How Kiss Created the
Modern Rock Brand
David J. Deal
How Kiss Created
the Modern Rock Brand
1. Visual storytelling
2. Theater
3. Community
4. Merchandising
5. Influential music
Thank You
David Deal
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand
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How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand


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Kiss is both a memorable band and an enduring brand. This presentation -- which contains detailed speaker notes -- shares how Kiss combined visual storytelling, theater, community, merchandising, and compelling music to influence the way musicians build their own brands today. This presentation will appeal to any marketer who seeks a fresh perspective on branding. The presentation discusses how present-day stars such as Lady Gaga and Kanye West have applied ideas Kiss pioneered 40 years ago. My special thanks to John Hensler of Sunken Anchor Media for applying your design expertise on this presentation.

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  • They finally made the hall. After selling 100 million albums reinventing the rock concert as theater, launching their own comic book series, and scaring the bejesus out of parents everywhere, Kiss was finally admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. But the band really belongs in a hall of fame of its own. More than 40 years ago, Kiss created a modern template for rock branding, whose elements consist of visual storytelling, theater, community, merchandising, and influential rock and roll.
  • Kiss made memorable music in its heyday, and to the band's credit, they continue to create new material even without two of their founding members. No resting on their laurels here. But let's face it: what set apart the band in its day was its mastery of visual storytelling, not its music, as good as it was (and I discuss the music later in this presentation.) The four original members of the band -- Peter Criss, Ace Frehley, Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley -- were more than a drummer, lead guitarist, bass guitarist, and rhythm guitarist. In public, they were known by the cartoon-like personas they created, each of which was expressed through elaborate costumes and face paint. If you grew up listening to rock and roll in the 1970s, you didn't even have to like Kiss to know about the Catman (Peter Criss), Space Ace (Frehley), Demon (Simmons), and Starchild (Stanley).  No matter where you saw them -- on television, on album covers, in concert, or in public appearances -- they always wore their elaborate costumes and make-up. In costume, the band didn't just play songs; they created visual stories about characters they had created. For example, Frehley's "Spaceman" was supposedly a being from another planet, whereas Simmons's Demon was a darker character. No one had seen anything quite like Kiss. They created intrigue and curiosity, even fear that they were somehow linked with devil worship -- all of which, of course, made them more appealing to record-buying teens.
  • The band's approach to creating alter egos was not wholly original. David Bowie created personas such as Ziggy Stardust before Kiss came along. But whereas Bowie discarded his personas like a chameleon, reserving them for concert performances, Kiss made created a ubiquitous presence out of out of Demon, Catman, Space Ace, and Starchild like a corporation stamping its logo everywhere. For instance, its record albums were like visual set pieces, each depicting the band in full make-up and costume mode amid surrealistic artwork. The band famously appeared in comic books, including a 1977 Marvel special edition that allegedly used ink mixed with blood of each band member.
  • Persona-based visual storytelling would influence a generation of artists for many years to come, including Daft Punk, Lady Gaga, Marilyn Manson, Deadmaus, Slipknot, Insane Clown Posse, and Kanye West (who has incorporated masks into his recent tour).
  • Lady Gaga comes closest to living up to Kiss's legacy. She turns heads with her visually curious, sometimes bizarre fashion choices, and she uses visual totems such as face paint to promote her music, as she's been doing with her ARTPOP album. More about Lady Gaga and her visual storytelling here: this is not to say that artists need to wear costumes and masks to be excellent visual storytellers. In the age of digital, visual storytelling also means relying on visual platforms such as Instagram and Vine to connect with fans rather than rely solely on music. We live at a time when more than half of adult Internet users post photos online, andfive tweets per second contain a Vine link. Justin Timberlake in particular does an outstanding job using Instagram to share stunning photos from his concerts as well as images from his everyday life. Hip-hop stars such as Snoop Lion and Wiz Khalifa use Vine famously to share their lifestyles. No, they're not running around in make-up and costumes, but they understand, as Kiss did, that there is power in visual imagery to connect with your fans. And Kiss continues in the tradition even without Criss and Frehley -- relying on digital as well to create visual magic, including its website and social spaces such as Facebook page -- but curiously not on Instagram.
