Queen’s Crest and other superband brands
Many bands have achieved superstardom with the help of proper visual branding. The combined physical appearance of the members forms the visual symbol and imagery of a band. The image of the Beatles at the start of their career, with their distinctive and uniform pudding-basin haircut, wearing suits in stark contrast to the image of every other aspiring musician at the time, was a clever ploy that their manager Brian Epstein used to set them apart visually and draw attention to the group and their music.
KISS is another group which totally manipulated its image with make-up and outrageous stage costumes, so much so that they were unrecognisable without their make-up. Roy Orbison carefully cultivated his “dark star” image by dyeing his blond hair black, wearing black sunglasses and only black clothing when appearing on stage.
Queen’s multi-talented Freddy Mercury, who studied illustration and graphic design before becoming a musician, designed the brandmark for the band and used it on the back of their first album cover. Freddie had this to say about the band’s name: “I thought up the name Queen. It’s just a name, but it’s very regal obviously, and it sounds splendid. It’s a strong name, very universal and immediate. It had a lot of visual potential and was open to all sorts of interpretations. I was certainly aware of gay connotations, but that was just one facet of it.”
Queen’s Crest, in the form of a colour illustration, was used as the cover art for the album, A Night at the Opera, that put them on the music map. At the time, this album, with its diverse musical styles and experimentation with stereo sound, was the most expensive ever produced, featuring the hit song “Bohemian Rhapsody” that was voted, several times, the greatest song of all time. The band decided to make a video to go with the single. The result is generally considered to have been one of the first “true” music videos produced and was the first musical video offered free of charge to any programme, network or station which would air it. In 2003, A Night at the Opera was ranked number 230 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
The brandmark, affectionately known as Queen’s Crest, is in the form of a heraldic design resembling the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. Its focus is the queen’s crown, positioned on an oval shield which is created by a ribbon simultaneously forming the capital letter Q. Stylised illustrations of the four member’s zodiac sun signs; two lions for Leo (Deacon and Taylor), a crab for Cancer (Bryan May), and two fairies for Virgo (Freddie Mercury born as Farrokh Bulsara) surround the Q shield in various positions. In astrology, the planet Mercury is the ruler of Virgo and was obviously the inspiration for Freddie’s surname. These design elements are all set against the background of a phoenix rising from the flames.
I remember walking past a record shop back in 1977 in Johannesburg, South Africa when for the first time I heard “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Bryan May’s guitar playing stopped me dead in my tracks and I just simply had to know what and who was playing. As an art student myself, I was so impressed by the music and illustration, a colour version of the Queen Crest on the cover of A Night at the Opera, that I immediately bought the album. The Queen Crest was later simplified as a line drawing and used to illustrate various subsequent album covers.
Virgin Records, founded by Richard Branson and later sold for US$1-billion to EMI, sported an elegant brandmark featuring two embracing virgins, which was also known as the Gemini or twins brandmark. Long after Virgin’s success as a record label, Branson, unfortunately, threw out the baby with the bathwater when it was changed to the current version after he had lunch with a designer. Branson thought that he’d got a bargain: a brandmark for the price of a lunch, but I thought he overpaid for that ugly scrawl on the back of a paper napkin.
Branson used the loot from Virgin’s sale to litigate with British Airways, which eventually settled for more than US$1-billion. Proof that if you throw enough money at a brand, it might work. I say might because Branson’s Virgin Cola was a total flop. I have a great deal of respect for the fight in the man, his principles and courage, but he still needs to learn some lessons about branding. Is Richard Branson the brand or Virgin?
The rock bands, Boston and Eagles, had their own brandmarks designed and the Rolling Stones became synonymous with Mick Jagger’s large mouth with his tongue sticking out. This image became the distinctive red-and-white lips-and-tongue symbol – designed by John Pasche – that was registered as the band’s trademark and has featured prominently on T-shirts and record and CD covers ever since.
The mistake that became ABBA’s official trademark
ABBA, the Swedish pop group formed in 1972 that topped the charts worldwide from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, is a fine example of making the best of one of the essential elements of visual branding. ABBA is an acronym formed from the first letters of each of the group members’ names (Agnetha, Björn, Benny, Anni-Frid). This is a perfect example of what makes for the best brandname; a proper noun consisting of less than four unique letters, an easy-to-pronounce acronym with a nice alliteration, which is also the Hebrew word for father.
The acronym reflects a direct link with each individual member of the group, making it more personal. In addition, the novelty of this brandname made it easy to remember a group of people with unusual foreign names. This was further reinforced in the logo with the first B in the ABBA brandmark mirrored.
