3 Things Kiss Taught Me About Marketing

Iconic band knew how to rock brand storytelling

When I was a kid, I straight-up loved Kiss. I was drawn to the makeup-wearing, leather-clad, blood-spitting, loud-playing band like a full-on groupie, buying every album and putting on face paint and singing my goddamn lungs out.

Jason Harris Alex Fine

In hindsight, the music was secondary to the mythology swirling around my head about the band, which is to be expected—because when I listen to it now, its music actually kinda blows.

Still, Kiss is a band with a clear story behind the characters—the hopelessly romantic Starchild; the long-tongued Demon; the otherworldly Spaceman; and the Cat with nine lives (mainly surviving drug overdoses). I'd obsessively stare at their album covers, break down the deep meanings of their lyrics, and I even joined the Kiss Army to be part of their story.

Even at a young age, I knew I liked being part of storytelling, so I can blame Kiss for leading me into a roller-coaster career in advertising. Garnering fame with story-driven performances, Kiss transformed mundane items into prized possessions. In connecting with the audience through its characters, Kiss turned its story into a brand, selling all kinds of Kiss accoutrements.

Applying that same strategy in advertising, brands can flip the dynamic to maximize audience engagement and sales—not through ads, but rather through stories.

With the amount of choice consumers have today, advertising must be bigger than a product's pricing and specs. Brands must encourage consumers to actively decide to tune into their messaging by appealing to them on an emotional, story-driven level. Storytelling for a brand is knowing what it stands for and communicating this in various, consistent and simple ways to its audience over time.

So here are my three Kiss-inspired principles for brands to leverage storytelling in their communications.

Find your story 
Identify what your brand stands for and find an enduring, truthful message to attach to it. Kiss did this by crafting mythology and stories around its music. Similarly, Dove did this with key audience insight.

In 2004, Dove totally turned the beauty industry on its head with the "Real Beauty" campaign. It deviated from the norm of using magazine models to reach everyday women and highlighted their stories.

Dove took a bold risk, but it wasn't aiming for a one-hit stunt. Instead, the brand crafted a story based in fundamental truths about authentic versus projected commercial beauty, and became a decade-plus advertising success. This allowed Dove to go well beyond a simple generic bar of soap into line extensions galore that matched its story.

Stick with your story 
Once you find your story, consistency is key. Find fresh and unique ways to share the narrative over time without changing the storyline itself. Kiss went beyond concerts and albums to TV shows, apps and even video games with its story. A great brand example of consistency is Geico.

Car insurance isn't sexy. It's also typically associated with long, painful applications and crappy hold music. So when Geico introduced its "15 minutes could save you 15 percent or more" campaign, it told a different, attention-grabbing story—one of ease and consumer benefits that poked fun at a traditionally drab industry.

Geico has continued using the same tongue-in-cheek story about its convenient service, with the tagline now ingrained in consumer minds. While the story has stayed the same, Geico has continued finding clever, relevant and entertaining ways to deliver it in all formats.

Let others tell your story 
When a brand's narrative is continued by relatable, legitimate sources, that narrative gets turbocharged. Kiss did this by creating the Kiss Army, one of the first analog ambassador programs. The band had its fans successfully call and hassle radio stations to play its music. One of our clients, Ben & Jerry's, lets others tell its story as well.

Ben & Jerry's intent is to use ice cream to share stories built on the shoulders of the people that make the brand: workers who deserve to be paid fairly; cows who deserve the best care; consumers who should have the right to choose who they marry; and how climate change will affect us all. By giving a microphone to communities across the world, Ben & Jerry's proves its story rather than shouting it. And the suppliers, employees, farmers and customers carry that story forward through petitions, education, social media and blog content.

Storytelling is certainly not always a miracle cure for poor products or bad concepts, but it can be a connection, carrying great ideas far and wide, and crystallizing the essence of the brand to make a lasting impact.

So, imagine, a musically mediocre band like Kiss, which has never had a U.S. No. 1 single but is one of the world's best-selling bands of all time, and what the power of consistent storytelling has done for them.

Now imagine what it can do for you.

A retired member of the Kiss Army, Jason Harris (@jason_harris) is CEO of award-winning creative agency Mekanism.

This story first appeared in the December 5, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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