  • Forty years ago, Kiss turned rock concerts into visual theater. Onstage, the band's four personas thrived like they could nowhere else. Demon, Catman, Space Ace, and Starchild were like three-dimensional performers, spewing blood, spitting fire, levitating from drum kits, and literally creating smoke from their guitars as they sang in their elaborate costumes (including exaggerated high heels). Although they were actually decent musicians, fans came for the experience.
  • Their stagecraft earned them the scorn of critics, who viewed the pyrotechnics as a slap in the face of real rock and roll. But in reality, Kiss were adopting ideas that other bands were using, too, most notably David Bowie, Alice Cooper, the masters of shock rock, and Genesis. But Kiss made rock theater more accessible and fun -- pushing the boundaries of taste without crossing over them as Alice Cooper did, and playing tighter songs than did Genesis.  Concerts made Kiss. The band actually struggled to sell albums until fans began to learn about them on tour. It was, in fact, a concert album, Alive!, that triggered a run of multi-million album sales that continues to this day.
  • For modern rock bands, albums don't sell: concerts do. The more established artists with bigger budgets have created fully realized theater. For instance, Roger Waters recently achieved massive financial success through the visually stunning Wall Tour. And U2's 360º tour -- the highest grossing of any rock band -- was a theatrical tour de force that featured a massive "claw" structure that resembled a space ship.
  • For modern rock bands, albums don't sell: concerts do. The more established artists with bigger budgets have created fully realized theater. For instance, Roger Waters recently achieved massive financial success through the visually stunning Wall Tour. And U2's 360º tour -- the highest grossing of any rock band -- was a theatrical tour de force that featured a massive "claw" structure that resembled a space ship.  Today Miley Cyrus and Kanye West best exemplify the Kiss legacy of music as theater. Cyrus has been making headlines with her controversial Bangerz tour, which launched in February. She collaborated with several designers on costumes, including Roberto Cavalli, Jeremy Scott, the Blonds, and Marc Jacobs. Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi has created visual props, including "imaginative animals he's made on his own." Her tour has featured Cyrus emerging from a giant image of her face and sliding down a facsimile of her tongue; riding a giant hot dog; and wearing provocative sexually provocative costumes. Meantime, Kanye West has created his own brand of music theater with his on-again-off-again Yeezus tour, which features West performing (at times) in a bejeweled mask, massive, surreal stage sets, and elaborate choreographing. At one point, the show features the appearance of not one but two mountains, one of which splits in half and becomes a volcano. Jonathan Ringen of Rolling Stone describes the Yeezus show this way: "crazily entertaining, hugely ambitious, emotionally affecting (really!) and, most importantly, totally bonkers." As for the bejeweled mask, Ringen writes, "OK, so yeah, he does wear bejeweled, full-face Martin Margiela masks for most of the show. And while on one level they suggest a supreme 'look not upon the face of Yeezus, mere mortals; arrogance (which is so off the rails it's kind of awesome), the masks also have real theatrical usefulness. Given that most of the audience is way too far away to see his face, they provide a vivid, readable visual." A "vivid, readable visual" -- that's how you turn an impersonal arena into your own stage.
