What’s in a brand?
What are the ingredients to a good, strong, modern brand? When the subject of branding comes up, we in the creative business often have the joy of enduring the same few examples, ad nauseam— Apple, Nike, Starbucks, Amazon, etc. These are the prototypical “good brands,” that everyone knows and everyone can relate to, and with good reason. There’s certainly a lot there that’s worth talking about.
But it got me to thinking…what else is there? What are some other, perhaps less conventional examples that I could I bring up to twist the conversation into new and interesting places and to make people consider the merits of a good branding through a fresh lens? Or at the very least, make a client more uncomfortable 😉
Here’s one! One which you may or may not be aware of, depending on your age and the circles in which you frequent (or perhaps you are aware, but you don’t even think of it as a brand at all.) I invite you to follow me, as we venture outside the mainstream consumer market for a moment, down a deeper and darker spiral, to a place that’s the stuff of dreams and nightmares, of highbrow sophistication and primal brutalism, with a dash of
dick cannons, ahem, dark comedy. I’m talking, of course, about RAMMSTEIN.
Above: Here’s a small taste of Rammstein for the uninitiated
Rammstein, for those of you who haven’t heard of them, are a German “Neue Deutsche Härte” or industrial metal/shockrock/performance band who hit their peak popularity as part of the “nu metal” movement in the late ’90’s/early 2000s. If you do know them, (if you’re American) you likely know them for “Du Hast” (their biggest single here) and that’s about it, but they’ve been doing their thing within the metal scene (churning out insanely powerful music and setting things and people ablaze on stage) for over 20 years now.
In this article, I’ll conduct a deep-dive dissection of this complex “band brand.” I’ll review the components and evolution of the Rammstein brand, i.e., how it came together and how it has evolved through the years. My goal here will be to shed some light (and maybe a little FIRE) on the merits of fantastic brand-building. I have to warn you though, things may get a bit, uncomfortable. Rammstein is well known for their over-the-top takes on some pretty controversial subject matter. If you’re sensitive to dark, violent, and/or sexual themes in art, I wouldn’t head too far down this rabbit hole.
1. Rammstein: The Music:
Like many aging metalheads, I’ve mellowed with time and life experience and I’ve mostly outgrown the metal scene with its largely synonymous sounds and subject matters, Rammstein being the notable exception. Along with the rest of their loyal fanbase, I’ve followed their illustrious career very closely for the past almost twenty-ish years (God, I’m getting old.) What kept me hooked was that the band itself continued to grow and mature as I did, taking on new subject matter, experimenting with new techniques, but all the while remaining true to their unique style and approach (Despite a lot of variety in the music, you will NEVER mistake a Rammstein for anything other than a Rammstein song.)
Rammstein’s music has always been heavy and raw at its core. Each album takes on various themes and styles without ever getting too soft, too overly produced, or straying too far from core style.
Please Note: I’m not a musician nor a musical critic (nor do I play one on TV,) so I won’t pretend to be one here (i.e., I won’t attempt to talk about the merits of their music with any degree of credibility or sophistication.) But as I mentioned before, this article isn’t really about the music.
“All the best brands are able to evolve with the times, while sticking to their core values and mission. It’s about continually reinterpreting the same message, themes, or values for an evolving audience.”
Continuity Paired with Evolution: The Creative Paradox to Good Branding
The lesson here, from a brand perspective, is continuity. Stylistically, fans know they can expect Rammstein to stick to the things that made them unique and distinctive to begin with. They use a combination of poignant and dramatic lyrics to broach very taboo subject matter (almost exclusively in german), insanely heavy guitar riffs paired with grandiose orchestral melodies, and larger-than-life onstage theatrical performances to craft their uniquely dark, mostly nihilistic, often satirical symphonies. Oh yeah, and FIRE, lots of FIRE (more on that later.)
All the best brands are able to evolve with the times, while sticking to their core values and mission. It’s about continually reinterpreting the same message, themes, or values for an evolving audience. This is something Rammstein does well, not just musically, but though all facets of their brand— music, marketing, style, videos, live performances, merchandise, and more.
How does this apply in more mainstream examples? The short answer is, know thy brand. Let’s look at Google as one example. Through the years, Google was smart enough to realize that their success stemmed from one single quality of their brand, that is, the simplicity of their homepage.
They knew that maintaining a simple, uncluttered homepage was important, so important in fact, that they appointed someone specifically to the role of protecting it from the internal forces within the organization, fighting for attention. Google knew that in this case, they were their own worst enemy and that, without proper safeguards and self-policing, they had the potential to destroy the very thing that had led to their incredible success. Now that’s understanding your brand.
2. Rammstein: The Name
The band was originally named after the 1988 Ramstein air show disaster, but the extra “m” in the band’s name makes it translate literally as “ramming stone”. If you’ve ever heard the music, you can instantly understand how that literal translation “ramming stone” perfectly encapsulates their musical style. I couldn’t think of a better name, honestly. This literal “pureness” of the name, rooted with a deeper, (and darker, in this case) story behind it, is a great case study for naming any new brand.
Key Naming Lessons/Takeaways:
When crafting a new brand, choose a name loaded with some history, deeper meaning, or something you can form a narrative around, ideally a narrative that plays into the values or characteristics that the brand embodies.
