You know the conversation: You say to a booker at a venue, “We’d love to play here.” The booker looks at you and says, “What kind of band are you?” How good is your next sentence? Do you have a story to tell, something that sets you apart from the dozens of other bands vying for a date at that venue? A cover band needs an identity and a position within the marketplace just like any business or organization. You need a way to communicate the unique value you bring. In short, you need a brand.
In this post we’ll look at what branding is, how it works, and how quality branding can make your band stand out from the crowd. I’m focusing on cover bands in this post. The opportunities and demands for branding are different for originals bands. For a group or artist that does originals, the music itself should be the driver of the branding. A cover band can create a brand based what they see in the marketplace, and have their decisions be driven by that.
What is branding? Why does my cover band need to worry about this?
When people think of branding, they often think of a logo. While a great logo is definitely part of branding, it’s not the most important piece by a long shot.
You can think of a brand as the story that a company or organization tells about themselves. A brand is how you are defined and understood in the market place. Another way to think of it is, a brand is a promise that you make to the consumer about the kind of product or service you will provide them.
Throughout this article, I’ll be using real-life examples from my band The Clanky Lincolns to talk about both the process of coming up with a brand, and the value of having done that work.
The components of a brand
There are a number of components to think through on your way to designing your cover band’s brand. Different branding experts list these differently, but these are the ones that have been most valuable to us.
As we said in our article about transitioning a bar band into a wedding band, you can think of a target market or audience like an archery bulls-eye. There’s the audience that lives at the bulls-eye, which is the most valuable and important to hit, and then there are concentric rings of audience groups that are still targeted, but less important. It’s also okay to have more than one target market, but you have to develop separate branding components for each of them.
The Clanky Lincolns have one target market that is the audiences we play to. Women in the audience are the bulls-eye. Their male partners are in the next ring, and single guys are in the third ring.
A second target market for us is cover band bookers: venues, and people hiring for weddings and parties. More on the differences between these two target markets as we go through the remaining brand components.
This is the position that your brand holds (or wants to hold) in the mind of the audience, relative to other providers in the marketplace. This may be a deliberate thing, or you might embrace a condition in your scene and make it your own. The Clanky Lincolns have been around for less than a year. So we made that part of our brand positioning: the hottest new cover band on the scene, perfect for venues that want to refresh their acts. Obviously we’ll need to reconsider this sometime in the future, but that’s ok! Brands aren’t static.
A brand has a personality, just like a human being. How does it feel hanging around with your band? Some might be artistic and serious. Others might be virtuosic and dynamic. You know these, even if you’re unaware of it. Think of the brand personality of Harley Davidson. Or of Apple Computer. Or Coca-Cola. You know how they “are” just from hearing their names. That’s branding at work. Some branding experts refer to the Jungian personality archetypes as a good source of brand personalities.
Regarding the target market called “the audience”, The Clanky Lincolns have a personality that is youthful, energetic, fun, and highly approachable. That personality has driven decisions like not to dress special for bar gigs. We don’t want “being dressed up” to put any barrier between us and the audience. With the “booker” target market, our band personality is professional, friendly, and efficient. We’re a partner who knows what a venue needs, and is there to deliver it with zero fuss and zero drama.
What is the experience people have as they interact with your brand? McDonalds and Five Guys both sell burgers, but they have quite different brand experiences. The experiences people have with your brand are part of the story you’re telling the world about who you are. Note that this is true for experiences you deliberately bring about for them, and for ones that happen by accident. A bartender overhearing an argument among bandmates now has that as part of his brand experience. Showing up on time versus showing up late is a crucial moment of brand experience.
With the “audience” market, we’re out to have them have the single most fun night they’ve ever had listening to a band. We wrap them in a BIG party energy, and leave them happy and alive. With the “booker” market, we create a brand experience of confidence, certainty, and partnership. That leads us to take actions like confirming gigs a week before a show, and also reconfirming the day of.
What are the key differences between this brand and any other? How does this brand stand out in the crowd? This is a specific benefit that is unique to you, that speaks to a specific need of the target audience.
The Clanky Lincolns made a deliberate choice not to play too loud, and to tackle different material than what our local market is saturated with. We appeal to an age range that includes younger people than most cover bands near us. We have a lot of attention on how we look and move when we perform, and a big emphasis on crowd engagement and interaction. There are bands that are better musically than we are, but nobody in our market puts on a better SHOW. That’s a deliberate point of differentiation for us.
This includes a memorable name and logo. These can either be descriptive of the product you’re offering, or not; the important thing is that it’s memorable. Notice how far down the list we are by the time we get here. Your identity should be generated FROM all the above components, rather than the other way around.
In The Clanky Lincolns, we like the edge of ambiguity in our name. Like, the car Lincoln? The president? The five dollar bill? It makes people wonder and talk to themselves (and others) about us, which helps our name stick in people’s heads. It’s also just a little hard to pronounce, which adds to its stickiness. We hired a fantastic comic book artist named Thomas Boatwright to design our mascot character Abe. Together the name and the mascot make a pretty hard to forget brand identity.
This is all design elements except the name and logo. It includes photography, font and color choices, tag lines and bios, and everything else that visually and verbally expresses your brand. Canned pieces of mic talk are part of your brand collateral, and any written content you use. You could say that your song selection is part of your brand collateral.
