For Beatles Brand, All They Need Is Control

Decades Later, the Band Maintains Its Rock-Royalty Status (and Cash Flow) by Very Carefully Choosing Projects and Partners

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YORK, Pa. ( -- The Beatles broke up almost 40 years ago, but their brand power is almost as strong today as it was when they first played the "Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964. Moreover, the band built that iconic brand -- and continues to promote it, gaining new generations of fans along the way -- without the benefit of advertising agencies or formal relationships with PR firms.

Sure, brand discipline helps, but in the end it's the music that keeps making new Beatles fans.
Sure, brand discipline helps, but in the end it's the music that keeps making new Beatles fans. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives
Do you want to know their secret?

Apple Corps, the Beatles' holding company; the Beatles themselves and their surviving spouses; former Beatles label EMI and Sony/ATV, which owns most of the band's music catalog, jointly make decisions on what projects will be approved, and they do so sparingly.

"The key is they've been so amazingly protective of the brand that everything that does come out is special," said Bill Stainton, president of Ovation Consulting and a Beatles expert. "They're not going to be on the K-tel compilation, or the 'Best of the '60s' CDs. ... They're almost Disney-esque in their protection of the brand."

That's not to say there aren't marketing and advertising campaigns for the Beatles' selected projects. "The Beatles: Rock Band," for instance, launched last week with an estimated $20 million ad campaign, including a TV commercial with the original Beatles images mixed into a crowded Abbey Road street scene created by MTV Networks with the help of RDA International. While MTV created the TV and two-minute cinematic spot released at the game's announcement in January (with Passion Pictures), Apple Corps provided guidance and approvals along the way. MTV Networks internal public relations has been working on the project since even before the game was announced.

It's the music, stupid
Paul DeGooyer, senior VP-electronic games and music at MTV, said weekly meetings with Apple Corps focused on both the creative elements of the game and marketing from the very beginning. "Apple was involved every step of the way and the marketing keys off the game itself, which they were very happy with," Mr. DeGooyer said. "What we ended up with is something very classy and meaningful to the Beatles [brand.]"

So Apple's strident brand control accounts for the purity of the Beatles image and authenticity, but in the end it's the music -- timeless songs with broad appeal -- that keeps making new fans.

The Beatles ranked No. 1 among all age groups as the most-liked band or musical group in a list of 20 popular performers chosen by Pew Research Center in a July/August survey. In fact, 49% ranked the Beatles highest, and it wasn't just baby boomers skewing the results. The Beatles ranked first among 50- to 64-year-olds at 65%, but also they ranked second among 16- to 29-year-olds at 45%, and third among 30- to 49-year-olds at 42%. Both younger groups ranked Michael Jackson a little bit higher (46% and 44%, respectively), but the study was conducted closely after the singer's death in June.

Rapleaf, an online brand consultancy, did a study of its social-media user audience and found the Beatles had four times as many fans as Michael Jackson did before he died, and more fans than Elvis, Madonna and the gloved one combined. The average age of a Beatles fan was the second-youngest of the four chosen musical celebrities; the band was the most popular in the 18- to 25-year-old group.

When asked why, Michael Hsu, marketing manager at Rapleaf who ran the study, said, "If you find out why, will you let us know?"

Well, one factor, Mr. Hsu, is new Beatles' products, such as "Rock Band," and releases that are exposing the brand to a younger generation. Here's a breakdown:

Released only last week, "The Beatles: Rock Band" game from Viacom's MTV Network and its Harmonix division, distributed by EA, is already showing all the signs of becoming a blockbuster. Devoted fans lined up at midnight for first copies and retailers including Gamestop and Best Buy held parties and promotions on Wednesday to hype it. Analysts estimate the game, which had heavy input from the surviving Beatles and their families, will sell 2 million copies this month and as many as 5 million copies by the end of the year. The game comes in software-only and branded-guitar-only editions, or in a special-edition package with software and instruments, priced at $60, $100 and $250, respectively.

MTV's marketing, meant to create big moments through phases of the campaign, includes TV, radio, print, online, social media, events and PR, with full cooperation across Viacom media properties from MTV to VH1 to Comedy Central, said Bob Picunko, senior VP-electronic games and interactive products at MTV.

But will the game draw more than baby-boomer buys? Probably. Online-game forum debates about it are full of enthusiastic youngsters. One Georgetown University student wrote on his gaming blog: "I absolutely love the Beatles and I am 20. They are an amazing band and I am totally picking up the game."

