Friday Five: Interview with ‘Brand Like A Rock Star’ author Steve Jones

brand like a rock starAs a music lover and marketer, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Steve Jones’ new book Brand Like A Rock Star (affiliate link). I’m about halfway through the book, and it’s a great read so far.

The concept behind Brand Like A Rock Star is simple but brilliant. Jones, a veteran of the music marketing business (@rockstarbrands on Twitter), examines the reasons behind the success of some of the greatest acts in rock-and-roll history — from Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead to KISS and AC/DC — and applies those lessons to the business of brand-building. As he says in the interview below, “it is a fun way to look at brands — education or otherwise — and bands.”

This Steve Jones...
This Steve Jones...
I asked Jones to share some of his thoughts about branding, the book and rock-and-roll with us. For more insight, you can check out his website (where you can download a free chapter of the book) and excellent blog.

1. You share a name with the Sex Pistols’ guitarist. Did your parents name you after that Steve Jones, or is that just a happy coincidence?

Steve Jones: I would love to think that my parents musical tastes were that progressive, but that simply wouldn’t be true!

...not this Steve Jones
...not this Steve Jones
I was also born in 1970, a few years before the Sex Pistols’ rise to fame. But even if I had been born at the height of the Sex Pistols’ fame, I doubt my parents would have known who Steve was. Their tastes were much more folk-oriented.

Frankly, I am surprised I wasn’t named after Gordon Lightfoot or Roger Whittaker or someone like that!

2. What inspired you to write this book?

Steve Jones: I’ve always been very interested in the human decision making process, and over the course of my 27 years in the radio industry I’ve studied it a great deal. Why does a listener choose one radio station over another, even though both are playing essentially the same songs? It comes down to branding. It comes down to an expectation.

Fast forward a few years, and I was sitting on a patio sipping a beer and listening to Jimmy Buffett and the thought crossed my mind that he had built up an incredible brand using only one hit song, “Margaritaville.” I began to think about other rock stars that did the same thing, like the Grateful Dead. And the concept was born! I immediately reserved the URL “Brand Like A Rock Star” and started blogging about the lessons that business can learn from rock and roll. Over the course of two years of blogging, the book evolved rather organically from there.

3. Of all the branding lessons in your book, which one do you think is the most important for marketers (of any or all sectors) to heed? And why?

Steve Jones: There are two really. One is “Sell The Experience” and the other is “Different Beats Better.”

The “experience” concept is simple… stop selling/marketing/promoting the products you sell, and start talking about the experience that customers have when they interact with you. Great brands spend most of their marketing time (and money) talking about the experience. Think about Apple… very very seldom do you see Apple ads that talk about price points or even product features. They are masterful at marketing the experience. My favorite example is the iPhone ad that uses two deaf people communicating via Facetime. Very powerful.

Different beats better
Different beats better
The “Different” concept is equally simple, yet seems to evade so many businesses. KISS proved it. You don’t need to strive to be dramatically better than the existing leader, you need to demonstrate that you are dramatically different.

After all, what constitutes “better” differs from person to person. We all have our own view of what a “better” product looks like. But most of us can agree on what is “different.” KISS was different when they came along, and you couldn’t help but to notice them. Lady Gaga does that today. You can’t avoid her. Are KISS and Lady Gaga the best examples of musical genius in our time? Probably not, to be fair. They are talented, but are they better than everyone else? On the other hand, nobody can dispute that they were both dramatically different.

4. Which takeaway from Brand Like a Rock Star do you think is most applicable to higher education?

Steve Jones: Avoid trying to be all things to all people, and build a brand that someone will hate.

I think the higher education institutions that position themselves as “general” are becoming invisible, just like any business that attempts to please everyone eventually does. The schools (and brands) of the future that stand the best chance of success are the ones that stand for something. And when you stand for something, you are going to inevitably have people who dislike what you stand for. Accept that. In fact, celebrate it! If I’m a history buff, I am probably not going to choose MIT. Yet there is no doubt that I probably have an opinion on MIT and an understanding of what they are all about.

So what is it that you do that is special and unique? What do you specialize in? What makes you different than everyone else? Find those answers and use them to build your reputation.

