• Heavy metal, Ghost and the power of branding

    Heavy metal, Ghost and the power of branding

    What can we learn from the smart branding and marketing of the band Ghost?

    You know who’s really good at branding? Metal bands.

    Maybe you didn’t see that coming. Hear me out.

    From the iconic logos of Metallica and Slayer to the corpsepaint of Norwegian black metal— not to mention Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie — heavy heavy metal has always had identifiable branding.

    And these days, it’s the Swedish band Ghost that has taken heavy metal branding to the next level.

    So, who?

    Ghost is a band from Linköping, Sweden, formed in 2006. Ghost is also is a miracle of branding and marketing. This is not to say that the music’s not good — it is, I like it a lot and you should listen to it. (Their new album, Prequelle, comes out June 1.)

    But it’s hard to deny Ghost has built itself up on the back of very clever marketing, which they have used to generate engagement and wonder.

    First, the aesthetic. Ghost is fronted by a singer who has, album by album, been known by different monikers: Papa Emeritus, Papa Emeritus II, Papa Emeritus III and, most recently, Cardinal Copia. In the mythology of the band, each of these is actually a different person, complete with elaborate coronation ceremonies. (More on this later.)

    Each name change comes with a different costume — the Papa-era costume was essentially a papal outfit — as if the singer was the Pope of the Church of Satan. Indeed, the concept of Ghost is that the band exists in an occult horror movie.

    The backing band is made up of ‘Nameless Ghouls’, who, as the name suggests, wear matching masks to hide their faces and identities. The overall aesthetic is somewhere between 1930s horror and 1970s experimental film.

    That’s just the visuals. The lyrics of the songs mostly reference Satan as a living figure, pledging allegiance and fealty to him as a Catholic Cardinal prays to Holy Trinity.

    But here’s where it gets brilliant: although the lyrics seem straight out of a death or black metal band, the music is more in the vein of Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult or, dare I say it, Kiss. That is to say, traditional heavy metal or hard rock. And it’s VERY catchy.

    It’s a triumph of aesthetic over musical genre; that is, branding over content.

    Organic growth

    If the aesthetic is quite 1970s, the way Ghost uses branding and marketing is thoroughly 21st century.

    This combination of factors — the Satanic aesthetic, the catchy songs, the ‘transgressive’ lyrics and the sheer theatre of it all — has garnered Ghost a highly engaged, dedicated set of fans.

    People were ‘in the know’ if the a) knew who the band was and b) knew it was an act. It was like a secret club to understand this band on these different levels.

    (If there’s any question the whole thing is a loving gimmick, the band has covered an ABBA song.)

    The way that the band creates mystique and builds anticipation around the unveiling of the ‘new’ frontman is a stellar marketing move.

    The heavy metal media will cover the changing of the character — even though everyone knows that it’s the same person, Tobias Forge — as if it were a true band member being replaced.

    The fact that Ghost can pretend to get a new singer for each album — and generate social media frenzy about ‘who’ the new singer will be — builds excitement around almost nothing but a puff of smoke.

    Accompanying these unveilings are a series of videos, the most recent involving the storyline of the then-current singer Papa Emeritus III being whisked offstage and replaced by an elderly Italian man dressed again in Papal robes. We later learn this is Papa Emeritus Nil.

    After this live stunt, the official Ghost channels released a series of short films where we learn Papa Zero is too old and unwell to perform and must instead be replaced by Cardinal Copia.

    Basically, this is all content marketing for Ghost’s new album.

    Expanding the audience

    If Ghost’s aesthetic was always tongue in cheek, for this latest album cycle it’s downright campy. Yet the band have negotiated this tricky path with aplomb, managing to bring their original fans along with them.

    On a sonic level, with their latest shedding of their lead singer from the handsome Papa Emeritus III to the more Mafioso Cardinal Copia, the band is expanding its sound into even more hooky pop rock. This is placing them very well to leverage the dedicated fanbase and expand their audience.

    If this all sounds convoluted and complicated, that’s fine. Many things that engage people on an intense level — comic books, Star Wars, football — usually have some element of ‘gatekeeping’, of being difficult to get into at first, of keeping it a ‘cool club’. All you need to know if that this is how one band is engaging and growing its fanbase — and a lot of it is outside the music.

    In a genre known to place importance on branding (while of course insisting it doesn’t care about branding), Ghost have used it to great advantage to promote their music. The fact that their music is barely ‘heavy metal’ in the 21st century definition is almost beside the point. Ghost used heavy metal aesthetic, lyrics and mysticism — and the media — to organically create hype and a loyal, ‘with it’ following.

    And it doesn’t hurt that they make really good music too.

    Takeaways

    I said earlier that Ghost was a triumph of branding over content. It’s more accurate to say it’s branding BEFORE content. The content is a MUST. The branding and marketing bring that content to the audience.

    So, to reiterate:

    1. Ghost marketed itself as extreme metal band but the music is more in the vein of Kiss, Blue Oyster Cult or Black Sabbath. Scary image and lyrics only reinforced this.
    2. This built up a ‘cool’ elite group of fans. People were ‘in the know’ if they liked Ghost.
    3. This feeling was reinforced by the fans knowing the whole thing was a shtick.
    4. Each album cycle comes with a ‘new’ lead singer, builds excitement out of almost nothing
    5. Now band are expanding their sound and their audience but have held onto the diehards
    6. They have the content (great songs) but it wouldn’t have been as impressive or as successful without the branding and marketing.

