In this guest post, James Fitzjohn (main photo), group engagement lead at Wunderman Thompson in Perth, says there’s a lot that artists can learn by adopting the key lessons of effective brand management…
I used to equate the demise of ‘band branding’ as another death knell to the state of the music in 2020; conveniently side-stepping the fact that my perspective of the ‘demise’ should also be viewed through the lens of changing musical tastes and my advancing years. However, in an industry where the discovery process has fewer visual cues, from physical owned music to retail point of purchase; are record labels missing a trick by not identifying and building consistent yet differentiated brand assets for their artists?
I have been fascinated by band branding since before I came to work in the marketing industry. The fonts, colours, logos, mascots, merchandise that surrounded the artists and supported the music were often gateways into those bands at a time when discovery was not as simple as being served a Spotify Radio playlist. Growing up in the UK, there was no stronger and more iconic representation of band branding than on the famous red and yellow poster that was the annual Reading & Leeds festival. The communication idea was simple. Clearly articulate which artists were playing at the festival, on which day and on which stage. However, using the logos of the bands gave it an almost lifelike quality, seeing the political hierarchy of which artists were headlining, how the designer squeezed them all into the layout and which bands weren’t famous enough to warrant their own logo illustration.
It was also the era of Britpop, with Blur and Oasis being two of the key protagonists who quickly demonstrated an advocacy for consistent band branding. Oasis had their simple outlined lower-case articulation (which they might have borrowed from Nine Inch Nails. Google it.) and Blur pioneered their cursive almost futuristic font logo. In the early days, both bands ensured that every physical release, every gig advertisement in the NME, every ticket-stub and every piece of merchandise was consistently marked with their branding. They were two of the biggest selling artists of the 90’s and early 2000’s – the music was of course a factor, but they made it easier for music fans to identify, access and engage with the band in non-audio terms.
Within a similar timeframe both had changed branding direction. Blur’s 1999 album, 13, did not feature the Blur logo and the same happened with the criminally under-rated Think Tank in 2003 – both these albums sold considerably less copies than their illustrious releases in their late 90’s peak.
Oasis did something slightly different and from a branding perspective arguably more heinous – their 2000 release of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants featured a new Oasis logo, going for a San-Francisco/ocean setting direction which coincided with the start of the decline of one of the biggest bands of the era. Perhaps recognising the branding faux pas, the original logo was back in play for 2005’s Don’t Believe the Truth which preceded an interim Frankenstein effort of both logos on 2002’s Heathen Chemistry.
Poor brand management, musical artists becoming bloated from success or convenient narrative?
Analysing how the music purchase journey looked historically compared with 2020 helps to draw conclusions of the importance of band branding in terms of musical discovery. The decline of physical music formats and the supporting retail environments have reduced a major touch-point for consumers to engage with musical artists. Crate digging and thumbing the rack is a hugely pleasurable experience, but one strongly associated with positive branding. Unless you knew what you were looking for, your physical search stopped when faced with a recognisable album cover: an image of the artist or the logo – in other words – band branding.
The correlation between successful band branding and subsequent commercial success can be drawn from many other musical genres and examples. The Chemical Brothers and Muse have both enjoyed a 20-year plus career and have demonstrated the virtues of brand management husbandry through their fonts, logos and iconic live shows. Similarly, Daft Punk, with their ever-present scripted band logo, went one step further with the creation of their robot alter-egos. Iron Maiden combined not only a strongly resonating and consistent logo but also introduced the idea of a band mascot in the form of Eddie, who not only featured on all their major studio release albums but was the main character in what was a great example of a brand extension – an Iron Maiden video game.
But does all this matter in the world of music streaming when the instant gratification of ‘owning’ music is through a simple swipe and touch of our mobile device? Yes, the industry is living in a world where apparent visual opportunities are diminished but opportunity knocks in the face of seismic category change. Lower attention spans and a less-engaged discovery and buying process means that artists have fewer shots at resonating, so every moment needs to be carefully crafted and be consistent to ensure saliency. Like many other entertainment industries, music is becoming multi-channel. It is no longer just about the audio experience (although some would say that is all that matters), but the visual cues, the multi-media experience, the lives shows, the photography style, the chat show appearance, the curated social media presence – all of these are marketing activities which would benefit from a unified branding approach that goes up to 11.