Not all bands are the same. Neither are all brands. The 1960s “rivalry” between the Beatles and Rolling Stones is more than a page in pop music history; it’s an excellent study of brands and brand loyalty.
The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band
Both the Beatles and Rolling Stones released their first records in the early sixties—the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” in October 1962, followed by the Stones’ “Come On“ in June 1963. The rest is, as often said, history.
It’s a pretty good bet that today’s Millennials and Gen Z’ers look upon the two biggest classic rock acts of all time as just that—history or their parents’ (or grandparents’) music—but there was a time when these two groups were “the thing” in popular music.
Throughout the sixties, the Beatles put 28 singles and 16 albums into the U.S. Top 40. The Stones were not far behind, with 17 singles and 10 albums. Though the Beatles disbanded in 1969, the Stones continued with 22 more singles and 14 more albums in the Top 40 through the 1980s, earning themselves the title of “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.”
The Stones were devoted followers of U.S. bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as rock-and-rollers Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley. They endeavored to be bluesmen themselves and even took their name from Waters’ tune, “Rollin’ Stone.”
Though the Beatles intersect with the Stones in their love of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, whose songs they covered on their early albums, they took just as much influence from the lighter, jazzier sounds of skiffle music and the dance-hall tunes of their parents’ generation.
On stage, the Beatles smiled and had fun—they were entertainers. Whereas the Stones were serious, a bit threatening even. They were earnest bluesmen. The Beatles mostly sang love songs. The Stones mostly didn’t, favoring darker, earthier subject matter.
Their manager, Andrew Oldham, capitalized the bands’ differences, promoting the Stones as “the nasty opposites of the Beatles,” said Jim Marshall in his book, “The Rolling Stones 1972.” He had them pose, unsmiling, for their first album cover and fed the press reactive headlines such as, “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?”
By the time they reached the U.S., the Stones’ image was firmly established. The Associated Press regarded them as “dirtier, streakier, and more disheveled than the Beatles” in their first report. Journalist Tom Wolfe, then writing for Esquire magazine, said, “The Beatles want to hold your hand but the Stones want to burn down your town.”
Oldham’s differentiation tactic worked remarkably well and the Stones became the then bad boys of rock.
In the sixties, teenagers in the U.S. and U.K. defined themselves by their preference for one group over the other. It was one way or the other and there could be no credible middle ground. “Beatles or Stones?” was how one might choose or reject a new friend or a potential date.
The Beatles were light; the Stones were dark. The Beatles were pop; the Stones were rock. The Beatles were love; the Stones were sex. Toward the latter part of the decade, the groups even became identified with opposing political movements: Beatles were perceived as pacifist, while the Stones were seen as militant.
As someone responsible for brand development or management, you simply couldn’t ask for a stronger brand differentiation.
In terms of record sales, the Beatles overshadowed the Stones with 270 million versus 95 million. Despite being the sales underdog, they are undoubtedly one of the biggest rock and roll bands ever. Let’s look at how they did it.
The Stones could have simply copied the Beatles’ formula: suits, smiles, cheeky humor and plenty of love songs.
Like “me-too” products in any market, they might have gotten a momentary slice of the Beatles’ audience. But because the Beatles were such prolific producers of their own brand of pop music, no one, including the Stones, could compete with them in their niche.
This is not to say that the Stones didn’t create quality music. But quality is rarely what differentiates one brand from another. The Stones, knowingly or unknowingly, did several things right to become one of the biggest brands in rock:
- They used positioning to their advantage: The Beatles had the largest share of the market by the time the Stones hit the U.S. Top 40 in 1964. By positioning themselves in relation to the Beatles, who are their opposites, they’ve set up a strong impression in the minds of record buyers.
- They were first: In the squeaky-clean early sixties, especially in the huge U.S. market, there weren’t any “bad boy” rock groups. The Stones were the first in the category, and the surest route to a strong brand is to be the pioneer.
- They used publicity: They were the first bad boys, hence they received a lot of publicity. Shocking and scandalous headlines—including deaths and drug busts—built their bad-boy brand in a way that no kind of advertising ever could or ever will.
- They were singular in their vision: You know exactly what you’re going to get with a Stones album or concert—rock and roll with roots in the American blues; swinging rhythm and deep grooves; songs with themes of lust, dissatisfaction, violence, and decadence; and Mick Jagger’s captivating dance moves.
- They were consistent: The Stones have maintained their rough edge with only rare forays into other musical styles or anything remotely Beatle-like. Their focus has always been narrowed to just rock and roll—no cartoons, no action figures, no comedic movies.
Obviously, the Beatles also did the right things to reach what they had. Fifty-plus years on, both groups continued to be strong, distinctive brands with lasting consumer loyalty.
Perhaps you could take a few “plays” from the Stones’ book to help your brand rise above the competition?