  • Long before Lady Gaga created her Little Monsters community of fans, Kiss unleashed the Kiss Army -- a wildly dedicated group of loyalists who emerged in the 1970s. The Kiss Army was created in 1975 by two fans, Bill Starkey and Jay Evans, two Indiana teenagers who called themselves "the Kiss Army" as they pestered a Terre Haute, Indiana, radio station to play Kiss songs. When the radio station (WVTS) finally relented to the pesky boys and began playing Kiss songs, the Kiss Army quickly began to grow, aided by a canny Kiss publicist, Alan Miller. Starkey and Evans collaborated with WVTS and Miller to recruit Kiss Army members on the air, which helped fill 10,000 seats at a November Kiss show in Terre Haute. From the start, the Kiss Army was creating business for the band. The Kiss Army morphed into an official fan club with its own logo and membership form. At one point, the Kiss Army claimed 100,000 members -- long before the days of social media. Although the Kiss Army waned in popularity, Kiss relaunched the Kiss Army in 2007. (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed up.) And Kiss also maintains the spirit of the Kiss Army through its KissonlineKommunity, an online forum that gives fans a place to share their enthusiasm for the band and submit photos of themselves. Kiss is now tapping into its Kommunity to crowdsource ideas for its 40th anniversary celebration.
  • Today building community is essential to the success of any musician. Social media is so important that in 2010, Billboard added to its ranking formula the "Social 50," which ranks of the most active artists on the world's leading social networking sites. Artists' popularity is determined by a formula blending their weekly additions of friends/fans/followers along with artist page views and weekly song plays, as measured by Next Big Sound. Lady Gaga sets the gold standard for building a community. Her Little Monsters website is a vibrant community of fans who celebrate not only Lady Gaga but each other. She also boasts more than 41 million followers on Twitter and 64 million Facebook likes. But what's striking about her community is their passion. When Lady Gaga adorned face paint to promote ARTPOP, her fans followed suit, creating their own ARTPOP-inspired face paint on sites such as Instagram. No one builds community like Lady Gaga.  Of course, Lady Gaga and Kiss are not the first to build community. One of the most famous communities in rock, the Deadheads, has been following the Grateful Dead for decades. And the Grateful Dead have indulged the Deadheads by encouraging them to tape their concerts for free. What Kiss and Lady Gaga have done is remain actively involved in galvanizing their communities through slick marketing and the use of social -- necessities for survival in the music industry.
  • As we've seen elsewhere in this presentation, Kiss did not "invent" any single element of rock branding -- but the band took branding to another level and combined each element masterfully. Such is the case with merchandising. Kiss did not create the idea of merchandising their brand. But they perfected the practice of merchandising and turned it into a strong source of revenue (unlike the Beatles, who lost millions in unrealized merchandising income due to a negotiating blunder committed by their manager, Brian Epstein).
  • Kiss wisely understood that its visual appeal lent itself naturally to merchandising. So Kiss put its name on products such as board games, trading cards, and Halloween masks. Kiss also collaborated with Marvel Comics on the distribution of a special comic book series featuring the band. Beginning in the 1970s, merchandising was a huge revenue generator, to the tune of $100 between 1977 and 1979. Eventually, Kiss would license more than 3,000 products, ranging form lunch boxes to caskets, and Kiss remains a merchandising machine today. Most recently, Kiss launched its own Arena League football team, LA Kiss, co-owned by Simmons and Stanley. L.A. Kiss recently played its first game at the Honda Center in Anaheim, where its home games are played. James Barragan of Los Angeles Times described opening night thusly: The night was a complete rock and roll event. From the national anthem played on an electric guitar, to the bikini-clad dancers suspended in midair throughout the game to fans walking around in KISS makeup and flame orange Mohawk wigs. Before the first down was played fans had already seen indoor fireworks, a laser show and a performance by heavy metal band Steel Panther. According to Epic Rights Merchandising, L.A. KISS has already set an Arena League record for merchandise sales.
  • Of all its merchandising deals Kiss has made in its history, the Marvel Comics series was most influential. Kiss provided the content. Marvell provided the platform -- a co-branding model that flourishes today, ranging from Kid Rock's relationship with Harley-Davidson to OK Go's collaboration with State Farm to create a music video content.
