What AC/DC can teach us about building a brand
“The key business lesson from AC/DC is that if you do something well, stick with it. AC/DC don’t force experimental new songs on their audience. They give them what they want. And they do it exceptionally well.”
Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC
You might not think Marketing Professor Byron Sharp and Hard Rock legends AC/DC have much in common. But it turns out they have a similar view as to how to build a brand — whether they know it or not…
A seismic shift in Marketing occurred 2010 with the publication of Professor Byron Sharp’s ‘How brands grow’.
It proposed an alternative view of marketing effectiveness to the traditional approach that had dominated until then. Prior to its publication the focus was on segmenting, targeting and positioning, Unique Selling Points, differentiation, loyalty and ‘Brand Love’.
Byron Sharp’s book cut straight through that with a focus on empirical data, the scientific method, and a ruthless lack of sympathy for the traditional approach.
So I was (Thunder)struck the other day with a good case study that could bring some of those principles to life.
AC/DC are hard rock royalty
I can’t believe there are many people who don’t know who AC/DC are (otherwise this article would be pointless). But just in case, they are an Australian Hard rock band formed in Sydney in 1973 by Scottish-born brothers Malcolm and Angus Young.
They have sold over 200 Million albums world-wide with their seminal album ‘Back in Black’ becoming the second best selling album of all-time with only ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson ahead of it.
They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 and regularly fill the largest stadiums on earth when they go on tour.
The band are now all well into their 60s but released the critically acclaimed album ‘Power Up’ in 2020 which charted at Number 1 in the US, UK, Germany and their home turf of Australia.
So how have they managed to do all that and still stay as popular as they ever were some 50 years on into their career? Well Byron Sharp’s rules can give us a clue and maybe you can take some lessons from AC/DC.
Blueprint for b(r)and growth
Essentially Byron Sharp posits that to grow a brand you need to create, strengthen and preserve two things: Mental Availability and Physical Availability.
Mental availability is the likelihood that a buyer will notice, recognize and/or think of a brand in buying situations.
Fundamentally therefore it is about memory and the need to build and reinforce brand-linked memory structures that make the brand easier to notice and buy.
In order to do that you need to:
- Create distinctive brand assets
- Be consistent, yet fresh and interesting.
- Create an emotional response that is connected to your brand.
1. Create distinctive brand assets
If I showed you a Nike Swoosh, played you the “I’m lovin’ it” jingle or presented you with the silhouette of a Coke bottle you would instantly be able to tell me the name of the brand.
These distinctive brand assets or “codes” are ingrained in our brains and are mental shortcuts that create familiarity. In psychological terms familiarity does not breed contempt. Instead it creates a positive attitude towards said brand.
AC/DC are highly distinctive
AC/DC have developed some of the most distinctive brand assets of any band — both visually and sonically. If I were to show you:
a guitarist playing a guitar shaped like that (A Gibson SG) in a schoolboy outfit
a lead singer in vest, jeans and flat cap
or this font.
a large proportion of the population would be able to associate them with AC/DC.
But it’s not just visuals that make AC/DC distinctive.
A lot of people (read “No taste philistines”) dismiss AC/DC as meat and potatoes, blues-based, pub rock. Three chords and a four on the floor beat. Simplistic. Lacking in nuance, subtlety and complexity.
But this would be wrong.
Yes some of the riffs are simple but as anyone who works in advertising should tell you, effective simplicity is really hard to achieve. Technical wizardry and complexity is difficult but writing a simple driving riff that becomes iconic? That’s harder still. Doing that whilst making it sound distinctively yours? Harder again.
AC/DC have a hugely distinctive sound — a combination of riffs, tone and vocals that can only be them.
The secret to some of the best riffs AC/DC have come up with is silence. Ironic for a band who play through stacks of Marshall amps but think about it — ‘Back in Black’, ‘Highway to Hell’, ‘You shook me all night long’, ‘Dirty deeds done dirt cheap’, ‘T.N.T’. All those riffs have silence written into them that makes them distinctively AC/DC.
Angus and Malcom Young (the two main guitarists in the band’s history) have basically played the same amps (Marshall Super Leads and Super Basses respectively), and guitars (Gibson SG for Angus, Gretsch G6131 Jet Firebird for Malcolm) for ever.