We hired a professional photographer to shoot some stand-alone photos early on, and we’ve had her at several shows to do action shots. We’ve used those photos in marketing pieces, online, and in lots of other contexts. We’ve also built a library of design components. Often we float Abe on a crinkled kraft-paper background, with a starburst emanating from his head. Our gig flyers, banners, and merch all follow the same basic design vocabulary.
You’ve got to honestly assess the gap between the brand you’ve designed, versus what people perceive from your band. Your cover band has a brand whether you want it to or not. The question is, is it the brand you intend? Or one happening by accident? Closing the brand gap is an exercise in honesty and self-reflection, and then sometimes pretty hard work. The Clanky Lincolns has made personnel changes due to gaps we identified in our brand. Fortunately we haven’t been around long enough for our behavior to drift too far off-brand, but that definitely can happen as a brand ages.
How does this apply to my cover band?
A brand can help drive all manner of decisions, from gig attire to song selection to equipment. For instance, part of our brand differentiation, as mentioned above, is that we don’t play too loud. This is in response to a complaint we heard really often from bookers, about how a cover band just puts out too many decibels for their space.
So we bought a PA system consisting of dual TurboSound iP2000 powered speakers, a linear-array tower speaker system that can get plenty loud, but can also pleasantly fill a space without enormous volume. It even sounds great dialed way back. Our drummer has both acoustic and electronic drums that he can bring out as appropriate to the venue. We’ve played this rig at huge outdoor parties and, in one case, literally in a two-car garage, and it’s worked great without hurting people in every space. We get extremely positive feedback (and re-bookings) from just that one thing.
It will also get you thinking creatively in terms of marketing options, promos, and add-ons. When we contemplated the aspect of our brand where we’re a great partner for bars that book us, that got us thinking about how we could promote drink sales. This eventually led us to creating our signature drink, which we have bars put on special when we play. Sometimes they sell a lot and sometimes they don’t, but the real value is what it says to the venue: we understand your business, we get what you’re here for, and we’re here for that too.
Ideas for implementing the brand
Hopefully this article so far gives you new way of looking at the merch your cover band sells. Shirts and koozies and stickers are obvious branding opportunities that are valuable far beyond the revenue they bring in. We figure that if we break even overall, we’re doing fine on the branding value of our merch. A few shirt sales at $15 fund a lot of give-away shirts. We use them to thank someone who booked us or did us a favor, or for anyone who comes out to our show on their birthday. Plus, generosity with our merch is totally in line with our brand personality as friendly and approachable!
You’re probably aware that your musical selections might not be a fit for every venue and audience. It’s also the case that your brand might not be! And there are probably venues whose brand aligns perfectly with yours. Go find them and forge a lasting and profitable relationship with them! We love bars where the crowd is diverse in both age and background. We also love breaking in bars that don’t do music that often, and turning them into music venues.
Stop undercutting your brand!
In our market in the triad area of North Carolina, there are three really excellent cover bands that have very similar names. They’re all really good players, good friends of ours, whose work we admire. And they suffer from sub-optimal branding. Their names are easily confused, and don’t say anything unique about who they are. Their logos are just their names in sort of interesting fonts. They’re very different bands, but if you’re not already deep in the scene, you’re never going to tell them apart. In brand-component terms, we’d say that the don’t have a strong Brand Identity.
Lots of cover band photography you see online is just a picture of the players looking serious and holding instruments. And there are hundreds of bands with exactly the same photo. We have great photography, but our logo is a line-drawn leaping anamatronic president, and we use that in places that lots of bands are using the classic dead-eyed “We’re a band!” picture. (Besides, nobody cares what the players look like. Seriously. Unless Taye Diggs plays bass for you, showing the players’ faces makes no difference.)
Sweat the small stuff.
Hopefully you already know that every moment on stage has an impact on your audience’s perception of the show. Well every time a venue staff person (at any level) sees you, you’re giving them a brand experience. Whether you’re walking in the door to hustle up a gig, loading and setting up your gear, ordering a drink or dinner, settling payment at the end of the night, or literally anything else, YOU are the brand, and how you behave needs to BE the brand.
We do our load-in and load-out very efficiently, usually one trip on our Rock-n-Roller Cart. A venue sees us rolling up in the door, our whole setup on that thing, each piece in a case or carrying bag bungeed up tight and secure, and it’s clear we’re organized, efficient, and experienced. On the other hand, if you kick your guitar cable ahead of you while scraping a sub across their floor, you’ve just given them a brand experience that you’re disorganized, sloppy, and don’t care about your gear. (Which is pretty “rock and roll”, come to think of it. If that’s the brand personality you’re going for, then there you go!)
It’s important to catch yourself when you’re acting off-brand. We recently noticed that we were not being fun and approachable during setup and sound check. We put in some practices to change that. It is possible to be busy and friendly at the same time!
Ultimately, your cover band is going to have a brand whether you do this work or not. Some call it a “reputation”, and others just talk about that band and “how they are”.
But strong brands never happen by accident. If you put in this work, you’ll find yourself getting traction with rebooking that you never expected. Word of mouth will pick up both among bookers and among audience members. Any anxiety about “what they think of us” will evaporate, because you’ll have engineered exactly what they think of you. You’ll find yourself much more confident and at ease on stage, knowing you’ve done the groundwork necessary for your band to carve out a successful path.