How KISS built a historic rock brand

Yes, they rock and rolled all night. And marketed every day.

The band now known as KISS began as “Wicked Lester”. Formed in 1973 by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley (or Demon and Starchild, to you) Wicked Lester was a pop and folk-rock band whose first three albums generated combined sales of less than 300,000 copies.

But with the addition of lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss, things started, well… evolving.

“Nobody else was involved,” Gene Simmons recalled to 90’s fanzine Pork Chops & Applesauce about the origins of his signature look. “I just remember being in a loft in downtown New York, and looking in the mirror and just starting to draw.”

What happened was a complete transformation from a dime a dozen garage band to forty-year spanning, 100 million in album sales earning, fire-breathing cultural juggernaut. And hey they even made a couple decent songs along the way.

So, what was the secret of KISS’s success? Well, it was more than face paint.

1. Spin what’s in

In the early 1970’s “glitter rock” artists like David Bowie and Slade were taking the UK by storm- and influencing pop culture across the pond.

“At the same time that we were forming in New York, there was a very big glitter scene, where boys were basically acting like girls and putting on makeup,” recalled Simmons. “Well, we were more like football players; all of us were over 6 feet tall, and it just wasn’t convincing!”

And so, a new sub-genre in the glitzy era of disco was born. While Alice Cooper may have ushered in “macho glam” first with his heavy eye makeup and tight sequined costumes, KISS created the 2.0 version. Full on rock superheroes in platform shoes.

The Demon, Catman, Ace and Starchild thrilled live audiences with their gruesome outfits, flaming guitars and crazy pyrotechnics. Essentially, they turned their shows into a must-see event, building a following by delivering at concerts what could never quite be captured on a record.

In fact, it wasn’t until the band released their fourth album Alive , a live album that many say finally captured the magic of a live KISS show, that the band broke into the top 40 for the first time with “I Wanna Rock N Roll All Night.”

2. Leverage brand loyalty

Embracing their diehard fans has always been a hallmark of the KISS brand.

In January of 1975, Bill Starkey and Jay Evans, two teenagers in Indiana, started calling local radio station, WTVS, to request KISS music. After getting turned down repeatedly the pair intensified their efforts, writing letters signed by the “President and Field Marshall of the KISS Army.” By July, the station started to play KISS records and name-checking the Army. Before long fans were calling up the station, asking how they could “enlist”.

Soon, the KISS Army became the official fan club of the group, scooping up merchandise and helping to sell out stadiums all over the world.

At its peak, The Kiss Army fan club raked in $5,000 a day. This may qualify as chump change in the age of Gaga’s Little Monsters and Taylor’s Swifties but adopting a fan club started by a couple kids in Indiana and turning into a 100,000 member worldwide network definitely catapulted the KISS brand.

3. Merchandise. Merchandise. Merchandise.

Hello Kitty lunch boxes. Coffee table books. Action figures. Fragrances. Even coffins. Scratch that, “Kiss Kaskets”.

According to Sandra O’Loughlin of Brandweek magazine, “KISS has licensed its name to more than 3,000 product categories.”

Not just products. Product categories. That’s a lot of kitsch. And even more cold, hard cash.

Some estimate that the KISS brand is worth between 1 and 5 billion dollars. And Gene Simmons is completely unapologetic for that.

“The KISS thing, when you really look at it,” he told Business Insider, “has become this huge monster, despite the fact that critics say that doing games and slot machines and golf courses is not credible. Critics still live in their mother’s basement. We own the world.”

If putting your name on every piece of merchandise possible aligns with your brand…why not? Just like some luxury companies protect their logo like the Hope Diamond, it’s part of the KISS image to be overexposed. And that strategy has paid off…handsomely.

So go ahead and call them sellouts.

“Yeah, we sell out,” bassist Gene Simmons says in their VH1 Behind the Musicspecial; “we sell out [our concerts] every night.” Burn.