Also consider ways to make it feel more unique or proprietary. An example of would be the extra “m” added to “Rammstein.” Note: be careful here, we’ve all seen the trendy ‘e’ is replaced with a ‘3’ stuff in web 2.0 tech logos, etc., I’m not proposing that level of absurdity here. Just consider adding something subtle but distinctive to make it feel more custom. Overall you should be seeking something familiar with a sense of the novelty (yes, I know that’s a direct contradiction.) It should be a name that consumers can deduce some basic meaning or idea from, without too much mental gymnastics, but at the same time feels a bit fresh or novel. It’s a delicate balance, for sure.
Personal example: When naming my daughter, I added an extra ‘n’ to her name. She’s “Fionna” instead of “Fiona.” I didn’t do it so that her name would get misspelled on forms and Starbucks cups for the rest of her life—no—I did it because it just feels more unique, considered, distinctive, etc. (Yes, you might say I “branded” my daughter a bit before she was ever born.)
Not every great brand follows the above two rules, certainly, but when you’re crafting something new these suggestions can help you connote the right ideas and better control how your brand is perceived as it enters the market. Remember that first impressions do matter. In general, simple is better.
3. Rammstein: The Logo
The Rammstein logo, designed originally by Dirk Rudolph, hasn’t evolved much through the years since it appeared on their first studio album, Herzeleid. It’s minimal and fairly geometric, with a “Malevich cross” standing in for the ‘t’. It definitely feels influenced by Malevich Modernism/Suprematism, all though the designer has stated that he wasn’t ‘consciously influenced or inspired by it.
Regardless, I think the stoic, geometric forms coupled with the harsh angles and varying widths of the letterforms perfectly capture the band’s musical style—the juxtaposition of sophisticated techno-industrial beats with raw heavy metal.
A reduced iconic version of the logo, with just the ‘R’ and the ‘T’/ Malevich cross icon was created as an abbreviated version of the logo, which gets used on a lot of merchandise and promotions, and has become almost universally recognized by fans.
Key Logo Lessons/Takeaways:
Logos should be designed with meaning, make sure the visual style of the logo reflects the particulars of your brand. Letterforms and iconography can be thoughtfully executed to capture the unique qualities of the product/brand, no matter how nuanced. Consider taking influence from past art movements or styles to make a distinctive statement but tweak these treatments as appropriate to create something more original, contemporary, or timeless.
Think forward when designing – create something that will stylistically reduce well. Think in terms of how a logo can be abbreviated down to its essence and still communicate everything it needs to. This can become a powerful and ubiquitous branding tool for companies when executed correctly (think Nike swoosh, McDonald’s Arches, etc.)
3. Rammstein: Collateral/Merchandising
When it comes to supporting materials, What I like about the Rammstein brand is that it is versatile enough to allow broader interpretations. Outside of the logo, the visual components of the brand are not beholden to any specific treatments or color schemes. This allows the brand to adapt easily to different use cases. Generally, this manifests itself as separate interpretations with each new album or major release, which becomes a kind of “sub brand” designed to fit the themes and requirements of that particular item.
Another example of an “adaptable” brand that does something similar would be the Aol. rebrand a few years back, what Google does with its homepage to mark different special days and occasions, Coca Cola’s personalized “named” bottle promotion or Starbucks’s seasonal holiday-themed cups.
Rammstein’s merchandising is diverse. Lots of colors, styles, interpretations make it more accessible for a broad audience with broad tastes, but at the same time, some products make specific nuanced references to songs or lyrics that only dedicated fans would know.
Brands and visual systems can be build to be malleable, with clearly-defined key brand “pillars” that are sacred and untouchable, granting enough flexibility to allow for fresh interpretations that keep things creative and interesting.
Brands that can be interpreted more broadly can increase the likelihood of engagement. Conversely, for an established brand, referencing very specific/esoteric elements can also be a powerful way to tighten the community around the brand culture and create a strong “tribal” resonance.
Anything that sounds as big as Rammstein’s music would need a live performance to match, and Rammstein does not disappoint.
Rammstein is perhaps best known for their unique live performances, which feature carefully crafted and executed pyrotechnic effects at various points of the show (as well as some other rather bizarre props and acts which I won’t get into here.) Its a fundamental cornerstone to the brand. The effects are impressive and generally tie to the theme of song they’re performing.
For example, during the song “Engel” (which translates to “Angel” in English) the lead vocalist, Till Lindemann, emerges wearing giant, mechanical angel wings, which extend and ignite into flames, partway through the song (check out the video above.)
I’ve been to a Rammstein live show and can say from experience that you can feel the heat from far back into the stadium, I can’t even begin to imagine what the band endures on stage. That kind of dedication to exceptional delivery is a concept that can be borrowed and implemented in other industries and offerings.
Differentiation is key: what do you bring to your brand that’s completely unique? What can you become ‘known for?’ How do you deliver above and beyond your competition and how can your brand become a symbol of that? What exclusive experience(s) can your audience consistently depend on your brand for?
“How do you deliver above and beyond your competition and how can your brand become a symbol of that? What exclusive experience(s) can your audience consistently depend on your brand for?”
These are just a few examples of how Rammstein has become an unconventional example of powerful brand-building tactics done right. What other bands can you think of that could also fall into this category? Or do you have examples in other industries that have done something similar? Sound off with your thoughts in the comments section.