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Shock and Awe: The Art of Branding “Bad”

When I was slacking off during the Holidays, I watched the Rolling Stones 50th Anniversary special, Crossfire Hurricane on HBO. First of all, as a diehard Stones fan, I never thought I would experience the number “50” in the same sentence as “Rolling Stones,” unless it referred to drug arrests.

As I watched the film clips of the early years, it occurred to me how well they capitalized on becoming a “bad” phenomenon. As the frantic fan base of screaming teenagers grew, the raucous performances were cut short, or hardly got started in many cases, as the audiences stormed the stage. “Bad” was working for them.

Over the years, shocking their fans and the world became a mainstay. Expect anything from the Stones. “Bad” became a great differentiator for them and they worked it. In America, we were transitioning from Everly Brothers to Elvis and Ed Sullivan to Woodstock’s Summer of Love. All relatively sweet compared to the bluesy-rock sound, on-and-off stage antics and drug-fueled reputations the Rolling Stones were building. While you might like both, you were definitely either a Beatles fan or a Stones fan.

So how does an entity, like the Stones brand, survive and thrive—for 50 years!—when, by all outward appearances, they are hurtling headlong down a path of ruin?

Typically we think of branding as building a good reputation. But, essential to branding is positioning—owning an association in the prospect’s mind. Nothing says you have to own “sweetness and light.” For example, my childhood friend’s parents branded me “a bad influence.” (I have no idea where that came from; maybe it was the whole Stones thing.)

Whatever positioning you choose upon which to build your brand, the key is to do it thoroughly and consistently. Here are few examples of the art of using “bad” or unexpected positioning as a strong brand foundation.

The Rolling Stones carved out their piece of the rock brand pie early on. They were the baaaad boys—mischievous, definitely trouble, but not metal-band evil. They nurtured and maintained that position for 50 years.

George Carlin got brand traction with his social satire on the Seven Words You Can Never Say on Televisionbad words. Like Lenny Bruce before him, he got a bad boy image pushing the envelope of what was socially acceptable.

Apple built their brand on being for the outsiders with the Think Different campaign. (However, now that Apple is so mainstream that parents like them, they are losing this brand position.)

Rover's Leftovers, Doody Calls and similar local businesses use humor to clean up in a dirty business. Turning something we don't want to talk about into something we can't stop talking about is good branding.

So, in building a strong, memorable brand choose a style or reputation and wear it consistently. Don’t be afraid of a little shock and awe. Sometimes it's good to be bad.

First Impression ChecklistAre you unintentionally creating a bad first impression? For a quick revelation of what may be missing from your brand experience, before you even engage your prospective client, download my free First Impression Checklist. It’ll give you some tips you can employ right away and provides a glimpse of the value a thorough brand evaluation can provide.


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