How to develop and sustain your artist brand

When you hear “Like a good neighbor,” "Eat Fresh," or “I'm Lovin' it,” can you immediately conjure the company, logo, and product associated with the slogan? This is branding at its best, and big businesses invest millions annually on it because they know it can mean recognition and longevity for their products.

Branding is important in the music industry, too, and some of music history's most famous acts have mastered the art of artist branding. Kiss has its makeup and lightning “s,” the Rolling Stones have the trademark lips, the Misfits have their skull, the Grateful Dead has its dancing bears, ABBA has the backwards "B," and the list goes on.

When you see these band logos and iconic symbols, you are reminded of the artist, their style of music, their albums, songs, shows, and perhaps the unique wardrobes – all of which add up to the sum of the artist’s brand identity. This artwork and these logos represent the whole of what these artists are in the minds of their fans and can serve as a badge of identity. Even as an independent music artist, developing your artist brand is an important element in your music career and in the development of your place in the market.

Your brand identifies you

The word “brand” originally meant "fire or flame" in Old English. Its meaning had changed to an “identifying mark made by a hot iron” by the 1550s. In the 1800s, "brand" began to take on another meaning, broadened to include “a particular make of goods.” Today, the term branding is known in marketing to mean the practice of creating a name, symbol, or design that identifies and differentiates a product from others. In the music marketplace, it's a way to tell the world that something was created by and comes from you.

Think about your favorite music artists, regardless of their era or genre. Be it The Beatles, Elvis, Madonna, Prince, Taylor Swift, or Eminem – they have created an artist brand and an image that resonates with their audience. In the same way, you can deepen the artist/fan relationship through consumer brand loyalty if your style, message, and reputation are consistent with your fan base's tastes. It's akin to the business concept of brand loyalty, where a consumer becomes so enthralled with your overall brand that he or she becomes a loyal, long-term customer who is likely to spend money on your brand and will consider attending every show and buying everything you put into the marketplace.

It's a basic business principle: a loyal customer (your superfan) is more valuable to your business (i.e. your band) than a one-time buyer. Once you've converted a casual fan into a brand advocate, it's easier to sell him on your next show, album, CD, T-shirt, hoodie, etc.

It's more than a logo

Let's get one thing straight, your brand doesn't start with a well-designed logo: it starts with an outstanding product and a lot of hard work. Creating your artist brand begins with exceptional songs and a great live show that establishes you as something music lovers want to see and hear.

Then, as you establish a reputation and continue to record, perform, and refine your craft, begin to identify what it is that listeners are reacting positively to and use that to establish and refine your unique artist brand.

It involves an understanding of what makes you attractive within your genre while also different from other artists and bands in the same space. Who are you as an artist? What is your message? Muse is going to be grand and dramatic and deliver a message, Weezer differentiates itself from its fellow alternative rockers with comedic lyrics and a geeky look, and The Flaming Lips are going to be trippy, whoever they may collaborate with.

So who are you, and what sets you apart? Start with your elevator pitch. If you’re having trouble developing that, study successful artists you like and list the things that make them unique to their audience. Then make a list of attributes that best describe you and go from there.

Once you define your identity in the market, stay consistent. Your artist brand should be evident with every public touch point: a band logo or slogan is not effective if not used regularly. You know a hat or shoe or shirt is made by Nike because they use that swoosh consistently. Coordinate the look of your merch, social media, website, and press kit so that they are all readily identifiable and consistently promote your artist brand.

Your artist brand and the long haul

Every exposure you have with the public is an opportunity to promote your artist brand, so it is important that you constantly reinforce the reputation you’re striving to project to the public. Sustaining your brand means consistently protecting and promoting it in every single marketing endeavor.

If you’re a punk rocker, be a punk rocker in every contact you have with the public – in your merch, your CD art, wardrobe, Facebook posts, anti-establishment Twitter rants, etc. Same goes if you are a socially conscious hip hop artist. Develop your identity and spread it everywhere you can: through your music, your communications, videos, merch, etc.

It takes time. Creating your artist brand can't happen overnight. Corporations work for years to sculpt their brand identity and reputation. And while you don't have the financial resources or manpower that mega-brands such as Allstate, Subway, or McDonald's have, the same concepts those companies use are the same you can use. Fans will purchase more of your merch, music, and concert tickets if your brand resonates with them and they perceive added value to engaging with your act.

As you build a reputation and connection with your audience, you build what’s known as brand equity: additional value attributable to your product, largely due to your brand’s reputation. This is why Coca-Cola costs twice as much as the generic brand in the supermarket. Coke and Pepsi have increased perceived value due to their brand equity.

In a similar way, your artist brand equity relates directly to your reputation. If your music is superior, you have a reputation for putting on an incredible live show, and your merch is stylish and attractive, you can charge more for merch, CDs, and tickets.

But developing a good reputation is not enough to keep your brand in the limelight. Your brand equity is established and earned over time by building a positive and consistent reputation with the public.

Dana Myers contributed to this post.


Keith Hatschek directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He’s also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.

Dana Myers is a practicing attorney in California who advises artists on various legal and copyright matters. She also lectures on music management at the University of the Pacific.

BrandingKeith Hatschek