5. When you think of the most recognizable brands in higher education (i.e., the most recognizable colleges and universities), what comes to mind? And to which rock stars would you compare those brands?

Steve Jones: That’s a cool question, and not an easy one to answer. I think the higher education brands that come to mind are the schools that stand for something, as I mentioned above. If you wanted to draw some parallels between rock stars and recognizable colleges and universities, you could look to certain qualities and values.

For example, Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale are like Bruce Springsteen… almost royal in their nature, among the very first to ever exist, and likely to maintain their legendary status for many years to come. Liberal schools like Williams College, Amherst, or Claremont are the Bob Dylans of education… leaning heavily on issues, rigorously academic but socially inclusive, and often progressive in their thinking. Schools like MIT and Stanford are like Rush… very nerdy, extremely intelligent, and uniquely and wonderfully complicated.

Although it is superficial, it is a fun way to look at brands — education or otherwise — and bands.

Bonus question (you know I have to ask this): What are the five albums you would take with you if you were stranded on a desert island?

Steve Jones: In no particular order… and with “greatest hits” albums excluded…

Exodus/Bob Marley
Born To Run/Bruce Springsteen
London Calling/The Clash

Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

9 thoughts on “Friday Five: Interview with ‘Brand Like A Rock Star’ author Steve Jones”

  1. Really interesting article, Andrew. The only other parallel I would have been curious to hear Steve explore is the concept of radio play. The formula behind re-creating Top 40 music. The fact that so much of it sounds the same. And questioning if that’s why so many colleges seem to mimic each other from a branding perspective. How it’s easier to fit in than stand out.

    But, great stuff!

  2. Eric – Great idea, and you draw a great parallel between colleges’ bland branding and the sameness of Top 40 music. Maybe Steve will comment here. Stay tuned.

  3. Hi Eric and Andrew and all… you are right, it is easier to fit in than it is to stand out. Notice how all car dealers have the same kinds of ads? Same with jewelers and others. Most people follow the crowd, thinking that they are just doing “what works”.
    The scary thing is that when you what the crowd is doing, you are essentially invisible. You blend in with the background noise. Brands brave enough to stand out are the the ones that get noticed.
    As for Top-40 music, there is an entire book that could be written about that. But watch for the cycles. Over the course of a decade or so, you’ll see Top 40 move from rebirth to doldrums. Check out what my colleague Guy Zapoleon has written about that topic:

  4. Interesting article – but would have been strengthened if it was closer to the way the band described their own experience. Kiss wasn’t different when they came along. And that’s the point. They were the same **in their genre**. Gene Simmons was aware of the existing glam rock market including Bowie, NY Dolls and Alice Cooper. Simmons summed up the situation when he coined, ‘The Vacuum Theory of Rock’. ie Kiss thrived because David Bowie the genre leader wasn’t touring. Kiss filled the vacuum for the same market demand. That is one of the lessons from the Kiss experience, there are many others. Why is Lady Gaga where she’s at – in part because Simmons’ Vacuum Theory of Rock applies – Madonna stopped touring. So find your genre and see where your vacuum exists and then you and Kiss may have something in common..! Max Christoffersen

  5. Hey Max – great points. I love the “vacuum theory” and absolutely agree with it.
    However, I think there was more to KISS than that. Yes, David Bowie was glam rock, as were the New York Dolls and Alice Cooper. But KISS took glam rock to an entirely new place. Not only did they fill the void left when Bowie wasn’t touring, but they completely raised the bar and created something fresh and new in the process. Same for Gaga. There was a Madonna-void, and she filled it.
    Yes, the vacuum theory plays a role. If something is missing from the marketplace, there is a void that can be successfully filled. But smart brands look at that as an opportunity to create an entirely new product category. They show the world something it has never seen before, and in the process establish themselves as the leader.

  6. Gid-day Steve – yeah agreed! I recently reread Kiss and Sell by C.K. Lendt and as a card carrying Kiss fan it made for a fascinating read. I argued once that Kiss had stronger brand control than my academic institution..the point was lost on them, but your article would have helped..! Bottom line is that Kiss was also about timing and diversifying revenue streams. I thought the closest I saw to the Kiss model revisited was The Spice Girls. Same pitch – same style. But track it back to the first 4 personalities marketed as points of reference for diverse market segments… The Beatles!

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