Please let me introduce you to my friend Kevin Tucker and his branding/design company Collide Creative. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Kevin during my years at Word Entertainment. Kevin’s creative design and branding excellence has helped build the story for an impressive list of music artists. His design work has provided the foundation for numerous successful marketing launches from major Country & Christian record labels. Collide Creative gets our One Great Business award and I highly recommend you check them out for your design and branding needs. Kevin is based in Nashville, TN but works with clients across the US.
By Kevin Tucker
Every successful artist has found a way into the hearts and minds of those who support them. One of the major keys to engaging fans in a way that develops their loyalty, even devotion, over the course of the artist’s career. There are a lot of ingredients to the recipe for that kind of success, but a large portion of it boils down to branding. I know, you’ve heard people talk about branding so much in the music industry that it seems like it’s this nebulous, all-encompassing buzzword devoid of any definition. Does it even mean anything anymore? I’m here to tell you that it still means… everything.
But let’s set music aside for a moment. Think about your favorite consumer products or services. What makes you loyal to them? It’s likely a combination of factors, largely the promise of quality in what they offer, and the consistency in which they deliver on that promise, but there’s likely an intangible quality about the brand that you inherently connect to on an emotional level. Somehow what that brand stands for just “clicks” for you, and you sing their praises to all of your friends, even defending them to those who would criticize it. This kinship and loyalty didn’t develop through haphazard circumstance, and to accomplish that for any brand requires a great deal of expertise working together in a concerted, purposeful effort.
A brand is quite simply a reputation, and the experts in the industry who work under the umbrella of branding are those who play a part in the development and management of that reputation. That’s a big job… so it’s no wonder that the word is so prevalent. It encompasses many aspects of industry expertise in any industry, and for music it includes many fields including artist development, management, marketing, public relations, image development, photography, and design. The latter three areas are where the root of my personal expertise lies, but more on that later on. Branding requires a centralized effort in which everyone involved shares in the common goals. This is crucial for an artist’s initial launch, but it’s equally important throughout the process of promoting the artist and project. All of these areas combine to build stories around the brand and create an ongoing narrative that connects people to this brand/reputation. (As another example see Keith’s post about Nashville’s boutique jeans makers Imogene + Willie)
For the music industry, the longer-term effort is career-level brand-buildling; but the boots on the ground are typically working on one project at a time (typically an album or a tour), and usually each project has its own unique brand aspects which, though they relate to the long-term branding effort, are part of that project’s unique identity.
There are many artists out there who have leveraged branding well throughout their careers. Some contemporary examples include Mercy Me, Kanye West, Eric Church, Eminem, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Weird Al Yankovic, Beyonce, and Kid Rock. Odds are you find it difficult to compare that list of artists, because you don’t have an equal appreciation for their work. And that’s completely appropriate, because odds are that you’re not the intended audience for every single one of those artists. It’s crucial to know your audience… trying to be everything to everyone is a dead-end that leads to bland results that appeal to no one in a meaningful way. For example, make a list of your 5 favorite foods. Now imagine putting them all in a blender and drinking a smoothie of that every day. Yuck!
Throughout an artist’s career, they will evolve, sometimes even “reinvent” their sound and/or their look, and successful examples of this are the result of building on the established loyalty of an audience. Taylor Swift is a great current example of this – the shift she has made stylistically over her past couple albums would likely not have sustained her success without her devoted legions supporting it, and without careful attention to managing the transition and maintaining the fan base throughout the process.
Now, I haven’t talked much about design & visual brand development yet, which may come as some surprise if you know my work. But I think it’s important to talk about how visual elements work within this branding ecosystem, because there are some out there who would use “branding” and “design” as if they were synonymous, and I think that’s a mistake. Design & visual development do play a very crucial role in branding, though, for two very important reasons.
First, an artist’s image allows all of the intangible ideas about their brand to be made tangible; to provide a set of visuals that symbolize that reputation in the minds of the audience. It’s somewhat comparable to what a logo represents for a product, or umbrella brand of products, but more like the complexities of how a product is consistently represented through advertising and packaging.
