Wednesday, November 19, 2008

High Voltage Branding

What does a rock band known as the "Thunder from Down Under" share in common with exceptional visual branding?

Are parallel principles of greatness detectable in both sight and sound?

Like a great song you just can't stop humming to yourself, the words of Ryan Maxwell often echo in the neural chambers of anyone who has ever attended one of his riveting visual brand presentations. In a speaking style imbued with only slight tints of Ron Burgundy and Dr. Evil, this national-award winning art director enlightens and entertains audiences as he details what separates the top from the slop when it comes to eye-arresting commercial design.

Ryan, who has already racked up a number of brand portfolio chart-toppers, captures the essence of visual branding this way:

"Great design and great visual branding is actually very simple. Decide on a few basic rules - and stick to them"

Ryan goes on to explain that clear distinctions and decisions have to be drawn on choices that include fonts, colors, shapes and other key elements that determine whether your visual brand gets noticed. Once those choices have been made, your brand has an opportunity to become visually consistent, no matter what marketing and promotional vehicles are selected. As Ryan puts it, "Far better to invest time and energy up front to figure out what's going to last over the long haul. That way you're not always going back to the drawing board".

The other night, on a ride back from Fredericton, grooving to the new AC/DC album "Black Ice", the parallels were coming on like a hurricane.

"Decide on a few basic rules - and stick to them"

Holy Hells Bells Batman!

Isn't that how Aussie rockers AC/DC built and sustained what is arguably the #1 music brand in the world? If anyone could conduct a seminar on the Art of Brand Longevity, it would be the brothers Young and their chord-crunching cohorts who continue to build a growing legion of rabid fans with the recent release of "Black Ice", their first album in eight years.

The AC/DC "formula" has provided enough creativity within structure to allow for more than three decades of loud, blistering hard rock that sells out football stadiums in minutes and has millions of hard-core fans gobbling up merchandise by the truckload.

The basic rules of this tried and tested "formula" include:

- Lead guitarist Angus Young, dressed in schoolboy attire, brandishing his trusty Gibson SG; a whirlwind of on-stage kinetic energy which is only magnified by the relatively stationary positions taken by his more reserved bandmates.

- Lead singer Brian Johnson, a drinking buddy for "everyman", always adorned with his standard "good ole bloke" flatcap.

- Rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young and bassist Cliff Williams, jeans and t-shirts guys who march straight up to their microphones to deliver background vocals - and march right back again. No muss. No fuss.

- Drummer Phil Rudd who refuses to fill any AC/DC track with any drum rolls, preferring instead to keep a steady, no-nonsense beat. (Listen to any cut and see if you can find a single, sustained drum roll. No one would ever put Rudd in the same category for drumming excellence as someone like Neil Peart of Rush, but that's not the purpose of the chain-smoker sitting behind the AC/DC drum kit).

- In terms of songwriting structure and production, you won't find AC/DC employing acoustic guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, techno beats or female voices. Power ballads, unplugged melancholy, Celine Dion duets and politically-charged anthems fall way outside the basic rules and consequently are NEVER part of the AC/DC brand mix.

Within the framework of this foundation, AC/DC has carved out a reputation second to none in its genre, so much so that its brand strength has allowed it to make bold business decisions impacting the bottom-line in a big way. "Black Ice," is Number One in 29 countries, which is even more interesting since it is only available at Walmart. The band decided not to allow the album to be sold on iTunes, which has some critics of the Walmart-only strategy eating their words as over 5 million copies of "Black Ice" have been shipped worldwide. With another 5 million in catalog sales, the band is poised to sell over 10 million units this year alone.

"Decide on a few basic rules - and stick to them"

This formula has worked "seamlessly" for more than 30 years in a way that has expanded the AC/DC customer base in a way few would have predicted when they burst on to the scene in the early 1970's with classics such as"High Voltage", "TNT" and "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap". Brand value allowed AC/DC to withstand an 8-year recording and touring hiatus and the audience still grew as teenagers discover the band through file sharing. Last night, I asked my 12-year old nephew, proudly displaying his "Back in Black" t-shirt what makes AC/DC so special, to which he replied, "They're unlike any other band out there today".

Are there lessons from the AC/DC success story that could be applied to your brand? What unshakable, no-compromise rules could you establish as philosophical and visual foundations for your business and career?

Can you define a rock-solid essence able to sustain generations of societal and technological change in a way that will have customers grow increasingly loyal?

Does your brand need to revisit some basic formulas to put business back in the black?

"I'll tell you folks, it's harder than it looks. It's a long way to the top if you want to rock n' roll" BON SCOTT

p.s... One of the maladies that prevents a brand from becoming "seamless" is a condition TSB refers to as "Disconnected Brand Disorder". You can decide whether Celine effectively served her brand with this Anastasia duet. Feel free to let us know whether this number shakes you all night long.


Mike Shanks PSP said...

Wrong...and if you google it you find that it has been deemed the "worst cover ever" by many.

The outrage of covering AC/DC is in part due to the power of their brand.

Gair Maxwell said...

But isn't it true that your partners in crime, Dave Waters and Ryan Good actually prefer the Celine version?

Or did I get my facts wrong?

Terry Gaudet said...

I got to about 2 minutes and had to shut it down. I'm sure Celine had fun with it but it certainly didn't live up to the AC/DC punch.

Celine has her own brand and should stick with it.