towns that competitors deemed secondary markets. "When KISS played Wyandotte, it was the biggest thing to hit Wyandotte, perhaps ever." Here again the fact that adult residents of the town were shocked only enhanced the group’s appeal to kids.
The rockers described in Brands That Rock have developed "band loyalty," say its authors, by establishing "emotional connections with their fans."
One way Aerosmith establishes emotional connections is by allowing fans to get up close and personal. When they give concerts, they arrange for radio contests in which the winners are permitted to come backstage. They do five or six numbers on a second stage that juts out into the audience so that the fans in the cheap seats get a chance to be close to the action.
Elton John establishes emotional connections largely through the lyrics (written by Bernie Taupin) of his songs which fans feel are relevant to their lives. But, early on, say the authors, John recognized that his and Taupin’s ability to write songs was not enough to cut through the clutter of other artists. So he created an image by going on a diet and converting his need for eyeglasses into trademark sequined sunglasses. In addition, "since he couldn’t jump up and down on stage as guitar rockers did, he jumped up and down at his piano, pounding the keys so hard his fingers sometimes bled."
The Elton John marketing campaign suffered setbacks when John developed drug and alcohol problems; nor did his admission of bisexuality go over with everybody. But he kept his brand in business by continuing to function while fixing what was broken, write Blackwell and Stephan. He recouped his image, they say, through his friendship with young AIDS victim Ryan White and his alliance with White’s mother to raise money to fight AIDS. And having done that, he extended his market, by teaming up with stars from different market segments like Billy Joel, Leann Rimes and Miss Piggy.
Viewing rock stars through the prism of their marketing history is an interesting twist. But the book’s claim that rock marketing has lessons to teach business leaders is a stretch.
There are, of course, well-known examples of successful companies that have "established emotional connections with customers," thereby turning customers into devoted fans. Krispy Kreme donuts and Harley Davidson motorcycles are two obvious examples. And surely the strategy of marketing to kids by shocking their parents is still with us. Witness the current Abercrombie & Fitch back-to-school catalog which seeks to sell clothes with page after page of sexy models not wearing any.
But the advice the authors derive from studying the rockers isn’t anything startling. For example:
· Provide consistent products of highest quality that delight current fans
· Gradually change the product to stay relevant to changing lifestyles and cultures
· Package products with a personality that connects with existing fans and attracts new ones
· Web sites are helpful in communicating with customers.
This is all very sensible, but the book is light on examples of how this advice can be adapted to a wide variety of products and services. And not all the examples presented are persuasive. The authors compare JetBlue airlines to Elton John. "Just as Elton the man is Elton the brand," they write, JetBlue CEO David Neeleman "plays a vital role in creating the JetBlue image" by being the airline’s front man. Maybe so, but JetBlue Airlines is less than four years old. No way to know if it will still be flying high, as is Elton John, at age 57.
The authors admit that emulating rocker marketing can be tricky. "There’s a fine line between winning attention and turning people off," they write.
Madonna the brand stands for breaking the rules, say Blackwell and Stephan. The book quotes the Material Girl from her video Truth or Dare: "I know I’m not the best singer and I know I’m not the best dancer. But I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons." Madonna succeeds, say the authors, by continually reinventing herself. "Her fans expect her to change the way she looks, sounds and lives." Yet the book notes that country singer Garth Brooks almost brought his career to a halt when he invented a rock persona for himself he named "Chris Gaines." Brooks’ fans, it seems, didn’t want their buttons pushed.
By the authors own account Neil Diamond succeeds by not following their sensible advice. Brands That Rock cites Diamond as the exact opposite of Madonna, calling him the "Velveeta of Rock and Roll." Like the Kraft cheese product, Diamond doesn’t rely on mass advertising. His fans simply return to him again and again the way shoppers keep buying Velveeta. Diamond doesn’t worry about staying relevant to today’s lifestyles. He unabashedly peddles nostalgia. Diamond is still wearing the same jumpsuit style he wore in the 1970s. Yet his 2002 68-city tour generated $52 million, making it the year’s fourth largest tour.
Clearly, what works for one product may not work for another, but who needs rock and roll to know that.
Finally, in fairness, the authors of Brands That Rock should have pointed out that when it comes to longevity, singers and bands have an advantage, well-known in the music business, that other types of products do not. That is the fact that Americans may change their hairdos, their clothing styles and what they eat over and over again as they grow older, but, typically, their taste in music freezes in place in high school or college. A radio station that wants to market to 30-somethings can do so successfully by programming the music those 30-somethings loved when they were 18. If you want to lie about your age, the saying goes, be careful about what you are heard humming.
It has surely helped the artists profiled in Brands That Rock that the group that was in high school and college when they were first popular was that huge swath of consumers called Baby Boomers.
Do these criticisms mean that, as The Rolling Stones might put it, you "can’t get no satisfaction" from reading Brands That Rock? Not at all. Even if reading about these rockers doesn’t help you sell widgets, even if the authors don’t answer every relevant question ("why spandex, why eight-inch platform shoes?"), reading about how these particular entertainers have succeeded is still very entertaining.