Gene Simmons, the bassist and most recognizable member of 1970s rock band Kiss, was once asked what he learned from his first job delivering newspapers in Queens, New York. “If someone likes you,” he said, “they’ll buy what you’re selling—whether or not they need it.”
Simmons learned that lesson at 13. Today, at 64, he and his band mates have proven just how far that nugget of wisdom can be taken. Simmons might be famous for his fire-spitting, serpent-tongued stage persona, but a big part of his $300 million fortune has come not from playing but licensing.
To date, Kiss has stamped its name and likenesses on an estimated 3,000 products—not just the predictable concert swag like T-shirts and belt buckles, but also beer, condoms, slot machines, a miniature golf course, a restaurant chain, a Hello Kitty franchise and even a branded coffin (the “Kiss Kasket”). As guitarist Paul Stanley unabashedly put it, “We will put our brand on anything.”
But as the ads here suggest, there’s more going on behind Kiss’ branding than the mere printing of money. Licensing 101 teaches that even the most inveterate name slappers observe some limits. Martha Stewart might endorse scores of home products but probably not a brand of motor oil. So how can a bunch of rockers who usually hawk clutter like $7 Johnny Lightning die-cast cars (shown in this 1998 ad) also manage to strike a pose for designer John Varvatos, whose suits (shown in this 2014 ad) sell for $895 at Nordstrom?
“Kiss is sliding up the scale, and it’s interesting that they’ve been able to do that,” noted Chris Raih, founder and managing director of Los Angeles-based marketing firm Zambezi. Raih attributes the veteran rock band’s plasticity—its rare ability to endorse lowbrow and high—to several factors. One is the seven-year run of A&E’s Gene Simmons Family Jewels, which revealed the oversexed rocker to be an articulate family man whose kids attended private schools. “The show mellowed his image,” Raih said.
There’s also a burnishing that happens with the passage of time, especially when it comes to rock bands. Acts that were the stuff of parental nightmares 30 years ago have today become familiar, whimsical tokens of lost adolescence. Finally, Raih points out, Kiss has always “embraced the fact that they’re caricatures of themselves,” as willing to poke fun of their makeup and platform boots as their critics. That understanding gives this otherwise sleek Varvatos ad its dusting of humor.
In fact, for all the Kiss fans who grumble over the band’s commercialism, even the grousing has a hint of admiration in it. After all, the band is still making money and still playing rock—and what’s more American than that, damn it?
“Behind all the makeup and the shenanigans,” Raih said, “these guys know what they’re doing.”
When this 1998 ad appeared, Kiss had already been stamping its name on merchandise for over 20 years. That most of the merch had basically nothing to do with music wasn’t an impediment. Raih said the band understood that they were more about image than anything else and used that fact as an opportunity. “It allowed them to enter into deals less selectively,” he said, “and play all along the spectrum.”
1. Grayscale and gritty, this Brooklyn backdrop is an aesthetic nod to Kiss’ 1975 album, Dressed to Kill, which also featured the band in suits and was shot in New York. Only older viewers will get the reference, but the ad works without it, too.
2. Paul Stanley’s signature, sex-filled stare gives Varvatos’ suits a decided edge. Or, as Raih put it: “Kiss gives him rock ‘n’ roll authenticity.” Such a thing isn’t easy to buy, but if any band has it for sale, it’s Kiss.
3. Growing up in 1970s Detroit, Varvatos was “obsessed by the whole music thing” and has since dressed several rock gods, including Iggy Pop. But landing “super heroes” Gene and Paul was, Varvatos said, the high point of his career.