Start a Brand: How to Find the Best Match of Artist and Visual Icon

By Crystal Caviness

© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

Gone are the days of taking unknown talents and stuffing them into prefabricated models chosen simply because they worked well for somebody else. Today’s consumers are savvy enough to recognize a generic image when they see it. Instead, authenticity is the the nom de jour.

“It’s not manipulative, it’s purposeful,” said Nancy Tunick, Managing Partner and Co-Owner, GrassRoots Promotion in Nashville, who stresses the primary goal of imaging is to make a connection between the artist and the listener. “People like to gravitate to others who are like them.”

To that end, Tunick and others in her field help artists discover the most effective details to emphasize. “You’re finding the central point and widening the radius around it,” she said. “It’s always evolving. It doesn’t always have to be the same endpoint. It’s not a template. Everybody’s journey as an artist is completely different.”

But each journey begins with the music. “Once the music is made, that’s the first step in branding yourself,” said Tunick. “It starts as audio and progresses to visual. You have a songwriter’s or singer’s voice, you create your art and that art informs your critical image. Everything has to lead back to the fact that you want to connect.”

Numerous Country artist brands and images have left their imprint through the years. Some are tangible: Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black,” Willie Nelson’s bandana and battered guitar, Brooks & Dunn’s Texas Longhorn logo, Dolly Parton’s down-home/ exotic hair. Others are more ephemeral: Reba’s image is that she is always evolving her image, while the rowdy persona of Hank Williams Jr. has been his trademark for years.

Few, however, have created a brand as solid as Garth Brooks, whose starched Wranglers, color-blocked long-sleeved shirts and lower-case “g” logo continue to create immediate recognition for the superstar. Joe Mansfield, who runs Brooks’ label Pearl Records, worked closely with Brooks at Capitol Records and headed his marketing team during the artist’s phenomenal rise in the 1980s and ’90s. He credits Brooks as the source of all of his own branding and Virginia Team, a graphic artist who Mansfield knew from New York, for bringing his visions to fruition.

“Garth comes up with all the ideas, the poses he wants,” said Mansfield. “He’s done all of his publicity shots. He has a good eye for art, and Virginia has a good eye for art. They pretty much thought just alike. But the imaging came from him. He always knows what he wants, what he wants next year and what he wants in five years. Garth gets the credit.”

In most cases, though, creating the artist’s brand is a group effort, which image consultant and stylist Michealle Vanderpool considers an organic process. “Branding is not about saying, ‘Oh, he’s a doll, let’s dress him.’ It’s about bringing out the music, the personality,” said Vanderpool, who owns Michealle Vanderpool Salon in Nashville. “You want the artist to be proud when they see the images in a crowd. That’s what I take into consideration.”

Though guided largely by the goal of representing the artist authentically, discovering the right image still requires a process, often undertaken by committee. Vanderpool, for example, typically speaks with artists, managers, label executives, photographers and publicists in order to zero in on a brand concept.

“I do different interviews,” she said. “And then I love to have everybody at the roundtable so we can see where they are. Once they do that, then I get down to the serious work. What can this person work towards? The colors, the images, the textures — bring me pictures of things they like, things they don’t like. Show me where your comfortability is. It tells me where I can take them. When you do this with somebody, you walk through their lives. Branding in our world is about evolution. You have to stand apart.”

Sometimes standing apart can involve focusing as much on the tools of the artist’s trade as the artists themselves. Willie Nelson’s Martin N-20 guitar, named Trigger, and the “Buck Owens American” signature red, white and blue Silvertone 3219 guitar, built by Harmony, are two legendary instruments, each one recognizable even apart from the Country Music Hall of Fame members who play them. That brand identification wasn’t lost on Nelson, who said “Roy Rogers had a horse named Trigger. I figured this is my horse!”

“Branding reflects the personality behind an artist,” said Jonathan Forstot, Director of Brand Marketing, Taylor Guitars. He knows this first-hand, since Taylor Swift collaborated with his company to produce her famous sparkly Taylor GS6 guitar. Bejeweled with Swarovski crystals, the instrument was featured in her video for “Our Song,” prompting requests from fans who want to buy one as well. It is, however, one-of-a-kind, Forstot confirmed.

Swift’s relationship with Taylor Guitars goes back a few years, when the teenaged artist’s father purchased one for her. “She bought her first one like everybody else does,” he said. “She clearly found inspiration in that particular instrument. It’s really important to have an instrument that responds, that sounds well and plays great.”

Several years and Platinum albums later, Swift now owns seven different Taylor models, including a guitar built with Hawaiian Koa wood, which she uses for writing but also plays frequently onstage. Because of the company’s history with Swift, it recently created a Taylor Swift signature model, called the Taylor Swift Baby Taylor, in her honor.

Swift’s affinity for these guitars confirms that the GS6 serves both of its purposes well; it made her recognizable at a very early stage of her career and it continues to enhance her music today as her instrument of choice.

“You find that incorporating their lifestyles works best because you know that’s what sticks,” said Vanderpool. “You really are much better to find and resource something that is close to their heart and home. The artists have to find what hits home for them. The Country audience can see through it. They can feel it, because these artists are real people too.”

Taylor Swift with a “sparkly” Taylor GS6 guitar. photo: Ash Newell/Provided by Country Music Association

Willie Nelson a with Martin N-20 guitar. photo: Danny Clinch/Provided by Country Music Association

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