Brand Like a Rock Star

Chris Byrnes – ByrnesMedia

Every now and then a book comes along that should be required reading for anyone who wants to make it in the broadcasting industry.  I have just finished reading a book written by one of our own, Steve Jones, and I think this is one of those books. The publicity says, “For nearly 30 years, Steve Jones has worked in the music industry in the US, Canada, and the Caribbean. He’s had a front row seat to the rise and sometimes the fall of some of rock & roll’s biggest. Combining his two passions, music and business, Steve takes the lessons learned from the greatest acts in rock history and applies them directly to your business.” Steve and I had the opportunity to connect this month so I asked him about his book and what radio managers and programmers can learn from reading it.

What inspired you to write this book? The inspiration for the book goes back to when I was working in Edmonton in the 90’s and programming against Power 92, which was a legendary CHR station, and I was at Mix 96 and no matter what we did we were getting our butts kicked by these guys. Even if we if played the same songs, we were getting killed in the ratings. So one of the things I started to look at was that there is a brand involved. There is an expectation that all listeners have that when they tune into a radio station, they know what they will get. I came to the realization that there were things other than the music that motivated listeners to pick one station over another. So I started reading books by Ries and Trout and other authors who have written about the fine art of branding. Fast forward to 2009 and I was sitting at Roy William’s Academy in Austin, Texas, and I was listening to Jimmy Buffett and thinking, here is another case of someone who is a success not necessarily because of the songs, but because of the emotional things that happen around the songs. I started to wonder… how did Jimmy, with just one minor hit in his career, become one of rock & roll’s biggest concert draws and turn “Margaritaville” into a multi-million dollar brand? That led me to wonder what we can learn from these rock bands that we can apply to radio or restaurants or real estate.

So why do some bands and some songs prove to be popular when performed live but tank when they are played on the radio? U2 is the most successful touring band in the world, and while some of their songs test okay, the bulk of their catalogue does not test well for radio. When people go to a concert they go for the experience and it is way more than just the music. Go to a Jimmy Buffet concert and you will see people wearing coconut bras and grass skirts. You become part of the tribe… there is a movement happening. The Grateful Dead were like that. They had one hit but night after night for three decades they sold out every concert venue in North America because there was an experience involved in going to see this band in concert. And that’s what great radio stations or great businesses do. They give you an experience, not just a product. Music on the radio is just one piece of the puzzle, but the whole experience of listening to a radio station is much bigger than that. Look at Harley Davidson for example, selling $25,000 motorbikes to 45 year old men. These men could spend $5,000 and buy a Kawasaki if all they wanted to do was go for a bike ride. They buy a Harley for the experience so they can act like a bad ass.

What can radio stations learn from reading this book? Besides the experiential one we have touched on already, is the idea that quite often it’s more valuable to be different than better. We look at radio stations all the time, and think that they suck and we could create a better country station, for example, than the guys across the street. Any maybe you could, but frankly, it does not really matter. What matters is that you are different than the other radio stations in the area or you just end up blending into the background. Programmers should be asking themselves what they can create that is dramatically different so that you can stand out and be noticed by someone surfing the dial.

What can Program Directors, or Brand Managers learn from reading this book? A Brand is brand whether it’s a radio brand or a car brand or a computer brand. We should not be looking at radio as though it is a unique animal. The same rules apply across the board. The key lessons from this book are that the experience matters more than the product itself. Often, radio stations promote what they play and what they say, but seldom do they explain how you will feel if you listen to the product. Focus on being different rather than being better. Lady Gaga and KISS are successful because they are different and stand out from the crowd.

Consistency is the third takeaway we discuss in this book. As a brand, recognize what people think you are and live up to that, always. I could put “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers into a CHR test and it would probably test okay, but we would never play that song on a CHR station because it does not match the expectations that people have of a Top 40 radio station. A good programmer recognises what those expectations are, and understands that they are not defined by you. They are defined by the audience, and a good radio station lives up to those expectations 24/7. We use AC/DC as an example in the book. This band has played the same three cords for sixteen albums over and over again with unbelievable consistency and success.

Brand Like a Rock Star is not just limited to the 240 page book. You also have a website. Tell us about that. The Blog has been going for 2.5 years and there is a lot of material on the blog that goes a little deeper than the book. There is also content on the site that I wished I could have included in the book that I have written since the book went to the publishers in the summer. There is a second book that goes with Brand Like a Rock Star called, “The Musical Companion,” and that is a free download on Amazon or Nook or any of the sites that download to electronic readers. It’s a 100 page playlist guide to the book. So if you are reading a chapter and you find it interesting, but perhaps you are not familiar with The Sex Pistols and how they used PR and free publicity to become successful, then you can find out about the band in this companion.

Many radio formats today are not driven by core artists, so how does a brand define itself when it cannot be done musically? Again it comes down to what happens between the songs and what you do externally in your marketing, via social media, and on-line, that defines who you are in the minds of your listeners and potential listeners. If everyone is playing the same songs, what often becomes the deciding factor as to who someone will listen to is the expectation that something magical will happen. So don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to try new things to provoke and get people talking. We are a very scared bunch in radio, and traditionally a pretty nervous group of people because our jobs depend on the results of the next book. But taking calculated risks can have a tremendous upside.

If I am a young PD in charge of a heritage brand that perhaps is sounding a little tired, what can I learn from this book? There is an entire chapter about reinventing old brands. You can refresh and even reinvent yourself without really changing who you are. Old Spice did this and so did Johnny Cash. What you need to keep in mind when working with a heritage brand is that what you think this brand stands for is not important. It is what your listeners think your brand stands for and what set of values the brand represents to them that is really important. Once you establish that, then you can use that as a jumping off point in your journey to refresh that brand.