Second, those visuals are frequently the first impression of an artist’s reputation, especially in this digital age. While radio still plays a big role in providing first impressions (especially in Country and CCM), more and more people are initially introduced to an artist through visuals, and this is the beginning of the relationship with each audience member. It’s often that first impression that will factor into whether the music is heard, and will accompany it when it’s shared, repeating the cycle. And these visuals, again, serve as a symbolic reminder of the artist’s brand repeatedly, throughout the development of that relationship.
In this increasingly noisy world, how can an artist stand out? In the days where music retail was one of the key first impressions for artist visuals, some would suggest that an album cover should “pop off the shelf” as compared to those around it. Even then, I would suggest that, instead, what it needs to do is connect to those to whom it’s intended to appeal in a unique, meaningful way. That may sound like a subtle distinction, but if everything on the shelf were competing with one another to jump out at you at you, we’d have nothing but screaming neon, holographic, googly-eyed product everywhere and no one would want to go into that room, let alone browse the product. But I digress… the point is that these days, there’s a drastically larger amount of visual competition, and standing out online in a world of postage-stamp-sized covers is impossible without a purposeful, targeted effort.
I’ve had the privilege through my career thus far to be charged with developing the visual branding elements for a vast variety of talented and successful artists. Each one has their own unique appeal to a particular audience. There’s no formula for success – each one is the result of understanding the goal. Speaking from my own experience, here are a few examples:
I worked with country superstars Big & Rich via Warner Music Nashville since their debut album, and have been involved in art direction & design on a total of 7 releases for them. From the beginning, these guys had a unique twist on Country music, weaving together a seemingly contradictory mixture of quirky humor and heartfelt messages into an entertainment spectacle that one can’t help compare to a circus (and who doesn’t love the circus?). As they developed and grew this reputation, I was privileged to have the opportunity to define the visuals that conveyed it and played a part in shaping it.
Big Daddy Weave are a well-established 5-piece band in Contemporary Christian Music, and their album imaging has focused on the typical rock look, with covers usually featuring conceptual artwork with less focus on recognizable imagery of the members of the band. As their popularity and relevance increased, they began to build an appeal as personalities, and on their latest album Love Come to Life, we put their faces front-and-center, and built a set of images that pair that with conceptually centric imagery that stays true to their personality and message.
Working with artists with more familiar brands has its own set of advantages and challenges. There’s no need to establish in audiences’ minds who Amy Grant and Willie Nelson are, but in the case of both Amy’s Legacy: Hymns & Faith, and Willie’s Remember Me, Vol. 1, their typical brand took a slight detour to convey the unique qualities of the project. Amy’s project took a more organic turn and a focus on worshipful music, and the value of traditions. Similarly, Willie’s project were his versions of the Country classics he most admired. Each required playing off of the respective familiarity, each with its own an artful twist.
Often I work with new artists, helping define their look and brand. As a current example, I worked with Ele – a teenage Christian pop singer with roots in the classics and a modern sensibility (and a powerful voice to boot). Her first album Your Girl helped to begin the process of building her reputation, but as her second release, an upcoming yet-to-be-titled EP, is coming together, taking a fresh look at her look to reflect her personal and professional maturity (her first album was released when she was only 13) has turned into a discussion of whether to revisit her professional name. As simple as “Ele” is (pronounced “el-ee”; short for Eleanor) is it recognizable enough to be memorable? What trade-offs would there be for alienating those who are already familiar with her as “Ele” as compared to how a new name might be a factor in building her reputation among new audiences? Tough questions, and a process we’re still discussing.
Sure, branding decisions can make or break an artist’s career, but it’s not something to be intimidated by. Any artist preparing for success is already surrounding themselves with a team of trusted experts who will guide and collaborate with them through the different aspects of this process. As the artist keeps making great music and building their reputation, the team will help manage it and introduce new people into their audience, many of whom will eventually become the devoted fans every artist seeks.
Kevin Tucker is a Creative Director in Nashville who has worked in the music industry since 1996. He helps artists, companies, and organizations bring personality to their brands in digital and traditional media through impactful art direction and strategic consulting. To see more of his work, visit CollideCreative.com.