ABBA gained immense international popularity by using simple lyrics and overdubbing the female singers’ voices in multiple harmonies. They toured Europe, Australia and North America, drawing crowds of near-hysterical fans and continued to release studio albums with great commercial success. The group was widely noted for the colourful and trendsetting costumes its members wore. The videos accompanying some of their biggest hits are often cited as being among the earliest examples of the genre.
ABBA made music videos because their songs were hits in many different countries and personal appearances were not always possible. Some of these videos became classics because of the 1970s-era costumes and early video effects, such as grouping the band members in different combinations of pairs, overlapping one singer’s profile with another’s full face, and contrasting one member with another.
They remain a fixture of radio playlists and are one of the world’s best-selling bands, with sales of more than 370-million records and current annual sales of two- to four-million records. ABBA was also the first pop group from mainland Europe to enjoy consistent success in the charts of English-speaking countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Ireland, South Africa, Rhodesia, Australia and New Zealand. Their enormous popularity subsequently opened the doors for other continental European acts.
The first time the name is found written on paper is on a recording session sheet from the Metronome Studio in Stockholm, dated 16 October 1973. It was first written as “Björn, Benny, Agnetha & Frida” but was subsequently crossed out and “ABBA” was written in large letters above it. The first B in the ABBA brandmark was mirrored and this design became the group’s registered trademark. The idea for the brandmark originated from a photographic shoot for the teenage magazine Bravo by German photographer Wolfgang Heilemann. Every ABBA member held a giant initial letter of his or her name for the photograph, but after the film was developed, Heilemann discovered that one of the men had held his B upside down. ABBA liked it and the official brandmark, set in capitals in News Gothic Bold type, was designed by Rune Söderqvist and appeared for the first time on the “Dancing Queen” single in August 1976 and subsequently on all later original albums and singles.
The group’s album, Arrival, a number-one bestseller all over Europe and Australia, represented a new level of accomplishment in both songwriting and studio recording. The real sensation was “Dancing Queen”, not only topping the charts in the devoted markets of the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia, but also reaching number one in the United States.
ABBA’s music had a resurgence in the early 1990s when the United Kingdom synth-pop duo Erasure released cover versions of ABBA’s songs, which topped the charts in the spring of 1992. In Stockholm, at a concert in June 1992 the band U2 paid tribute to ABBA by inviting Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson to join them on stage for a rendition of “Dancing Queen”, playing guitar and keyboards. September 1992 saw the release of ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits, a new compilation album, which became a massive worldwide seller. The album became the most popular ABBA release ever, selling more than 26-million copies to date and setting records for chart longevity.
In 1994, Thank You for the Music, a four-disc box set comprising all the group’s hits and standout album tracks, was released with the blessing and involvement of all four members. ABBA was soon recognised and embraced by other artists, such as Sinéad O’Connor and Boyzone’s Stephen Gately, Blancmange, Dionne Warwick and Peter Cetera. In April 1999, the Mamma Mia! musical opened in London, and soon premièred in cities worldwide to huge acclaim.
In 2000, ABBA was reported to have turned down an offer of US$1-billion to do a reunion tour consisting of 100 concerts. This is regarded as an urban legend, as the actual amount was more like one-billion Swedish kronor (US$140-million). Thomas Johansson, manager of ABBA, stated that they had been offered “breathtaking sums for a reunited ABBA”.
The success continues after more than 30 years
Mamma Mia!‘s huge success worldwide and the 2008 film starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan increased the demand for ABBA’s music. The compilation album, ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits, originally released in 1992, returned to number one in the UK album charts for the fifth time in August 2008. In August 2008, the soundtrack of Mamma Mia! The Movie went to number one on the USA Billboard charts. This was the first time an ABBA album had ever reached the top of the American record charts. More recently, all eight studio albums, together with a ninth of rare tracks, have been released as ABBA The Albums and, amazingly, has hit charts in Sweden and several other European countries.
In 2008, Sony, in collaboration with Universal Music Group Sweden AB, released SingStar ABBA on both the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 video game systems as part of the SingStar music video games. The game features 20 ABBA songs on PS2 and 25 on PS3, most of them number-one hits. The game was released worldwide as a standalone game. SingStar games require players to sing along with music to score points. Players interface with their console via SingStar microphones while a music video plays in the background. The game analyses a player’s pitch and compares it to the original track, with players scoring points based on how accurate their singing is.
In the 2008 United States presidential election, Senator John McCain wanted to use ABBA’s music in his campaign but opted against it, citing licensing and other concerns. Two ex-ABBA members, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, premiered their first newly written pop song in 15 years, “Story of a Heart”, in 2009. According to the official ABBA website, merchandise such as ABBA T-shirts will soon be available worldwide and this truly superbrand band is set to rival the Beatles in popularity.