Excitement over the 14 digitally remastered Beatles albums began even before their official announcement in April. More than 20 years had passed since a rerelease of any of the music, and pre-order sales were brisk with the stereo ($190) and mono ($260) versions selling out on Amazon quickly, and now on two- to five-week back order. Experts are expecting the cardboard packaged CDs that replicate the original vinyl jackets will swamp the top of the music charts by this week. Some are predicting the CDs could make the Beatles the best-selling band of the decade -- they currently trail Eminem at 28.2 million to his 30 million, according to SoundScan data. They are also the second-best sellers since 1991, when SoundScan began tracking sales, at 58 million albums sold behind Garth Brooks' 69 million.

The music industry is hoping for some rub-off for CD sales in general, which dropped almost 20% last year.

The long-running legal feud of Apple the computer company vs. the Beatles' holding company, Apple Corps, certainly hasn't hastened the digital availability of Beatles songs on iTunes. However, there have been some cracks in the plaster, so to speak. Paul McCartney has been quoted many times as saying he'd like to have the songs on iTunes, and EMI execs are saying the tracks are ready whenever an agreement between Apple and the remaining Beatles, and surviving spouses of the deceased Beatles, can be reached. And even though buyers can rip Beatles tunes to their iPods, can the Beatles afford to ignore the venue much longer? ITunes now accounts for about 25% of all U.S. music sales.

The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," released in 1964, is widely credited as the inspiration for modern rock and music movies and videos, but that movie and other Beatles' subject matter continue to have current cred as well. The anniversary rerelease of "AHDN" on DVD in 1997 and again in 2002, for instance, sold millions of copies beyond the original $6 million in box-office take.

"The Beatles Anthology" documentary, which first ran on the BBC in 1995, enjoys ongoing DVD sales as well as recent TV airings -- VH1 ran the series over three Sundays in August and September.

Famous directors, like the rest of us, seem drawn to the Beatles, too. Director Julie Taymor got the green light -- and mixed reviews -- for her Beatles musical, "Across the Universe," released in 2007; Robert Zemekis is reportedly in talks to remake "Yellow Submarine" for Disney by 2012; Martin Scorsese is readying a still-untitled George Harrison biography; and producer David Permut is reportedly working on a biopic of the life of Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, sometimes called "the fifth Beatle."

The remastered CDs and "Rock Band" game have the Beatles back on the front pages. Rolling Stone's cover on Sept. 3 promised "Why the Beatles Broke Up: The Inside Story," while Entertainment Weekly's cover for Sept. 9 declared "The Beatles Invade Again!" Of course, MTV Networks PR might have had a little something to do with this too, as the coverage dovetailed with the "Rock Band" release.

Cirque du Soleil's "The Beatles Love" is a hit Vegas show that debuted in 2006 and still plays to packed houses at the Mirage. The Love Theater, built specially to house the show, replaced the Siegfried & Roy Theater, and reportedly cost $100 million to create. Music from the show compiled as the Love album has sold 2 million copies.

Credit: Ben Dome
The Liverpool City Region pulls in $2.2 billion a year from its "visitor economy," according to the Mersey Partnership, a local alliance formed to build and promote Liverpool and six surrounding cities. While we're not suggesting all Liverpool tourism is attributable to the Beatles -- the half-million populated town has more national museums than any city in the U.K. except London, and houses two Premier League football clubs -- the mop-top group is forever tied to their birthplace. Visitors land at the Liverpool John Lennon Airport and can take a Fab Four Taxi Tour, several Magical Mystery Tours, stroll Penny Lane, and even glimpse a topiary tribute of the band at the South Parkway train station.

Credit: Shannon Stapleton
The surviving members of the Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, still grab headlines with their own musical and artistic endeavors. Mr. McCartney in particular makes news -- whether over his contentious divorce from Heather Mills or his recent sold-out summer concert series in the U.S. That short jaunt included just four cities, including the opening of Citi Field stadium in New York and a gratis revisit and medley at the Ed Sullivan studio (now home to David Letterman), but it raked in $24 million in gross sales, according to Billboard rankings for the week of Sept. 3. Mr. McCartney's bigger tours approach $100 million, evidenced by the $77 million in sales in his last 2005-2006 outing, according to Forbes. Ringo Starr tends to be a lower-key draw, but is still successful. His 31-city North American tour this summer played to smaller venues, but included sellouts as well.

The duo's last joint appearance, headlining a New York charity concert for the David Lynch Foundation, sold out in an hour.

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