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Ain't Talkin' Bout Love: 3 Lessons in Building a Brand from Van Halen

What Eddie Van Halen can teach you about creating a brand that survives both the highs and lows.

Brash. Cocky. Inventive. Larger than life. And louder than hell. 

Those are the terms I'd use to describe Van Halen and the ethos that propelled one of rock's greatest into our shared cultural history. None of that is to say the past 41 years have been devoid of eruption, scandal, and disappointment for the band. Far from it. The core leader of the band has remained Eddie Van Halen and, like other unconventional CEOs (Steve Jobs, Tony Hsieh, Warren Buffett), his my-way-or-the-highway approach has been less than textbook.

Still, Van Halen has achieved worldwide album sales of $96.5 million. All but one of its albums has hit No. Six or better on the charts. And the band's last tour with David Lee Roth grossed $54 million over just 46 shows. That's success by any standard.

Here are three Van Halen-inspired lessons for building a brand to last that apply to even the non-Spandex'd among us:

1. Think About Transcending Time

Few bands have had such a loyal following and the ability to create a new fan base like Van Halen. Since the '70s, Van Halen has crafted a unique sound and brand consistency even with three different frontmen. Could you change the face of your brand and still sell out venues? Would your customers still recognize your core product in the market if it’s packaging changed drastically?

The secret here has been Eddie Van Halen's continued leadership of the band. For better or for worse, he's maintained control from behind the guitar amp and executed consistently on decisions, even when no lead singer was in place.

For example, Van Halen was also able to capture a new audience with the release of Guitar Hero's: Van Halen, back in '09. Teenagers and middle-schoolers now think I'm cool because I listen to Van Halen. This new fan base has bought and shared music, merchandise and more importantly, helped Van Halen connect to a new generation and continue to sell tickets.

2. Evolution Is Not the Enemy of Loyalty

Whether you are on Team David Lee Roth or Team Sammy Hagar (sorry, Gary) you recognize how the band and music have continued to evolve and grow an already loyal fan base, while still staying true to rock and roll. From Eddie Van Halen:

"To me, rock and roll is free-form music, and it's there to take chances -- to not fit a mold or be trendy, or this and that. So, no, it wasn’t the right time with a brand new singer to start experimenting and doing tripped-out stuff. But, hey, it’s rock and roll. Ask me if I’ll do it again and yes, you know, that’s what rock and roll is all about to me."

Your company has to take chances and risks in order to evolve. It has to test organizational limits.

It was clearly a risk to bring in Sammy Hagar to replace the iconic David Lee Roth. Different sound, deeper lyrics, and less stage charisma could have been a disaster, but the stats prove otherwise. All four Van Hagar albums hit No. 1 on the U.S. charts. 

In corporate evolution terms, if you only recruit via big boards because you're scared of social media, you will wither. If you fail to recognize the value of an employment brand and how it should represent your culture, you will suffer. If you don't retool in order to take advantage of mobile talent acquisition strategies, you will miss out.

3. Stick To Your Principles

Eddie Van Halen once said,

You know, Van Halen is not a pop band. But we write all types of different music. I don't know, it's like a big square peg trying to fit into a little tiny round hole, you know? And we're not Spice. We're not Hansen. We’re just Van Halen, you know? It’s not flavor of the month. I mean, I'm in the business of making music, not in the music business so to speak.

Like in many companies, as years pass and leaders come and go, it's natural for business plans to shift, drift or die.

Van Halen has always been about the music and the band hasn't backed down from its original vision. All organizations have history and a jumping-off point that defined what they do and how they do it. The ones that have commercial success, a strong brand, and the ability to attract all types of talent have stayed true to their vision, values, and founding principles. 

Just look at Van Halen's iconic logo. While it did shift slightly during the Sammy years, the core components never changed. Another testament to Eddie Van Halen's power as a CEO who, like other greats, has protected and grown his brand through the years.

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Last updated: Dec 18, 2013

KATHY RAPP | SVP, hrQ professional services firm

Kathy Rapp?s is SVP of the HR professional services firm hrQ. She has booked time in corporate HR with the likes of Four Seasons Hotels, Morgan Stanley, and First Data, as well as a startup in the entertainment industry.




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