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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