The marketing genius of KISS. Seriously.


My son is a professional musician and has wanted to be a performer since he was a little boy.  Once I determined that this was his true life goal, not a “phase,” I figured I had better support him and do everything I could to help him succeed.  I wanted him to think a lot about the business and marketing aspects of the music business and I decided the best classroom for that was a KISS concert.

For any serious marketer, a study of KISS should be a required curriculum.  I just read where the glam-band has a new album coming out and are preparing for a world tour.  So here is the question every savvy marketer should consider:   How can a quartet of 60-year-old men prance about in high heels, sell out a 25,000-seat arena anywhere in the world in 30 minutes, hawk millions in merchandise, and attract a passionate legion of fans known as their “army” nearly FORTY YEARS after they picked up their first guitar and discoverered they had no talent?

Polish your boots, tune your guitar and turn it up loud.  We’re all going to the classroom of KISS:

1) Give your customers EXACTLY what they want.  When you go to a KISS concert, you don’t get breath-taking improvisation and cerebral lyrics. You get pyrotechnics, explosions, costumes and decibles of sound that make your heart pound out of your chest.  You know every note and every word and can sing along in a fun and predictable manner.  This is what KISS fans want and this is what the band delivers — every time. At one point the band abandoned the makeup, tried more serious stuff and spectacularly tanked. That was their equvialent of New Coke. Put the make-up back on, and the fans returned.   Consistent brand image is essential.

2) Then give them MORE of what they want. The new KISS tour promises one of the largest, most extravagant stage productions in history.  Bigger, badder and louder for a band like KISS is their version of “now with lemon scent.”  That’s what keeps the fans interested and coming back year after year — a chance to see what new tricks are in store!  So innovate, but don’t ever abandon your core brand promise or your core customers.

3) Develop adjacencies. An adjacency is a new product related to your core offering that can provide new revenue streams. KISS has relentlessly spun off new ideas in merchandise, video games, toys, television programs and comic books that have attracted their own devotees.  Of course Gene Simmons has a reality show in the U.S. and Jeremy Bramwell told me he has a different hit show in the U.K., too.

4) Develop a brand and ferociously protect it.  One of the most fun KISS stories: When the band was just starting out and broke, they would surround their stage with mountains of empty speaker shells — none of them worked — to give the illusion that they were bigger and more important than they were (I guess that is like Twitter followers today?).  Was this tricking the customer?  No less than getting somebody to believe that Coca-Cola stands for something more than colored sugar water.  To be the biggest band in the world, they had to ACT like the biggest band in the world!

5) Put customers above everything.  I can’t imagine applying that kabuki make-up in a different city every night and playing the same songs over and over and over again … the same way … for decades. I’m sure they get sick of it.  But somehow (money) they find a way to approach their job, and their brand, with fresh passion every show because they HAVE to. They’re well-rewarded, but they also sacrifice a lot for their fans.  Say what you want about them.  KISS knows their customers and ALWAYS delivers.

What do you think?  What other business lessons can we learn from KISS or your favorite band?

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  • Not marketing related but certainly production related: I’d just heard a podcast of This American Life where Ira Glass was talking to the lead singer of They Might Be Giants about some of the preposterous deva stories behind rock and roll. Ira mentioned the Brown M&M thing with Van Halen in a reference of how bands can be such hard work. Apparently, Van Halen had a clause in their contract tucked deeply away that stated that they wanted a bowl full of M&Ms in their dressing rooms but they wanted all the brown ones taken out.

    The guy form They Might be Giants said that in fact, the brown M&M thing wasn’t about Van Halen being high maintenance, it was about checking to see if the production companies in each of the cities had read the whole contract as there were a lot of specific elements in the contract that pertained to the build of the set and the production of the show and if the contract wasn’t read fully, they could be walking into a very dangerous situation. So if Van Halen walked into the dressing rooms and there were brown M&Ms, they knew they had to go through the whole production from top to bottom.

    To us viewers and listeners, a concert is 2 hours of heavy hitting rock and roll. To the bands and the people who make it happen, its one of the most highly complex events an organization could stage. And they do it night after night.

    Long live Rock and Roll!

  • Since you took things in this direction may I suggest a study of the band Phish. Kiss may sell out 25,000 seat arenas. But for Phish, a band that has had little to no radio play or television exposure has thrown music festivals featuring only them selves that draw over 70,000 people on average. They have embraced social media and did so before it was so mainstream and popular. Kiss my have an army but Phish’s fan base is a Nation unto itself. When the played the IT festival in limestone Maine for that weekend their fan base was the largest city in Maine… check them out

  • Mark

    Thanks for the cool story, Peter.

    My son’s band, Royal Bangs, was recently featured on iTunes and is on their first national tour, to be followed by a European tour. Glamorous huh?

    Not quite. To make a run at it, they all had to quit the security of their regular jobs (Ryan worked for Apple) and typically sleep in their van or the floor of a fan’s apartment. Most of the guys have serious girlfriends who they might see for a day or two in the span of the next three months. Their time is spent with each other, driving in a van or cooped up in a cramped room. At this point, if they don’t tour, they don’t eat.

    They have sacrificed, produced an amazing album (“Let it Beep” – buy it!) and have a loyal fan base but the fact is, no matter how good they are or how hard they work, with the state of the music industry where nobody pays for anything, they may never make real money until one of their songs is used in a TV show or movie.

    So how is that for staying on topic! : )

  • Mark

    @Nathan … and they have an ice cream flavor named after them. How is THAT for the most amazing marketing opportunity in the history of rock!!

  • Any band that can keep such a massive following after playing a vacuum cleaner has my vote.

  • Ah yes Jon Fishman’s vacuum solos are something else, saw him take one at the Hartford, MA. show this summer. Love those guys.

  • Mark, as you’ve heard through the comments there are many, many examples in the music business of bands that do well. What’s interesting about Kiss and others like them is that their brand has survived not only for a very long time but has actually skipped to another generation creating longevity. How they did this is (as you’ve communicated) the important point we can all learn from.

    One additional point I’d like to add is “Keep it fresh”. Not fresh as in new but every time you “perform”, treat it as the first and most exciting thing you’ve ever done, even though you’ve basically done the same thing over and over……To you, it’s old, to your audience, it is brand new or at best a rare experience and very exciting. Keep your passion at all cost!

  • Both of my brother-in-laws are in bands and they are HUGE Kiss fans. They took me to a Kiss farewell concert and now I’m a fan. Paul Stanley explained that they were disappointed in most concerts they went to and did not get their money’s worth. So, they set out to put on the greatest show in the world. Kiss has one of the best value propositions in music industry.

    And let’s not forget the money. MTV interviewed Ted Nugent and asked, “Do you think this is really their final farewell tour?” (I think it was Kiss’ 5th farewell tour.) He said, “Hell no, those guys like to keep the money rolling in.”

    Gene Simmons was genius for the idea of stage characters from his love of comic books. That and their use of the ‘big guitar’ differentiates them from the other bands in their market.

    Kiss is the hottest band in the world.

  • Mark

    Ok, now I will make you really jealous. I was reminded last night that about 10 years ago my wife actually went bowling in Hollywood with Gene Simmons and Shannon Tweed. Gene is a pretty fair bowler. So you learned something today.

  • Mark – You left out one of Kiss’ best adjacent products: The Kiss Coffin. You can even take them to the grave!

  • Mark W Schaefer

    @ Steve — Had no idea. Learn something every day!

  • Pingback: on the subject of “beth” … (kiss, 1976) « Go big or go home()

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