To quote Angus’ guitar tech:
“Angus won’t change anything if he doesn’t have to”.
Both singer Bon Scott, and his successor Brian Johnson (after Bon’s tragic death in 1980), have a vocal tone that is very distinctive — a high register with a gravelly delivery. In fact when Brian Johnson had to pull out of a tour for hearing issues in 2016 the only person who could get close was Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses!
Implications for marketers:
Distinctive brand assets are a marketers best friend. They are the mental shortcuts that enable customers to remember a brand in a buying situation.
The key thing to note is that you have distinctive assets — DO. NOT. CHANGE. THEM! I get it. Maybe the logos or colours are not to your taste. Maybe you’re a new CMO desperate to make your mark and a re-brand feels like a nice, dramatic way to do that.
Or because you see them every day you start to get bored. Or your creative agency does. You fail to realise your customers are not living the brand like you do.
But please don’t. Especially if you are walking into distinctive assets that have years of heritage. I mean look at the homogenisation of some world famous distinctive assets below and tell me which column is most distinctive……
If you don’t already have distinctive brand assets you need to develop some. Professor Mark Ritson reckons you need three or four — a logo, colour, image and sound perhaps.
2. Be consistent, yet fresh and interesting
So building distinctive assets is key but the reason we associate all these assets to AC/DC is because of the consistent use. They have created those visual and aural assets that are distinctively them and stuck with them. Here is an image of every AC/DC album cover.
Note that the logo rarely changes. The few exceptions are notably all from early in the bands career. Also note that Angus, his SG and his schoolboy outfit are hugely prevalent.
Angus started wearing that outfit from before his time in the band and continues to wear it on stage to this day. He plays the same guitars and amps (in some cases not just the same model but the actual guitar).
Lead Singer Brian Johnson has worn the same vest, jeans, flat clap on stage since he joined in 1980 after original singer Bon Scott’s untimely demise.
And then there’s the sound of the band. I leave it to Angus to explain:
“Our art is there is no art! The critics view is always, ‘They’ve just made an album, and it’s exactly the same as the last one.’ Well, I’ll have 17 of them anytime!
A lot of bands can chop and change their style into almost anything. We’ve never gotten sidetracked like that: we know what we do best, and we’ve never strayed from it. If we did, then it wouldn’t be AC/DC. I mean, if I wanna hear some reggae, then I’ll by a @#$%in’ Bob Marley album!”
Kept it fresh and interesting
Whilst AC/DC have in their own words kept it consistent over the years, they haven’t necessarily stood still — making changes between key albums. Here’s an example from an article in Kerrang magazine*:
There are those that will argue that AC/DC’s approach to songwriting has never actually changed. That in itself is a falsehood. ‘Powerage’ — released in May 1978 — captures the band at their most hooligan on tracks like ‘Rock’n’Roll Damnation’, ‘Sin City’ and the sheer battery of ‘Riff Raff’. In contrast, Powerage’s successor, ‘Highway To Hell’, is infinitely more polished.
Play both albums back-to-back and the songwriting development on the album is evident. The choruses are bigger, the guitars sharper and Bon’s vocals sound richer.
So whilst they have stayed true to what AC/DC is they have tweaked their music and their production over the years to keep it interesting.
Implications for marketers:
Consistency and repetition are not sexy but they are the bedrock of creating distinctive brand assets.
I used to complain about the ‘Brand Police’ in various clients but now I actually get why they were so strict. Ensuring the salience of your brand codes in your communications is crucial.
Professor Mark Ritson puts it this way in his usual inimitable style:
“If you aren’t overdoing your codes, 900% you aren’t getting it. Unless you are vomiting because you are so sick of them, do it more. You are underplaying your codes because to you they seem obvious; but to the customer, they are gone in a second. You cannot overplay codes. You can overuse your logo, you cannot overplay your codes.”
Once you have created something distinctive and consistently drummed it into your customer's and potential customer's minds, you can start to freshen things up.
But be warned don’t do this too soon. It takes a long time for codes to be established enough for you to completely change or tweak them. Resist the urge to play. Ritson even suggests 40 years of consistency before trying anything!
But if you have inherited some historic brand codes, rather than trying to build some, then maybe you can play around with your brand’s distinctiveness for great creative effect.