  • Music-savvy companies like Coca-Colas Pepsi, Samsung, and Harley Davidson can give musicians a new global platform to expand their audience base through sponsorships and co-branding relationships. For instance, in 2013, Jay Z famously rewrote the rules of music distribution by by launching an innovative deal with Samsung to distribute 1 million copies of his new Magna Carta Holy Grail album through a special app exclusively on Samsung phones before the album went on sale publicly July 9. Samsung reportedly paid $5 for every album, meaning Magna Carta Holy Grail sold $5 million before a consumer purchased a single copy. Samsung became a music distributor overnight. And the Recording Industry Association of America was inspired to change the way it tracks the sale of digital albums to account for the 1 million units sold instantly.  It’s no wonder Jay-Z has been tweeting about creating #newrules, and Billboard has gushed about “Jay-Z’s New Blueprint.” Essentially, two big brands, Jay-Z and Samsung, are distributing music together as Jay-Z and Nokia did 10 years ago.
  • Meantime, In 2011, Madonna and Smirnoff formed the Nightlife Exchange with goals of building digital reach for Smirnoff and generating business for both Madonna and Smirnoff. According to Christopher Swope of Live Nation, the relationship (which featured a special global dance talent search in 2011) has helped Smirnoff achieve double-digit sales growth in key markets (with the help of a specially branded Madonna VIP Access Smirnoff Limited Edition pack) and generate 1.8 billion media impressions. The relationship also helped Madonna make her MDNA tour the highest grossing of 2012.
  • Finally, Kiss created influential rock and roll music.  At first, the music was secondary to the theater. Fans flocked to concerts to see the pyrotechnics as much as for their sound, but their first albums did not sell particularly well. However, once the band wisely created a live album to capture some of the energy of its live shows on vinyl (Alive!), fans started paying attention to its studio albums. And fans discovered that beyond the fire breathing and blood spitting, the band created the kind of well crafted, tight music that sounded just as sweet when you blared it on your stereos at home or while driving in your car. In due course, songs such as "Rock 'N' Roll All Night" and "Shout It Out Loud" became minor classics. The band would go on to sell more than 40 million albums in the United States and 100 million worldwide. Rolling Stone ranks Destroyer as one of the 500 best albums of all time, characterizing the album as "ridiculously over-the-top party-rock album that just gets better with age."
  • Kiss would influence and inspire several bands, most famously the hair metal bands of the 1980s, such as Motley Crue, all the way down to Motley Crue's visual theater and song content (e.g., Motley Crue's "Dr. Feelgood" easily evokes Kiss's "Dr. Love"). Ironically, Motley Crue would tour with Kiss in 2012. Hard rock bands such Guns 'N' Roses also drew from Kiss's potent formula of hard driving guitar and sexual bravado.
  • Kiss even inspired grunge rock legends Pearl Jam. In a recent Rolling Stone article, guitarist Mike McCready of Pearl Jam credits Kiss as "the reason I started playing music." As he wrote, "I remember being on a school bus in sixth grade in 1976 with my friend Rick Friel, who eventually played in my high school band Shadow. He had a lunch box that had Kiss on it. "What is that?" Then he played me some music and I was hooked immediately. Then I had a Kiss room and I started playing guitar. They were the Beatles to me."I think Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic put it best in his assessment of Kiss. Let's let him have the last word on the subject: " . . . Kiss' music shouldn't be dismissed -- it was a commercially potent mix of anthemic, fist-pounding hard rock driven by sleek hooks and ballads powered by loud guitars, cloying melodies, and sweeping strings. It was a sound that laid the groundwork for both arena rock and the pop-metal that dominated rock in the late '80s."
  • A band plays music. A brand creates a legacy. Kiss is not only a memorable band but also one of the most powerful brands in music history, now celebrating its 40th anniversary. As Gene Simmons recently told Rolling Stone, "Kiss is like a cockroach that will outlive you all. It's bigger, even, than the guys who were in the band."
  • How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand

    1. 1. How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand David J. Deal How Kiss Created the Modern Rock Brand David J. Deal Instagram/davidjdeal
    2. 2. 1. Visual storytelling
    3. 3. 2. Theater
    4. 4. 3. Community
    5. 5. 4. Merchandising
    6. 6. 5. Influential music
    7. 7. Thank You David Deal