The Rolling Stones offer business lessons

The group is turning 50, and they can still stake a claim on youthful rebellion. How did they do it?

(Photo: Jonathan Short/AP)

I don’t even know what a crossfire hurricane is, but I wish I’d been born in one, just like Mick Jagger’s alter ego, Jumpin’ Jack Flash. It sounds heroic. It also sounds like an acceptable excuse for bad behaviour. That’s a pretty intoxicating combination, you have to admit.

Rock ’n’ roll’s greatest brand, the Rolling Stones, is turning 50 this year. That’s not a feat most of our favourite brands these days have managed, with a few rare, equally iconic exceptions. Even Apple—the exemplar we most like to beat each other over the head with in boardroom debates—has only made it about 70% of the way, and the Stones didn’t have the kind of tailwind that the Internet gave the folks in Cupertino. If the Rolling Stones made running shoes or soft drinks, we’d be studying them in business schools and offsite bonding workshops to see how our brands can be more like theirs. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea. In an enterprise as faddish as music, endurance like that could teach modern business a few lessons.

The power of focus is surely the most profound one. The Rolling Stones are paragons of positioning, a seemingly lost art in an age when we can buy our snow tires and groceries in the same cavernous store. They’ve known exactly what they were right from the start and, perhaps more important, what they were not. In archival footage from their new documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, a commentator observes that they have “as many enemies as fans.” Putting a finer point on it, Keith Richards says, “The Beatles got the white hat. What’s left? The black hat.” Great positioning is like that. Defiantly polarizing, fearlessly exclusionary, and somehow magically more attractive for it.

For all the Stones’ legendary indulgences, boring themselves is one they’ve avoided, and that, too, offers a lesson. They’ve understood time as an agent in brand building: how you start fresh, pass through the fire of irrelevance, then become authentic, and then become sacred. They patiently (or obliviously) let the world change around them, and thus became eternal rather than ephemeral. So much so that when the band hired Shepard Fairey, a credentialed iconoclast, to design an anniversary logo for them, he described himself as “overwhelmed” by the responsibility. So much so that it was Fairey who convinced Jagger that the tongue logo had to stay. When a brand becomes sacred, it practically takes care of itself.

Yet as careful as the Stones are about messing with their product, they’re up for anything when it comes to packaging and promoting it. Their new album, Grrr, is being launched in a thoroughly modern transmedia hurricane of its own. Initiated by Keith’s and then Mick’s books, and followed by suspenseful talk of a tour, the public’s seduction has stretched over a year. When the album finally arrives, it will be flanked by their documentary film, a social media full-court press, and an augmented reality app that invites fans to be subversive promotional collaborators. The Stones may create their product on their own terms, but they sell it on ours. It feels deferential—in a good way—as if they recognize we’re out here, and they’re swimming in the same culture we are. Sometimes, that’s the best place to invest your innovation, where consumers see it as a sign you care, rather than as showing off.

The truth is, I can hardly tell one Stones tune from the next, aside from the hits. But you’ve got to admire how a bunch of pensioners can still stake a claim on youthful rebellion. You’ve got to admire how, with every new product they make, they’re born again, and the same as they ever were. That’s how a brand can still be going strong after half a century, its prospects limited only by nature itself. In a time when the average investor is buying stock at prices that assume 15 or 20 years of continued prosperity, it’s worth asking what it takes to keep a business performing for that long. The answer might not be incessant novelty. The answer might just be conviction. I know, it’s only rock ’n’ roll, but apparently you can take it to the bank.

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award