Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Bands With Brands

While a successful band or artist may not have a good brand, a good brand will almost always bring a group success. It’s the difference between long-term fan loyalty and that crappy college band playing in the bar.

Companies like Apple have brands. Authors like Stephen King have brands. And since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, many successful bands have had brands as well.

While a successful band or artist may not have a good brand (think Jessica Simpson), a good brand will almost always bring a group success (think Radiohead).

Groups like Pink Floyd relied on their mystique, uniqueness and quality to keep fans begging for more—key qualities of any good consumer name. Rolling Stones have the “tongue and lips” logo; Madonna has her “reinvent herself with every album” shtick; Bauhaus not only invented the genre of goth rock, but let their moody album photography and otherworldly concerts bring home the total experience.

It’s hard to pinpoint the genesis of a good band brand. Strong logos are a good place to start, but they are only a start. In the 80’s, the bombastic Metallica logo was on every album cover—but the band’s true brand value came from just knowing that when you bought Ride the Lightning, you were going to hear some gut-wrenching metal. Nine Inch Nails have a great minimal logo, but their long-term brand has been to deliver emotionally complex sounds and frantic concerts. A good band logo can’t be the only thing that sells records—otherwise the legion of me-too death metal acts would all be platinum-selling bands.

Some bands have no logo but incredibly strong brands. Bloc Party, an act that mixes bombastic new wave with post-punk minimalism benefit from strong art direction behind their music. Bloc Party has no “logo” to speak of, yet their album and single covers all work together as a unit and are immediately recognizable in a stack of CDs. Even the typeface—simple, strong Futura (I think) set over minimalist photography—visually reinforces the band’s sound.

Many bands have zero brand appeal. This can stem directly from their artificial music, but the artwork often further betrays the group’s desire to be something they’re just not. Creed is a good example of forced image. Take mediocre music, mix in ridiculous album visuals and pretentious music videos, and you have a “hard rock” band as transparent as Britney.

A good brand in any medium or market requires the whole package, a consistent, appealing delivery that lives up to people’s expectations.

In the case of Rammstein—a German hard rock band almost on the same commercial level as Creed—their fire-wielding, pseudo-S&M, testosterone-driven image has been their “thing” from the beginning. Although it borders on cheesy, they’ve stayed faithful to it for four albums and countless world tours. Like KISS, there is no mystique about them—the audience gets little substance beyond the lowbrow album imagery and pyrotechnics at concerts.

Sometimes time and mystery is the basis of a modern brand. The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin simply did their thing years ago: put out great albums, toured incessantly, built a faithful fan base. But years later, the public perception is completely different. Both acts lost a key member and disbanded. Their brand has transitioned from one of contemporary relevance to trainspotting heaven. Instead of looking forward to new music, die-hard fans turn backward and obsess over everything else—the personalities of the musicians, nuances of album artwork, hard to find bootlegs.

Every year countless acts wallow in obscurity. Not because their music sucks (though it might), but because they give the audience nothing unique, no value beyond a half-decent live show and some crappy t-shirts.

That being said, in the era of Justin Timberlake, Matchbox 20 and Kelly Clarkson, having any kind of unique sound or look seems irrelevant to suffocating Top 40/MTV play. While everyone claims this music sucks ass, these records sell in the millions to the same pool of disposal income that abercrombie taps.

Some music is just not meant for the masses. Noise experimentalists Coil will only ever appear on college radio at 3 AM, and even then with some disclaimer, so it’s hard to draw any correlation between the brand and commercial success.

However, it’s easy to see the relationship between a powerful brand and long-term fan loyalty. In the case of Coil, the group has been around for over 20 years, quietly releasing some of the most experimental records ever. They created an intense fan loyalty (their limited releases would sell out in days) through quality music, advertising their Wiccan spirituality and playing only very select live shows. Although the group has now dissolved (from one of the core members dying), their fan base is as intense as ever, and out-of-print albums regularly sell for $50+ on eBay.

I cannot imagine a used Britney Spears album ever selling for more than three dollars.

Perhaps this idea is worth exploring further. Maybe a regular feature on a band with a brand? There are so many good ones worth talking about.

commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Wednesday October 26, 2005

I’m surprised you glossed over Kiss. While they weren’t the most original sounding band, they wrote the book on leveraging a rock and roll brand with merchandising.

They started with a unique concept, making each band member a comic book commodity, and then tied the brand seamlessly from stage show to album cover to almost any consumer product you can imagine. It could be argued that Kiss made up for their lack of musical talent with strong design chops. I’d be hard pressed to come up with an act that has extended its brand as far as Kiss.


wrote the following on Thursday October 27, 2005

I actually started the article espousing the marketing savvy of Gene Simmons, but decided to remove it because I feel KISS was created as a brand first, music second money-making machine. Maybe that’s more applicable than I originally thought, but I was trying to drive home that a band’s brand exists to support the music, not a line of action figures.

This is a highly debatable argument, and I would be interested in other’s thoughts as well.


wrote the following on Thursday October 27, 2005

Having blown $80 of my hard -earned cash on a Gene Simmons ‘Speaking in Tongues’ spoken word show, I can tell you now that for Gene, KISS are nothing more than another business angle. His show was nothing more than a motivational talk about how to make lots and lots of money.

It really disappointed me, and instantly disolved all the mystique that their ‘brand’ had created in my mind. So I guess it’s a fine line – I thought their brand was alluring until I found out that it was so calculated.

Josh Blount

wrote the following on Thursday October 27, 2005

Incredible article. I especially appreciated the idea that while a great band may not have any brand to speak of, most bands with great brands are successful.

I’d definetly enjoy some more exposition about this subject (specifically some case studies on various bands w/brands, maybe even succesfull bands w/o brands and some sort of documentary reasons why that is the case for them.

Thanks again.

John Stebbins

wrote the following on Wednesday November 9, 2005

Consider the band Rush, who has a very strong brand largely through the work of Hugh Syme and has generated about as much brand loyalty as Apple. But, if you are not into Rush, then you won’t understand (or even see it), much like many Win users don’t “get” the Apple brand…