    The lesson here for brands should be obvious: your main content does have to be good but it can be promoted and distributed with clever and engaging marketing.

    If you need help with your content, branding or marketing, why not get in touch with us today?

    Pic credit: Enric Martinez
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  • Stick to what you do best: the business lesson of Gibson

    Stick to what you do best: the business lesson of Gibson

    Gibson has filed for bankruptcy. Is it a dark day for the music industry or the beginning of much-need course-correction?

    The iconic guitar brand Gibson, maker of the Les Paul, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Tuesday, May 1. The company had debts between $100m and $500m.

    Why has this happened? There are a few possibilities to consider.

    One is the fall in popularity of guitar-based music in the wider music industry. Younger people, who drive a lot of new business for brands like Gibson, are increasingly interested in non-guitar-based music, with EDM and rap more in vogue than rock.

    And, sure, this will have some effect on any company that sells real live musical instruments.

    It’s true that the guitar industry in particular is in trouble. Fender is also in debt. In this sense, it’s not just a Gibson issue.

    But some things are particular to Gibson.

    A major reason for Gibson’s current situation is just plain bad business decisions by Chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz. This included purchasing the electronics brand Philips to make headphones and other consumer audio goods. This is the source of many of the company’s woes since the creation of the Gibson Innovations brand in 2014.

    At the time, getting into electronics might have seemed like a good idea, since so much music is now made with all the benefits of increasingly-cheaper technology including software, headphones, interfaces, synthesisers etc.

    However, there’s something to be said about doing what you do best and not letting that fall by the wayside. No matter what other bright and shiny industries you think you should diversify into.

    Because Gibson’s diversification took the focus off the core business: music and musicians.

    Isolating your core market

    Word from many musicians is that Gibson took its eye off what it was good at and didn’t listen to its fans and customers. The introduction of an electronic tuner, the G-Force, built into new guitars — which Gibson is currently being sued overenraged most everyone who played one.

    In addition, musicians have been criticising Gibson’s recent output as taking a big dip in quality.

    For example, when Gibson unveiled its 2017 Les Paul Standard (with a price tag at $4799 USD), it used a promo photo of a damaged guitar, calling into question its overall quality control.

    In 2016, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Gibson’s credit rating to a ‘negative outlook’ because of its growing debt, which might explain some of this corner-cutting.

    But moreover, it seems the corporate culture at Gibson has become toxic and that’s affected every aspect of the business.

    Bad reputation

    The support Gibson once had for brand ambassadors started to disappear. They started to get a bad reputation among musicians — not a great look for a guitar company.

    Soon enough, artists left Gibson and got contracts with other gear companies that would support them — or start their own companies.

    One high-profile Gibson ambassador was former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde, who left the company to start his own guitar line in 2015.

    In 2017, Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher ended his endorsement deal with Gibson in favour of ESP. (Metallica’s James Hetfield jumped from Gibson to ESP himself many years ago.)

    Kelliher’s flat assessment? “They treat their artists like shit, basically.”

    “All the guys I worked with over there – the A&R guys were getting fired left and right and the company just seemed to be falling apart to me,” Kelliher told Ultimate Guitar. “There were new guys who would come in and they didn’t know shit.”

    He cited massive dysfunction and bad communication within Gibson, including manufacturing his signature guitar line incorrectly.

    “Kids would get my guitar in the mail and ask me how to tune it because it wasn’t tuned and then I would tell them how to tune it and they would say it still doesn’t sound right and it’s because they’re not putting my gauge strings on there.”

    What’s next?

    Gibson’s declaration of bankruptcy will eliminate the Gibson Innovations electronics division and restructure around its ‘core brands’. Gibson hopes this will save the Gibson brand with a new company so that it can have a renewed focus on guitars. (Indeed, Gibson apparently has agreements with the holders of 69 per cent of its debt so that it can continue to operate.)

    In a statement, Juszkiewicz, who appears to be sticking around, said:

    “The decision to re-focus on our core business, musical instruments, combined with the significant support from our noteholders, we believe will assure the company’s long-term stability and financial health.”

    Could this be a sign of course-correction? Only time will tell. One at least hopes Gibson has learnt its lesson about trying to be a tech company.

    Diversifying is fine but losing sight of what you do best can be a business killer. Calvin Klein makes many varieties of clothing but it makes sure that its most famous, popular product — underwear — is still its cornerstone.

    Not everyone needs to be in tech. Lonely Planet still make most of their money from selling those big print travel guides. They’ve kept a toe in the digital space but they know which side their bread is buttered on.

    As Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler said: “What really pleases me is that Lonely Planet is still going very well. It hasn’t made a complete shift into the digital world, but then there’s a lot of the digital world that doesn’t make money.”

    Do what you do best and don’t lose sight of it. Otherwise you soon might not have anything to sell at all.

    If you want help communicating what your business does best, get in touch.

    Image credit: Pexels
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