Stanley Bert Eisen was born in upper Manhattan in 1952. Chaim Witz was born in Haiti, Israel in 1949, moved to Queens, New York at age 8. Each had challenges to face as youngsters. Stanley was born with a birth defect called microtia, which resulted in loss of hearing in his deformed right ear. Chaim did not speak English when he first arrived in the U.S. Each boy endured insults and bullying – and as a result, both learned how to cope with adversity and to simply be their own person.
Their paths finally crossed when they were both members of Wicked Lester – a band whose music included rock and roll, folk rock and pop. They quickly decided that to pursue their musical vision, they would need to start their own band. Stanley, a singer and guitarist, had changed his name to Paul Stanley, Chaim, a bassist and singer, became Gene Simmons. Rounding out the new band were drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Paul ‘Ace’ Frehley.
The band’s first performance was in 1973. Within the first twenty-four months, they had released three albums, which generated combined sales of less than 300,000 copies. Their live concerts were enjoying a significantly different response. Part of the band’s vision was to be anything but ordinary – even by rock band standards.
Adopting makeup and costumes, the four band members transformed themselves into what can best be referred to as rock superheroes. Using black and white makeup, Stanley became The Starchild; Simmons, The Demon; Criss, The Catman and Frehley, The Spaceman. Their concerts featured Simmons “spitting blood” and “breathing fire”; Stanley smashing guitars; Criss playing levitating drums and Frehley’s guitar exploding into flames during solos.
What better strategy to improve album sales than to incorporate the excitement of their concerts? The band recorded a ‘live’ album which met with much greater success – remaining on the charts for over 100 weeks. While not based on record sales, they became perceived to be the biggest band in the world. Their shows, their persona and their music were all larger than life and anything but subtle.
The band experienced its share of challenges. Criss and Frehley both ‘washed out’ because of issues with alcohol, drugs or burnout. In total, the band has had ten official members. Eric Carr, The Fox, replaced Criss as drummer. Catman and Spaceman became the property of the band when Criss and Frahley left, roles eventually filled by Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer. There have been long periods where the band performed without makeup.
As Stanley and Simmons learned as kids, challenges exist and must be overcome. Over the next forty years, the band went on to produce 14 platinum albums, three multi-platinum and an industry-leading 30 gold albums -selling over 100 million albums in total. KISS is one of the greatest concert rock bands of all time, partly because they led the way with extravagent stage productions. Their song “Rock and Roll All Night” is considered by many to be the definitive anthem for all of rock and roll. They are considered by many to be the ultimate rock band – even described as the ‘essence of rock and roll’. In 2015, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This long-term success, maintained even through hard times is the result of the band KISS being built as a fearless brand.
Fearless Brands transcend difficulties and soar to success
KISS is a truly iconic brand. Gene Simmons is considered by many to be the driving force of the band, yet true insiders attribute that distinction to Paul Stanley. In reality, it is the combination of Simmons and Stanley that drives KISS. In reality, it’s more than even those two. It was the dynamic of the group that led to the idea of make-up and rock superpower personas. As the group discussed possible band names, Criss mentioned the name of his former band, Lips, which in turn led to the name KISS.
Each of the four original members contributed to the band’s personae through their own individual brand. Each added his own talent and passion which, when combined, created magic. Subsequent members added their own element. The result is a band – a brand – which is greater than the sum of its parts.
KISS merchandise continues to sell at dizzying rates – exceeding the income realized by many bands. The KISS logo can be found on virtually everything – from hats and T-shirts to one of the most unique branded items of all times – the KISS Koffin, which sells for just under $4,000.
Simmons and Stanley are more brothers than friends. Criss and Frehley harbor ill-will about how they were treated. Adding to the tension between band members, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would only induct the original four members, they would not recognize the current members. As a result, KISS did not perform at their ceremony, a sad fact, especially for the army of KISS fans who held out hope for a reunion of sorts.
KISS, with its larger than life members, its makeup, its merchandise sales and its legions of fans, is a uniquely fearless brand. Here are some lessons for you to note as you work to build and upgrade your own brand.
People build brands – KISS would not have realized the level of success it has without the personalities, talent and passion of the people behind the brand. Stanley and Simmons had a vision. They chose Criss and Frahley to round out the members of the band. It was those four, primarily, who built the KISS brand. Always look to integrate the talents and passion of everyone involved with your brand. Remember, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Brands transcend individuals – This may seem to contradict my previous point, but it doesn’t. Once a brand is created and established, its relevance and value known, individual personalities become less significant to its continued success. Two examples of this truth are KISS and Apple. Each brand has continued to be successful in spite of losing key people. The point here is twofold – first, understand that a brand can be sustained for the long-haul and secondly, don’t place too high a value on any one person.
Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. – Successful brands evolve – they have to. Conditions change, tastes change, technology improves – there are always moving parts. To become successful, and importantly to remain so, requires a brand to improvise, adapt and overcome. I’ll sum it up this way – your brand must remain stable but never stop moving.
KISS is a powerful brand, one that has had a significant impact on the music industry, musicians and fans. At its heart, are talented and passionate people…but individuals have come and gone. Learn from what Stanley and Simmons have created with KISS. Embrace your vision. Find the right people and leverage their passion and talents. Create a legacy.