When you look at radio as a brand, what do you think are the major issues for the brand as we approach 2012? We continue to be mesmerized by the transmitter, and while we remain focused on the delivery system we risk becoming irrelevant just as the milkman became irrelevant. Milk is still around today but we go to the store to buy it, and the milkman does not have a job anymore. I believe the milkman is the transmitter and we need to be the milk and focus on the content. The delivery systems will change but there will always be a need for content and the station with the best content will win. I also think that we are not sure what the future will look like so any kind of future that comes along scares us. One day it’s satellite radio, then its internet radio, and now it’s Pandora. Radio will be fine, providing we focus on creating incredible content that you cannot get anywhere else and the delivery system will come.

What excites you about the future of radio? I love the trend toward more personality on FM radio, especially on the FM talk stations that are starting to show traction in the US. I think an injection of personality is much needed and it’s great to see personalities that are unlike anyone else on the radio. These are the people who will make the difference. Howard Stern has been the number one draw for Satellite radio. It was never the commercial free music. If we can attract engaging personalities to radio we will be fine. And it is exciting to see that this is happening in some in some markets.

One of the concerns of broadcast graduates today is where they get their start when stations are tracked or running syndicated programming? Sadly I don’t think the colleges are any more future visionary than the industry itself, so too often they are teaching what we are doing, and what we are doing is not always working. I think it’s more important to attract interesting and engaging people to these courses so they can teach them more than just the fundamentals of radio. We need more great storytellers and I think broadcast colleges need to put more emphasis on this and teach them how to become a captivating individual who knows how to tell stories and create compelling content. I am of the school that says a great personality will ultimately win, but if they have nothing compelling to say than I would rather you played another song. So perhaps this is why you end up with radio stations running syndicated programming. Frankly, I think there is a lack of compelling personalities on the radio today. I think we need to look beyond the obvious places to find these people. Are they in theatre or in drama classes or are they stand-up comics and how do we attract them to our industry? These colleges should include specific modules to teach drama, acting, writing, and storytelling. If this is not being taught and you’re going to college and you want to be on the radio then get out and take a stand-up class or become involved with the local theatre group to improve those skills.

Here are five things a brand needs to be doing to win, according to Steve Jones

#1 Be Consistent like ACDC

  • Twenty of their songs actually include the word “rock” in the title!
  • Absolutely the same look and feel to the band for over 30 years.
  • Iconic font used on every album, CD, poster, and advertisement.
  • No songs about third world poverty or the pain of lost love.
  • Just songs about rockin’, drinkin’, partyin’, drivin’,and womanizin’
  • AC/DC gives their customers exactly what they expect from them, every time, without fail


Rock star brands are consistent, never letting their fans down. They understand customer expectations and refuse to break the promise their brand makes.

#2  Build Your Tribe

  • The Grateful Dead invited fans to join them on their long, strange trip.
  • They gave fans a different show every night, never playing the same boring set list.
  • Their unique shows gave their deep fan club a compelling reason to see them night after night.
  • The band gave back to their fans, allowing them to tape concerts and share the shows and spread the word amongst friends.
  • The Grateful Dead did all of this before social media came along! Imagine what they could do today

Rock star brands build legions of fans around their brand by offering them something beyond a product. They offer an experience. They offer an emotional connection. They give their fans something to believe in.

#3 Be different like KISS

  • Without make-up, the band was an unknown New York bar band.
  • With the KISS theme and make-up, they were touring the world within a year.
  • Became one of the most visible acts of the 1970s.
  • Faded when the make-up was removed in the 1980s.
  • Rose again to dominance in the 1990s when they re-applied the make-up once again.
  • Being different from everyone else was more important to KISS’s success than being better than everyone else.

Rock star brands understand that being unique is more important than being “better”. Quality is important, but they focus on marketing what makes them different instead of trying to market slight improvements in quality.

#4 Celebrate your niche like Bob Marley

  • “Reggae” wasn’t even a word when Bob Marley started out.
  • He was always true to his niche, never changing his sound.
  • As reggae rose in popularity, his fame rose with it.
  • Bob Marley became an ambassador for his country and his music.
  • His album Legend has sold over 25 million copies worldwide.
  • Dedication to his niche turned into massive fame and fortune.

Rock star brands find a niche market to serve, and grow their niche into a mass market. Like Bob Marley, they never fail to serve their original core customers as their business (and their niche) grows.

#5  Leave them wanting more like Led Zeppelin

  • Disbanded when John Bonham died in 1980.
  • Played at LiveAid in 1986 but refused to let their performance be taped or distributed.
  • Reunited for the most highly-anticipated concert in rock history in 2009. That show broke records for ticket demand!
  • No plans to play together again, but the possibility exists of future one-time reunions.
  • High Demand + Remarkable Scarcity = Incredible Brand Value.

Rock star brands are careful to keep demand slightly higher than supply at all times, knowing that a combination of high demand and low availability creates heightened brand value.

This is an easy read but it’s packed with lots of practical and actionable suggestions on how to build a brand. What makes this book different is that it adds the glitz and glamour of rock & roll to the normally dry topic of building a better business, and contains powerful insights into the business strategies used by some of the iconic rock stars that many of us have grown up with. If you want to find out how Led Zeppelin is like Nintendo’s Wii, or why U2 and Proctor & Gamble are alike this book will tell you. You will learn some of the core marketing strategies behind the success of some of the world’s greatest bands. It’s appropriate that I finish with a quote from a music legend Alice Cooper “Everybody has something to sell… whether it be a product or a personality. What can you do to make your brand more famous? More mysterious? More NOTORIOUS? Steve Jones’ book Brand Like A Rock Star gives you the insight of a Rock N Roll veteran. Read it, and your brand just might go from Milk Toast to Tiger’s Blood.” By the way Steve updates the content daily via his blog which can be found at