3. Create an emotional response that is connected to your brand.
According to the chapter ‘, All you Need is Emotion. Really?’ by Phil Barden in the book ‘Eat your Greens’, generating emotion is crucial in creating memory structures:
…..in order to survive, and to optimise future decisions and actions, it was especially important to store and remember those objects and situations that evoked a strong emotional response.
So, if an ad is emotionally engaging, we are more likely to store it. This contributes to the recall of the ad, and also increases the mental availability of the brand.
But creating emotion is not enough. Any emotion has to be tied back to the brand in order for that emotion to create memory and mental availability. Again to quote Phil Barden:
To leverage the potential of the arousal, the brand/product needs to be the agent that triggers the response.
Music is an emotion driver on many levels and they’re all positive emotions largely. It creates memory structures that endure long after other forms of memory largely because it engages many parts of the brain triggering connections and creating associations.
Music is also a hugely important in deriving an identity — it creates a sense of belonging with others of a similar passion.
AC/DC have created music that speaks to a lot of people. Their music has helped people party, get laid, deal with anger, and more. It has inspired a million cover bands and other artists to create their own music.
Their gigs are a huge, cathartic displays of love and passion. They create a loyalty in their fanbase that is extraordinary.
Implications for marketers
Behavioural Science has for years told us that the idea of people making purely rational decisions is nonsense. Now we know that creating an emotional response to a brands advertising creates stronger memory structures.
If your advertising is a rational list of product features you’re making a big mistake.
The use of emotion is crucial in what Les Binet and Peter Field would call Brand-building marketing activity. When you are trying to create Mental Availabilty.
When you are lower down the funnel and trying to drive immediate sales more rational messaging is appropriate but even then emotion can help customers make the final decision to buy.
Physical availability is essentially how easy your brand is to find and buy and can be broken into the three components shown here.
AC/DC understood this without knowing the theory. There are two elements of physical availability for a band:
- Playing live
- Being able to buy and listen to their recorded music and merchandise
Obviously, a live band can only be in one place at a time but AC/DC understood that they need to be out on the road, playing live, and building a fanbase. People needed to see them and they went to great lengths to do that consistently (there’s that word again).
It’s going to take a good three-and-a-half hours to get back to London, but AC/DC don’t seem to mind. To them it’s just a short trip, a skip around the block. A six-gigs-a-week band in Australia, they think nothing of trundling huge distances across vast deserts and open spaces using only scruffy dirt tracks to travel from one venue to another
‘How AC/DC conquered the world from the back of a van’ by Geoff Barton
Selling music and merchandise
AC/DC have been smart in getting their music and brand out there for consumption. Clearly, in today’s music industry, it’s easier than ever to get music out to people through streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube which AC/DC eventually embraced.
But over the years AC/DC struck exclusive deals with Wal-Mart and licensed their music to game companies, iOS apps and sports franchises. I mean how often do you hear ‘Thunderstruck’ at sports events? A lot.
Their music is in films and commercials — The Marvel Studio’s Iron Man trilogy being a special highlight which even produced a soundtrack/greatest hits album for Iron Man 2.
They have leveraged their brand into everything from neckties to red wine to a line of Converse Chuck Taylors, and even a Monopoly board game.
Implications for Marketers
Improving your physical availability is one of the quickest routes to major brand growth. How can you increase your prevalence, prominence and relevance?
If you’re a single-channel brand could you look at becoming multi-channel? If you’re a Direct to Consumer brand could you get into established retailers as well? Can you pay retailers to give your brand more prominence in a given store?
I would consider that Search rankings are the equivalent of digital shelves. If you’re not on the first search page, you’re essentially not on the digital shelf. How can you improve your SEO or pay to be where you need to be seen?
The Bottom Line
AC/DC are legends. Still massively influential after decades in the music business. Still selling out stadiums. They have a lot to teach marketers about longevity and building a brand.
Remember consistency, distinctiveness and emotion that create and reinforce memory structures are the core elements of building and growing Mental availability.
And maximising your Physical availability in terms of presence, prominence and relevance is crucial.
And remember, it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock ’n’ roll…..
I am a Senior Marketing Consultant with over 20 years of experience across both client and agency side specialising in CRM, CX and Loyalty. I have applied my knowledge across brands as diverse as Vodafone, McDonald’s, Volkswagen, Westpac, and GAME.
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