What the Man Who Invented the Rolling Stones Can Teach You About Branding

Image making by Andrew Loog Oldham

Headshot of Tim Nudd

Andrew Loog Oldham, the manager and producer of the Rolling Stones from 1963 until 1967, still considers his work in branding the world's greatest rock band—he essentially built their image from the ground up—to be all but unsurpassed.

"No one's reinvented the wheel. We're still it," Oldham told Rob Schwartz, the global creative president of TBWA, at the beginning of a conversation at Advertising Week on Wednesday. "You've got the side issue of hip-hop and rap. But in terms of what's left of white people, we're still it."

Oldham, 69, went on to describe how his efforts to get the band noticed in the early days were revolutionary—disruptive, as advertising people would say today.

Oldham did PR work in the early '60s for Bob Dylan and the Beatles. But the Rolling Stones were his blank canvas, and he turned them into legends. Oldham started out in the fashion industry, and he used that experience relentlessly as he crafted the band's image—moving them first from the kind of matching outfits that the Beatles favored to their own, less uniform way of dressing.

"The Beatles looked like they were in show business, and that was the important thing," he said. "And the important thing for the Rolling Stones was to look as if they were not."

Oldham's influence was everywhere. He tightly and efficiently managed almost every aspect of the band's image, which was largely manufactured but made to look simply like the effortless style of five young men.

"I told them who they were, and they became it," Oldham said of the Stones.

Originally, though, it wasn't five young men—it was six. But Oldham thought that was too many for the public to obsess over, so he demoted keyboardist Ian Stewart to studio-only work. Not coincidentally, Stewart wasn't as slim as the other five band members, and didn't fit in the picture that Oldham was drawing. In essence, he was art directing the band.

Oldham played up the Stones' bad-boy image. When a British journalist asked, in a story, "Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?" Oldham publicized the quote far and wide. "Within a week it had become a slogan," he said.

He had the band add "(I Can't Get No)" to the title of the song that was originally called simply "Satisfaction," to more explicitly broadcast its darker theme. He also added a seemingly random comma to the song title on the single for "Paint It Black"—making it "Paint It, Black." That was a sly publicity move, too.

"I think this is a throwback to my admiration for Saul Bass," said Oldham. "I just put a comma in there because I knew I would get calls from the record company saying, 'Are you sure about this? There's a comma there.' And that would make them notice us. If they're releasing 10 or 12 or 20 records a week, it would make them notice us."

Oldham also helped to art direct the band's album covers, beginning with their very first, self-titled record. Oddly, the band's name didn't appear on the front of the record—which was all part of Oldham's plan to build a mystique around them.

"I got away without having their name on it," he said. "And that really was quite a feat. I told the record company, 'You're not getting the record until you agree.' "

Along with his clear vision for the band and his shrewd use of pop culture to promote them, Oldham shared a few other branding tips—chief among them, finding an enemy to work against (for the Stones, it wasn't the Beatles but instead acts like Elvis and Cliff Richard) and moving quickly with any sort of image making—i.e., less overthinking and more overdoing.

"You have to jump into the pool before you know whether there's water in it," he said.

Finally, Oldham said consumer brands can be a lot like rock bands in the sense that, at their best, they're aspirational and linked to your identity.

"The great artists represent you. The great products represent you," he said. "They don't tell you who you are. But with them, you require less verbiage."

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.